After Dark – Part 3

Did you know that if planet Earth were invaded by angry hungry aliens from a distant Death Star ship, the best offering to avoid possible violence or slavery believe it or not would be to hand over our silicon-based sand and rocks?  Which way do all of our planets in our Solar System rotate?  Have you ever wondered why comets such as Halley’s Comet, Pons-Gambart, and Ikeya-Zhang Comets take 75, 188, and 366 earth-years respectively to come around?

Questions like these and their answers fascinated me camping outside as a boy looking up into the night sky with astonishment.  How far away is that star, I would ask myself, which lead to another question and another.  Limitless.

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To enlarge click image

To enlarge click image

A 100-foot telescope and multi-million dollar observatory are not necessary to begin an intermediate knowledge of the celestial.  Your outstretched arm, hand and fingers can suffice in determining an object’s angular size.  Clamp your hand in a fist.  Across your knuckles is about 10 degrees.  Don’t believe me?  Taking that fist and starting at the horizon count how many “fisted-hands” it takes to count upwards to straight up, or zenith (the top of the sky).  It will be about nine hands, or 90 degrees.  Three fingers together are about 5 degrees across and one finger, like the pinky finger, will be about 1 degree.  A full moon then, when using this form of measurement will be about a half-degree (0.5°).

Finding the position of an object in the sky is a bit more difficult.  If you don’t carry around a Cross Staff, or Astrolab, or even what amateur golfers use today:  a GPS app; if you can find due north then you can still navigate the sky with your hand.  The azimuth, or angular measurement parallel to the horizon in a spherical coordinate system, determines the cardinal points:  north, south, east, and west.  North is of course 0 degrees, east will be 90 degrees, south is 180 degrees, and due west will be 270 degrees.  The angle above the horizon will be, you guessed it, altitude.  Keeping our basic sky-gazing simple, when measuring from the horizon to the zenith, only 0-90 degrees is needed.  Now you have the quickest most convenient tools to examine the never-ending sky.

A simple pair of binoculars can reveal more of the heavens beyond your naked eye.  If you surveyed the full moon, you could easily find many craters or the four brightest moons of Jupiter.  With the same binoculars you might be able to find Saturn’s brightest and biggest moon:  Titan.  If you want to see even more of the night sky, you will have to have binoculars stronger than 7x (times); in other words massively big and expensive type binoculars that will require a tripod or something steady and stationary to mount your 8x plus binoculars.  Beyond high-powered binoculars gets us into complex telescopes and well beyond the scope of this post.

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Under the Stars

Some star-maps, a flashlight, items to keep you comfortable or warm, and some patience will be all you need to find stars, constellations, and other sorted celestial performers.  The further away from light-pollution you can get (i.e. large towns or cities) the better.  Finding cardinal points is easiest with a compass or map; they both work fine.  If you can remember where on the horizon the Sunset took place, then you have a general idea which direction is west.  Keep in mind though the seasonal factors:  during winter the Sun recedes a little south of due west and during summer it sets a little north of due west.  In spring and fall, the Sun sets quite close to due west.

camping&stargazingIf you can view your sky maps with a red-lighted flashlight, then your pupils won’t close up in its light.  A normal white flashlight will cause your views from map-to-sky and back again to be greatly hindered by your widening and retracting pupils causing delays in their adjustments and testing your patience.  Having red-lenses to cover the bulb or flashlights using a “red-LED” bulb can be purchased at most camping-sporting stores.  Also, when you’ve been out a few times and can easily locate previous stars and/or constellations, moving on to unexplored areas becomes quicker and easier as your mapping-spotting skills improve.

One more star-gazing tip:  A clear sky is usually pretty cold relative to your latitude.  The further away you are from the equator, the colder the clear sky will be and the quicker your sitting-still body will get.  Dress warmer than normal, a toboggan or hat might be good, and even bring along a Thermos of hot soup or tea, or as I often do, a warm stout toddy!  If you want to “impress” a certain co-stargazer, bring along reclining folding-chairs and a quilt.  He or she will be in for a superb relaxing long evening of fun.

The following four seasonal sky maps are near 35 degrees north latitude in North America; in other words, a straight line from Lompoc, CA to Fayetteville, NC.  Sky maps from your particular location can be found on the internet or from a local nearby planetarium store.  The six bi-monthly descriptions below are incorporated into the flow or movement of the sky maps.

Sirius:  The Five-month King of Stars


This map shows the winter sky at 2am December 1; midnight January 1; and 10pm February 1. Image – Roen Kelly,

From late December through mid-April, in the southeasterly sky, the brightest star of all stars in our sky is Sirius.  It is the brightest because it is the closest star to Earth:  about 8-light years away and closing.  Yes, you read correctly, Sirius is getting closer to our Solar System and will be noticeably brighter in about 50,000 to 60,000 years.  After that it will begin moving away, but for the next 200,000 years or so it will always be the King of All Stars.  During winter and spring Sirius is a great reference point if you are just starting out as a new astronomer.

Serving King Sirius and moving to the west and slightly up is his Viceroy Rigel, then further up are Viceroys Betelgeuse (better known as Beatlejuice), Procyon to the east, and finally back toward the west and near straight up is  Aldebaran.  Straight up, or near zenith, and more north is his lone Viceroy Capella.  These five stars represent magnitudes about 2.5 times less than Sirius but are so bright they can all be spotted in a large city with light-pollution.  King Sirius’ “court” is the primary reason the winter skies are the favorite season for stargazers; they jump out to you!

Galaxies Galore and A New Prince

Heading into spring (March – early May) you’ll notice that Sirius and his viceroys have moved toward the western horizon.  Back to the southern horizon is a darker starless sky by comparison.  Yet due east near the horizon comes the newest viceroy or Prince:  Arcturus which has been led by the largest cluster of galaxies – almost halfway up to the zenith – called the Virgo Clusters.  They include more than 1,300 galaxies.  Off toward the north and halfway to zenith you can find the Big Dipper.

Another Viceroy and King Sirius Departs


1am March 1; 11pm April 1; 9pm May 1. Add one hour for daylight-saving time. Image – Roen Kelly,

While Sirius drops down behind the western horizon and Procyon and Capella soon follow, the newest member to the court arrives:  Viceroy Vega.  Almost to the northeastern horizon, Vega’s brightness equals that of his predecessors and brings with him the Northern Cross with Deneb (touching the horizon) as its crown.  It is now May through early July.  Move to the southeastern horizon close to Earth’s surface, and the claws of Scorpius have appeared with Antares as its heart.  Near the zenith sits Arcturus, 2nd in command for about two-plus months, while Sirius vacations in his summer palace doing “unseen” kingly jollies for the next four.

The Milky Way’s Majesty


1am June 1; 11pm July 1; 9pm August 1. Add one hour for daylight-saving time. Image – Roen Kelly,

July and August are the best times to see the center of our galaxy particularly with binoculars.  Like a following royal parade, Vega brings along in the eastern sky not only Altair, a star slightly brighter than the previous Deneb, but also the globular-cluster M13 near zenith, and the star-clusters M11, M39, and the best clusters M6 and M7.  And as if that wasn’t enough, the nebulas M8, M20, and M17 between Scorpius and Sagittarius to the south (about 10° up from horizon), round off the fat center of our majestic Milky Way.

Fall’s Tranquility?

The gaudiness of summer and the Milky Way drift into the southwest horizon causing many astronomers to say the night sky is the tamest from September through late October.  It is perhaps no coincidence then that fall and October are celebrated as Halloween, or hallow the dead and dying.  The Viceroy Arcturus has all but vanished behind the western horizon, leaving only Prince Vega near the zenith.  The return of Capella and the first of King Sirius’ court are probably not yet visible to the northeast.  A seemingly dark “blanket” ensues.


1am September 1; 11pm October 1; 9pm November 1. Add one hour for daylight-saving time. Image – Roen Kelly,

Not to worry, as all great exciting events take place to the south – sexual overtones intended – magnitude 1.16 star Fomalhaut rises out of Earth’s vagina to remind us that with persistence comes birth… and for better or worse, MANY MORE THINGS to come!  Can I get an Amen!?  Because Fomalhaut is the lone bright star in this part of the sky, many space agencies and orbital spacecraft engineers use the star as a point of reference for their machines.  Their computerized satellites or crafts are programmed to find Fomalhaut and then align themselves.  There is less of a chance for other mistaken bright stars nearby; a computer optic no-brainer if you will.

Because the heavens are darkest during this time of year, many scientist and expert stargazers use their high-powered telescopes to search out darker phenomena.  This goes to show that a certain darkness is needed to truly see the stars.

The Mira and Algol Light Show

As King Sirius’ court of brightest stars rise again in the east, with a set of binoculars (certainly a telescope) a dance or battle can be seen more clearly between two stars; technically between the star Mira “The Wonderful” and the double-star system Algol “The Winking Demon.”

Mira_AlgolMira is in the middle of Cetus the Whale, a quiet faint constellation of stars about 45 degrees up from the southeast horizon between Aquarius (to the southwest) and Orion (to the lower east) and the returning Aldebaran, Rigel, and Betelgeuse.  Mira fades from a semi-bright magnitude 2 to a very dim magnitude 10 in less than eleven months.  Mira means “the Wonderful” in Arabic and signifies her dramatic leaving and return.  This happens due to her near-death lifespan and being unstable, pulsating prior to burn-out.  When Mira is big and cool, most of its light is only visible in the infrared spectrum.  When she is small and hot, she radiates most of her light at the far end of the visible spectrum; red in a telescope.  Mira has quite possibly already turned into a planetary nebula then white dwarf, but we won’t witness this for another 35,000 Earth-years because she is about 350-light years away.

Algol in Arabic means “the Demon” and they called the double-star system this because astonishingly one star eclipses the other every 2.87 days!  This makes its brightness dip from a 2.2 magnitude to a 3.5 magnitude creating the winking demons.  This change can be seen by the naked eye.  Algol can be located up about 60 degrees from the easterly approaching the zenith during mid-November to mid-January.

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Other Resources

As you may have noticed, it is impossible to include all the major fascinating parts of stargazing and our cosmos in a 1,000 word blog-post – the commonly recommended length.  This post is around twice that long.  Therefore, I am including further website resources to explore should you want to know more, even become a well-informed astronomer.  The site I used for the sky maps.

For the serious star-preneur, astronomy software for purchase:
The  for the mega-serious!

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P.S.   To answer the two initial questions in the beginning all our planets rotate counter-clockwise around the Sun.  And about those once-in-a-lifetime comets and why they take so long to return and why they keep coming back… it is because of our Sun’s gravitational control.  It extends out to the Kuiper Belt which is well beyond the outer planet Neptune, or about 2.8 billion miles from our Sun.  Perspective:  and our Sun is one of the smallest Suns in the galaxy and cosmos!

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After Dark – Part 2

For astronomers, cosmologists, astrophysicists, or the amateur stargazer, the years 2013, 2014, and 2015 are three of the more active years for Earth’s heavens, the Moon, and our solar system!  In Part One I covered some stargazing basics, how the night sky is arranged in our two hemispheres and some short history behind the naming of two constellations Orion and Virgo.  In this second part let’s explain why these next three years are so extraordinary.

The Celestial Shows Are Here!

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Ringmaster opens, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, turn your eyes to the heavens!  The most extraordinarily rare spectacular-spectacular is happening for the next three years!


Earlier this year between March and April the comet Pan-STARRS was visible with a good pair of binoculars or amateur telescope.  However, in an area of medium-to-heavy light-pollution Pan-STARRS would have been hard to locate.  May 24th through 30th you would have watched Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter dance around each other in the west-northwest twilight sky shortly after sunset.  Every evening they were changing positions noticeably with Venus and Jupiter separated by about 1-degree on May 28th and Venus outshining Jupiter by six times.

On June 23rd at 6:00 a.m. CDT, the moon was as close to Earth as it will ever be in 2013 and at 6:32 a.m. it was brightest and fullest, known affectionately as a Super Moon.  Larger than normal ranges in ocean tides occurred for several days.  In 2014 it will arrive even closer than this year.

August 12th will be the annual Perseid Meteor Shower.  At a rate of up to 90-meteors-per-hour it is considered one of the best displays of meteors for a single observer.  Summer campers love the annual shower as it resembles a non-stop array of white bottle-rockets everywhere in the night sky.

Comet-ISON-peri-in-westMid-November through December is perhaps the biggest event in astronomy for 2013.  The Comet ISON will travel less than 750,000 miles above our sun’s surface, making it a very bright “sungrazer” on Nov. 28th, Thanksgiving Day in the U.S.  ISON could very well be easily visible in broad daylight at its closest point to the sun.  Then ISON will travel toward Earth getting as close as 40-million miles in December.  Because the comet will be ideally placed in the morning and evening sky from the Northern Hemisphere, it will most likely be one of the most watched and photographed comets of all time.

The entire month of December will be a stargazer’s extravaganza!  Venus will put on the most brilliant “evening star” show of 2013 and 2014 combined; evening or morning…doesn’t matter.  She fills the southwestern sky for 3 hours of bravos after sundown in early December, and 1.5 hours after sundown by New Year’s Eve.  And if that were not enough, a crescent moon will pass above and to the right of the goddess Dec. 5th and on the 6th she will give her grand finale!  She will not be as spectacular again until 2021.

On December 13th and 14th a most entertaining show will take place:  the Geminid Meteor Shower.  Most astronomers and meteorists give it top accolades as it surpasses even the brilliance and reliability of August’s Perseid annual showers.  Our near full moon will dilute most of the smaller fainter meteors, however, right after the moon sets (4:30 a.m. EDT), it will leave the sky completely dark for an hour or so, and that is your chance to witness as much as 2 meteor sightings per minute, or 120 per hour!  Indeed, the night sky will look like an American 4th of July fireworks show!


March 27th Perihelion – Comet Holmes.  After almost two days in Oct. 2007, the Holmes comet became a half-million times brighter on its way to becoming the largest object in our solar system.  Yes, larger than our Sun.  Comet Holmes will be one of the more spectacular comets at its perihelion in 2014.

Path of Comet 209P/LINEAR

Path of Comet 209P/LINEAR

March 29th Perihelion – Comet Faye.  Discovered in 1844 by a French astronomer it is a periodic comet but will be minor in comparison to the year’s other comets.

May 6th Perihelion – Comet 209P/LINEAR.  If astronomers are correct, Earth will pass through the tail of 209P/Linear on its way back out from the Sun between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. GMT on May 24th, resulting in a meteor storm of 100-400 meteors per hour.  Canada and the U.S. will have the best viewing.  This date is a must on your calendar!

August 10thSuper Moon.  “According to NASA, a full moon at perigee is up to 14% larger and 30% brighter than one at its farthest point, or apogee.  The full Moon, occurring less than one hour away from perigee, is a near-perfect coincidence that happens only every 18 years or so.” [Wikipedia]

Possible view of Comet C/2013-A1 from NASA Mars rover

Possible view of Comet C/2013-A1 from NASA Mars rover

August 12th – 14th will be the annual return of the Perseids Meteor Shower and its 60-meteors per hour at its peak on the 13th and 14th.  Some of the early and late meteors arrive from July 23rd through Aug. 22nd.  It radiant point, or source spot, will be in the Perseus constellation in the northeast sky after midnight.

October 19th – 25th is shaping up to be the biggest event of 2014:  Comet C/2013-A1, aka Siding Spring.  Astronomers currently calculate a 1 and 8,000 chance that C/2013-A1 will hit the surface of Mars on Oct. 19th.  The comet will pass, following its normal path, about 73,000 miles from the surface of Mars.  As the date nears and further observations are made, scientists will refine the orbit predictions.  Nevertheless, preparations are already being made to develop high-tech observations both around Mars as it approaches the planet, and on Earth as it approaches the Sun.  Mars vs. C/2013-A1 comet.

December 13th – 14th and the annual Geminids Meteor Shower won’t be as spectacular as 2013, but it will produce about 60 multicolored meteors per hour at the peak on the 13th and 14th.  The radiant point or source spot will be in the Gemini constellation in the eastern sky after midnight.

Rosetta European spacecraft.  In January 2014 Rosetta will awake from hibernation to fire-up its engines and get within 3,000 km of comet CG as it starts its return orbit back to our Sun.  In 2010 Rosetta flew within 3,000 km of asteroid Lutetia closely examining its surface and makeup.  Since then Rosetta has been cruising through the deepest parts of our solar system – a billion kilometers from the Sun – where that distance generates such little solar power she had to go into hibernation until comet CG approached.  In January 2014 after Rosetta nears CG, it will literally harpoon it so it can place the robot Philae on its surface.  As comet CG returns to our solar system to head towards our Sun, Philae will send scientific data back to Earth.


January 30th Perihelion – Comet 7P/Pons-Winnecke.  The Pons-Winnecke comet is a Near Earth Comet (NEC) and will pass Earth’s surface only about 3.5 million miles away, or about fifteen times the distance to the Moon.  It probably won’t be visible by the naked eye, but a good pair of binoculars will assist in seeing this faint comet that comes around every 6.36 years.

February Dawn spacecraft.  NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is the first of its kind to use the highly efficient ion propulsion engine.  Ion thrust engines must be in an environment devoid of any other ionized particles – deep space is the perfect example of such an ideal environment for this engine system.  During February Dawn will rendezvous with one of two large asteroids (Vesta in 2012 and Ceres) classified as dwarf planets in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.  Dawn will spend several months examining Ceres and its surface sending back to Earth the first close-up images of a dwarf planet in our Solar System.

February 22ndThe Union of Venus and Mars.  Conjunctions of planets are rare events and occur only when the very long large planets and their orbits seem to join or cross.  Like lovers, Venus and Mars will be within a half degree of each other in the western sky just after sunset.

March 2nd Perihelion – Comet d’Arrest.  Discovered in 1851, the d’Arrest comet has an orbital period of 6.54 years around the Sun so it is a frequent visitor.  Like Pons-Winnecke it too will be very faint to the naked eye.

July 14thNew Horizons spacecraft.  Launched in January 2006, NASA’s spacecraft New Horizons arrives at the dwarf planet Pluto and its moons after a nine and a half-year journey.  It will capture the first close-up images of the planet and moons then continue out to the Kuiper-belt for images of icy objects at the outer edge of our Solar System.

August 12th – 14th is again the annual Perseids Meteor Shower.  See 2014 information above.

2015 conjunction will look like this May 2013 conjunction!

2015 conjunction will look like this May 2013 conjunction!

October 28thPlanetary Ménage à Trois.  A conjunction of three planets is very rare event and will be quite the spectacle in the early morning eastern sky before sunrise.  Venus, Mars, and Jupiter will be in a tight 1-degree triangle of consummation!

November 17th – 18th is the return of the Leonids Meteor Shower with an average of 40 meteors per hour at its peak.  During its 33-year cyclic peak hundreds of meteors are produced per hour.  This last occurred in 2001.  Some of its early arriving then late arriving meteors can be seen between Nov. 13th and 20th.  The radiant point can be found in the constellation Leo after midnight.

December 13th – 14th is again the annual Geminids Meteor Shower.  See 2014 information above.

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“Perchance to Dream”

It will be a 1-in-a-million lifetime jaw-dropping event to see.  Well, actually in less than 1-million years.  Yes, sadly we won’t be around to witness it, but the Betelgeuse Supernova will be brighter, much brighter than our own full Moon!  It will be easily visible in daytime for several months so don’t be fooled into thinking it’s the second coming with another Star of Bethlehem, but instead the wonder of the cosmos with the Star of Betelgeuse!

The star is well-known among avid stargazers because it is the second brightest star in the Orion constellation and because of its size, color, and placement.  It is the red supergiant star in Orion’s “right shoulder” and ranks as the eighth brightest star in our entire night sky.  For some perspective, Betelgeuse is so huge that if it were our own Sun, its outer edges would touch Jupiter!  It is approximately 640 light years away from our Sun.  If it were to explode at night in our lifetime, it might look something like this…

Cosmologists and astronomers predict it will go super-nova in 1-million years or less because it is a “runaway star”.  In other words, due to its super size and mass, it will burn-up, collapse on itself, and create such an explosion that from even 640 light years away, it will be well beyond the brightest super-nova EVER recorded in Earth’s history!  If you can imagine any major global event throughout all of history, Betelgeuse will dwarf that.  For those several months, Earth’s night sky will seem like endless twilight until sunrise!  Wouldn’t that be the most remarkable thing in life to witness?

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In the final part of this three-part series, I will explain how simple tools and methods can map the night sky, locate major seasonal celestial highlights and their historical backgrounds, and explain why and how humanity will gaze the heavens just as the ancients did without any man-made light-pollution.  If you have enjoyed this part, please let me know by commenting, and check-in every so often for Part 3.

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