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Southern Skies

Viewing at the Zenith

Straight Up - South is at the bottom 9:00PM December 26th. SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Tonight we will look straight up to find the zenith. The zenith is the point in the sky that is directly over your head (nadir would be the point directly under your feet). No one else on Earth shares your zenith exactly, it is yours alone. Draw an imaginary line from Polaris, through the zenith and down to the south celestial pole; this line is called the meridian. On the chart tonight the meridian is the vertical line. When a star crosses the meridian it is said to culminate; it has reached it’s ... Read More »

Southern Skies!

Facing East, 9:00 PM, Dec. 12. SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net For some reason the brightest stars in the sky make their appearance in the winter. We’ve discussed two of the brightest — Betelgeuse and Rigel — several times before; but is always nice to see them again. Extend the line formed by Orion’s belt stars upwards to find Aldebaran. It is the orange eye of Taurus the Bull, who seems to be forever fighting Orion. Turn your gaze to the left to find the bright star Capella, commonly nicknamed the goat star as ancient artists depicted Auriga holding a goat. Drop back towards ... Read More »

Should You Buy a Telescope?

Facing South, looking straight up, 6 AM, Nov, 28. If you want to see Jupiter, 
you have to get up early! SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net As you are walking the dog this morning, take a look straight up (the zenith). The lack of early evening planets continues, but you can see Jupiter rising around midnight and is high in the sky by dawn not far from the bright star Regulus. This is the time of year when everyone asks me, “What kind of telescope should I buy for my spouse/child/grandchild?” The quick answer is none. Take the money set aside for a telescope and purchase binoculars instead. There are two reasons for this. First, the expectations of what ... Read More »

Look North!

Looking North, 9PM, Nov. 14. What happened to the Big Dipper? SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net We hardly ever look north in this column, and it’s time to fix that. Now, locate Polaris, the pole star, by locating the finder stars in the Big Dipper. What? Where is the Big Dipper you say? That’s the first lesson to learn tonight: We have no Big Dipper in the sky on evenings during November and December! To find the pole star, locate the upside down W-shape of Cassiopeia and drop your eye straight downwards. Polaris is the brightest star seen before you reach the horizon. Notice that Polaris is far lower ... Read More »

The Elusive Green Flash

The Sun photographed behind the Golden Gate bridge. Notice the red rim on the bottom and a green rim on top. SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Have you ever seen a green flash? A green flash will sometimes happen at the moment of sunset; it usually requires an unobstructed horizon like the Gulf of Mexico. Essentially, they are a mirage effect that happens under certain atmospheric conditions. Light from the Sun is refracted (bent) as it passes through the atmosphere. Blue light is refracted more than green light, and red light is refracted the least. In addition, blue light is heavily scattered by the atmosphere, which is why the sky is blue. Essentially, this refraction gives us three images ... Read More »

The Wonderful Star

Looking Southeast, 11PM on October 17. SUBMITTED

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net In the southeast tonight lies the constellation Cetus, the whale, as it is usually called, although it is really more of a sea monster in mythology. It’s in that area of the sky called the sea, which is a large group of constellations that have a watery theme. It’s not the brightest of constellations. In fact, it is rather dim, and it will take you a moment to locate it in the sky. Look first for Fomalhaut, the brightest star in that whole region of the sky — almost due south of you. ... Read More »

The Name is the Thing

Looking South, 11PM on October 3. Our club telescopes will be available for public viewing all day and into the early evening October 4th at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. SUBMITTED

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net How did the planets and stars get their names? For planets, the answer is easy. They were named after gods. Indeed, it was believed they were gods. Planets were named after different gods at different times in different civilizations, but the names we use today are those of Roman gods. The names follow a certain logic. Mercury was the messenger of the gods so he needed to move quickly as does his namesake planet. The planet Venus is quite beautiful and so was named after the goddess of love and beauty. Mars is ... Read More »

The Dumbbell Nebula

Facing west, 11PM September 19th. Can you spot the Summer Triangle? SUBMITTED photo

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Starting with tonight’s chart, we are entering a period of several months where we have no bright planets available for viewing in the evening hours. This unfortunate situation will last through autumn and through much of the winter. We are just on the wrong side of the Solar System! Jupiter is available in the east from 5 AM onwards, and Venus pops up just before the Sun does. But, who wants to get up that early? Jupiter does make it into the late evening hours in mid-December, but it’s February before a well-placed ... Read More »

Just Horsing Around

Facing east, 11 PM Sept. 5. The Andromeda Galaxy is the brightest galaxy in the northern sky surpassed only by the  Magellanic Clouds of the extreme south (not visible from Florida). SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Tonight, the eastern sky is dominated by the Great Square of Pegasus (the winged horse). The square forms the body of the horse while fainter stars form the neck and forelegs. The fairly bright, slightly orange star of Enif marks the muzzle. The asterism of the square is really quite easy to spot. If you don’t see it at first, think large; each side of the square is about 15 degrees on a side, so the entire asterism covers a big chunk of sky. An interesting test of the quality of your sky ... Read More »

Getting Your Goat

Facing Southeast, 11PM August 22nd. The bright star Fomalhaut is a relatively close neighbor of the Sun and seems to have a planetary system around it.  SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Capricornus, the goat, is the second faintest constellation in the zodiac after Cancer, but it is rather easier to pick out than its near neighbor Aquarius. Capricornus is framed by several modestly close pairs of stars which are quite noticeable once initially located. This constellation is usually referred to as a goat, but classic drawings of Capricornus show a sort of hybrid creature with goat forequarters and a fishlike tail. This makes Capricornus a member of “the sea” — a term covering a large patch of sky which contains constellations with a water ... Read More »

The Summer Triangle

Looking high in the East, July 25th at 11PM. SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES  By Mike P. Usher  usher34105@earthlink.net We talk about the Summer Triangle consisting of Vega, Altair and Deneb from time to time and once again it is high in the east. This asterism is a relatively recent invention popularized by Sir Patrick Moore about 60 years ago. The three stars of the Summer Triangle are buried deep in the Milky Way, and their constellations are rich in Deep Sky objects. But before looking for any of them, examine the shape of the Milky Way itself. If you are at a dark sky site, you can’t help but notice the ... Read More »

The Glories of Sagittarius

Facing South, 11 PM July 11.SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES  By Mike P. Usher  usher34105@earthlink.net Last column, we gave only a scant glance at this most interesting spot in the sky, so with your indulgence we shall return to it. First notice the nearly full Moon in the sky — how could you miss it? Tonight, it sits quite low in the sky and will not rise much higher. This is because the Moon moves along the ecliptic, and the ecliptic itself is rather tilted, low in the summer sky and high in the winter. Why does the Moon follow the ecliptic at all? The major planets must ... Read More »

Reward Yourself for Patience

Facing South, 11PM June 27. The star clouds of Sagittarius, in a dark sky, sometimes look like real clouds. SUBMITTED PHOTOS

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Careful readers may notice this is the 100th column of Southern Skies. If you have been reading the columns and studying the sky for the past two years, now is the time to reward yourself – because you know the sky better than almost everyone. It’s time to buy your first telescope; but do careful research first. If you do not you will buy the wrong telescope. It is difficult to buy the right telescope, but it is easy to point out what the wrong one will be; it’s the one you will ... Read More »

Use Those Binoculars!

Facing South, 11PM June 13. Mars will catch up and pass Saturn in a few months. SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Even the slightest optical aid reveals new wonders unseen by the naked eye. The most affordable aid are binoculars; almost any size and model number will work well for you. Binoculars will show you the moons of Jupiter, the crescent phase of Venus, the larger lunar craters, every other planet in the Solar System, all 110 Messier objects (albeit with some difficulty), a number of binary stars and a handful of asteroids. Binoculars are generally the best instrument to use when scanning the vistas of the Milky Way and observing the larger star ... Read More »

Arc to Arcturus

Facing East looking very high up, 11 PM May 30. SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Very high in the east lies Arcturus, an orange giant star that is the brightest star in the sky this evening. Arcturus is also the brightest star in the Sun’s general neighborhood; it is about 170 times more luminous than our home star. If you are having a bit of trouble finding it remember the phrase “arc to Arcturus,” which means follow the arc of the Big Dipper’s handle until you reach the bright orange Arcturus. Arcturus is the brightest star in the constellation of Boötes, the herdsman. In ancient times, the star ... Read More »

Southern Cross Over Marco

Facing Southeast, 10:30PM May 16. SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Did you see the Lunar eclipse last month? We scored a reasonably cloud free night and everyone got at least a decent view. If you missed it, don’t worry. You will have another chance this coming October and twice more in 2015. A group of four consecutive lunar eclipses viewable from North America is modestly rare – the last time was in the 1990s. This time of year is the annual spot the Southern Cross challenge. What is needed is a good clear night and an unobstructed view of the southern horizon – ... Read More »

Return of the Ringed World

Facing Southeast, 11 PM May 2. SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Now that we stand on the doorstep of May, the days are longer and the nights become cloudier. Usually the clouds are gone after midnight, but that is too late for most casual stargazers; a good compromise is 11 p.m. when the clouds start breaking up. Perhaps you can sneak some stargazing in when you take the dog out for a late evening trip. Saturn returns to the evening sky this month and is well up by 11p.m. Saturn is a magnificent sight in a small telescope; at about 30x to 50x magnification ... Read More »

The Moon Puts on a Good Show

Facing southeast, 3:07 a.m., Apr. 15. Look for the moon near Spica; are you having trouble finding it? It must be the eclipse! SUBMITTED photo

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net During the early morning hours of Apr. 15, the moon will undergo a total lunar eclipse. Unlike its distant cousin the solar eclipse, a lunar eclipse is perfectly safe to look at as long as you please. A lunar eclipse happens when the moon passes through earth’s shadow; this only happens at a full moon, and the moon’s orbit crosses the ecliptic (hence the origin of the word “ecliptic”). Another way to express this is to say the centers of the earth, moon and sun temporarily lie in a straight line or nearly ... Read More »

Time for Mars

Facing East, 10 PM March 28th. Look for the Red Planet! SUBMITTED photo

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Mars is now the third brightest object in the evening sky. Only Jupiter and the star Sirius beat it out. Reddish Mars is located near the blue white star Spica, and together the two make an interesting color contrast; also nearby is the bright star Arcturus – an orange giant. Mars is nearing opposition, which it will reach on April 8. When any outer planet is located 180 degrees from the Sun it is said to be at opposition (that is it’s opposite the Sun). The importance for stargazers is that the planet ... Read More »

Moon over Marco

Facing East towards the nearly full Moon, 9 PM March 14th. SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net We do not often talk about the Moon in this column as it usually wipes the stars from the sky when it is present – particularly when it is nearly full. However the Moon is an interesting object in its own right and provides endless hours of entertainment for small telescope owners. In fact it is about the only heavenly object a department store telescope provides a decent view of. It is shocking that so many misconceptions about our Moon exist; a small but significant percentage of people do not know that the ... Read More »