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Southern Skies

Name the Exoplanet

Looking South about halfway to the zenith, 11:00PM July 10th. Don’t forget to look at Saturn if you have a small telescope. SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Tonight the Summer Milky Way is rising, almost looking like the beginning of dawn; just above it is the large, but fairly faint constellation of Ophiuchus. It is usually drawn as a man grasping a snake, and as one might expect the name in ancient Greek means “serpent-bearer.” Recently it has become famous (again) as the 13th zodiacal constellation for, as you can clearly see from the chart, the ecliptic runs through it. Every few decades the media treats it as a major discovery, but it’s been that way for all of human ... Read More »

The Teapot and the Scorpion

Looking South, June 26 at 11:00 PM. Also be sure to check out  the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter if the clouds clear out early! SUBMITTED PHOTOS

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Tonight the two brightest, or at least the easiest to find, constellations of the zodiac are riding high in the sky; Sagittarius the Archer or Centaur (actually it’s both) and Scorpius the Scorpion are easy to locate. Sagittarius has the famous teapot asterism that really jumps out of the jumble of stars that fill this region of the sky; and Scorpius is one of the very few constellations that actually look like the thing they are supposed to represent. The teapot asterism consists of eight stars, all roughly equally bright. This time of ... Read More »

The Glorious Stars of Summer Rise

Looking east, 11:00 PM, June 12, sweeping this area with  binoculars is a rewarding experience. SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Look eastwards about 11:00 PM and locate the three stars of the Summer Triangle – Vega, Altair and Deneb. These are quite bright stars, and if you can see any stars at all in the sky tonight, you will see these. The Summer Triangle is not a traditional asterism, but was popularized by Sir Patrick Moore a few decades ago. Vega and Altair are fairly close neighbors of the Sun, which is the primary reason they are so bright, being only 25 and 16 light years away, respectively. Deneb, on the other hand, ... Read More »

Astronomy for Amateurs

Looking Southeast, 11:00PM May 29. Saturn is well up in the sky while 
the glorious summer Milky Way is beginning to rise. SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net I was lent a small book by a good friend recently; this book was written to introduce a novice to Astronomy. What makes this particular book worthy of note is that it was published in 1903. Its original title is Astronomy for Women by Camille Flammarion written in French; the edition I have is an English translation, re-titled Astronomy for Amateurs. It reads very much as a modern introductory book with a couple of notable exceptions; first, the language is more ornate and “flowery” than is typical today and gives the book a ... Read More »

The Southern Cross

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By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net We are going to change our viewing time from our usual 9PM to 11PM until October. There are two reasons for this: 1) The longer days of summer mean it is not fully dark at 9PM, and 2) the rapidly approaching rainy season means early evening clouds blot out the stars. By 11PM there is at least a chance of clearing, although it’s not usually totally clear until after midnight. Did you think you would have to travel to Argentina to see the Southern Cross? Not so! Theoretically, you can see the whole cross (official ... Read More »

Catch Mercury if You Can!

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By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net As the too bright Moon in the east is nearly full, we might as well look westward to a slightly darker sky. Venus is unmistakable as it floats high in the west; it is in fact the brightest object in the night sky other than the Moon. Below Venus, and a little to the right and just above the horizon lies the planet Mercury. Mercury is much more difficult to locate than Venus; at the time and date of the chart it’s only a little brighter than Polaris. During the next several days it will ... Read More »

Arc to Arcturus

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SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net   Extend the curve of the Big Dipper’s handle eastward and you will reach the bright star Arcturus. (You can always find it easily by remembering the mnemonic arc to Arcturus). The star itself is hard to miss; it’s the fourth brightest in the whole sky and the brightest star in the northern hemisphere – although Arcturus is close enough to the celestial equator to be easily visible over nearly the entire Earth. For the Hawaiian Islands this star appears directly overhead on summer evenings; ancient Polynesians could use this information to navigate ... Read More »

Before the Dog

Looking south, 9:00PM Apr 3. See how many star clusters you can
find with your binoculars in the Milky Way.

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher Shining high in the sky tonight in the southeast is the bright star Procyon in the otherwise non-descript of Canis Minor – the little dog. Canis Minor processes but two stars – Procyon being the brightest. Procyon is larger, hotter and brighter than our Sun, but the primary reason it’s the seventh brightest star in the sky is that it is so close to us, only 11.46 light years. Procyon is thought to be approaching the end of its life and will soon become what is known as a red giant star and expand ... Read More »

Look Northward!

Looking Northeast, 9:00PM Mar 20. How many stars can you see in the  bowl of the Little Dipper? SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Last issue we mentioned the Big Dipper was once again visible during the evenings here in Southwest Florida. As we but seldom look northwards during these articles it is time we examine the northern sky more carefully. The second star on the handle of the Big Dipper is called Mizar – said to be a test for vision since ancient times. Very close to Mizar is a faint star called Alcor; if you can spot it your vision is supposed to be excellent. Try in a couple of hours when Mizar is higher ... Read More »

The Dipper Returns

Looking Northeast, 9:00PM Mar 6. Even though the Moon looks huge  when near the horizon you can still cover it up by a pinky finger held at arm’s length!
SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net After setting a few months ago the Big Dipper has returned to the early evening sky. The Dipper of course is not a constellation but merely an asterism and makes up a portion of the rather large constellation of Ursa Major, the bear. It is an odd fact that roughly half of the world’s cultures regard this grouping of stars as a bear; after all it does not look much like a bear. One possible explanation is that this constellation’s identification as a bear is a shared cultural tradition springing from a common ... Read More »

The Argo Backs into the Sky

Looking Southeast, 9 PM, Feb. 20. Can you make out the stern of Argo? SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Tonight, we look again into the Southeast where the ancient constellation Argo, the ship, is rising stern first into the sky. Argo is no longer counted as one of the 88 constellations visible in the night sky; about two centuries ago it was found to be inconveniently large so it was broken into four separate constellations, Carina the keel, Puppis the deck, Pyxis the compass and Vela the sails. The old Argo is so large and deep in the southern sky that it never is completely above our horizon at the same time, ... Read More »

Auriga the Charioteer

Looking High in the North, 9:00PM February 6. Can you see the kids? SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Very high tonight in the northern sky rides Auriga the Charioteer. The driver usually also is visualized as a shepherd holding a goat over his shoulder. The bright star Capella is thus nicknamed “the goat star,” and the two dimmer stars just to the left are likewise named “the kids.” Auriga is located 180 degrees away from the galactic center in Sagittarius, and so when you look at Auriga, you are looking at the shortest way out from our galaxy. The Milky Way, although thinner, is still substantial in this area, and there ... Read More »

Jupiter Returns to the Evening

Looking South, 9 PM, Jan. 23, the vertical line is called the meridian,  an imaginary line passing through both poles and the zenith. SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net After a vacancy of some months, we finally have a bright planet available for viewing this evening, two actually, but Venus has set by the 9 PM chart time. Looking east at that time you can’t miss Jupiter. It’s the brightest thing in the sky. Tonight, four of its satellites are visible in binoculars. Between 10-11 PM, Callisto and Io appear so close together that they be difficult to split apart in your binoculars. The moons move fast though so this state of affairs will not last very long. A tripod will greatly ... Read More »

Sirius, Jupiter Rise Tonight

Looking Southeast, 9 PM, Jan. 9. How many moons of Jupiter can you spot with your binoculars? SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Sirius has been known as the “Dog Star” for many centuries, presumably because it is the brightest star in Canis Major, the big dog. Indeed, Sirius is by far the brightest star in the night sky. Long ago, it was thought (wrongly) that in the summertime when the Sun and Sirius were in the sky simultaneously the extra heat Sirius provided caused the season to be hot. Thus, the old phrase the “dog days of summer” was born. Sirius is a good example of a star that is bright because it is close ... Read More »

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 »