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Southern Skies

Goodbye to Summer

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SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net The rainy season is finally over! The unrelenting clouds made it very difficult to do any stargazing this summer; but we can finally see stars at a reasonable hour so we are rolling back the clock on the charts to 9PM. Tonight is one of the last chances to see a few summer – season stars before they drop into the Gulf of Mexico. Front and center is the not particularly well named Summer Triangle, (this being the middle of Autumn), consisting of the bright stars, Vega, Altair and Vega. Vega and Altair ... Read More »

The Surprise Planet

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SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net John Flamsteed was born in 1646 in England and was the first Astronomer Royal. Flamsteed’s particular astronomical passion was the careful mapping of all the naked eye visible stars. Flamsteed had this idea that the stars were forever fixed in their relative positions and his life’s work would be the final say on the matter – he considered this his own path to immortality. If you recall Bayer’s catalog used Greek letter designations for the stars and was thus limited to just 24 stars per constellation. Flamsteed’s method was to simply apply a ... Read More »

Comet ISON Update

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SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net On October 1 Comet ISON breezed by Mars at a safe distance while every space probe on or around the planet with a working camera tried to take its picture. Sometime this month the comet is expected to brighten enough to be come visible to the naked eye, although what its ultimate brightness will be is still a matter of considerable debate. Comet ISON seems to be fizzling out, a not uncommon occurrence for comets making their first trip around the Sun. Scientists have backed off on their claims about the comet becoming ... Read More »

Stargazing in Style

Facing West, 8:00PM September 27. Venus will still be with us for several months but say goodbye to Saturn and Mercury for awhile. SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net It’s been sometime since we discussed the equipment needed for stargazing. You really need very little, but there are some aids which are very useful. First, you need a dim red flashlight to read any charts you bring outside with you. A red light will leave your eyes’ dark adaptation relatively unscathed; just a few seconds of white light will require your eyes to spend up to 30 minutes to regain their sensitivity. A penlight with a red LED is ideal, several layers of red cellophane over the lens of a regular flashlight ... Read More »

The Chained Princess

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SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Tonight we look at the sky in the same place as we did last time; being two weeks later, the sky has obligingly rotated westward about 15 degrees bringing new stars into view. Nearly centered in the chart is Andromeda, the chained princess. Her mother, the nearby Cassiopeia, had a disagreement with the gods, ultimately resulting in Andromeda’s confinement to a rocky beach. She was rescued by her future husband Perseus just before being devoured by a sea monster (the nearby constellation of Cetus). Andromeda the constellation is rather unusual in that it ... Read More »

The Celestial Horse

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SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Tonight Pegasus has risen in the east. Pegasus, the winged horse, is really just half of a horse with only his head and forequarters in the sky. The constellation is famous for the great square of four nearly equally bright stars. A note for beginning stargazers, the square is big – around 15 degrees across, your outstretched hand can’t cover it. The star in Pegasus’ nose is Enif, a fairly unremarkable star that comes with an interesting warning flag for first time telescope buyers. Some years ago a beginner in the hobby purchased ... Read More »

The Ancient Water-Bearer

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SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net In ancient Greek mythology Aquarius was the cup or water-bearer to the gods. He was a male lover to Zeus, (one of several) and was rewarded with both a place on Mount Olympus and in the sky. It’s not a bright constellation, yet it is not particularly difficult to pick out in the sky if you are looking in the right spot. Look above and a little to the left of Fomalhaut, which is the only bright star in this part of the sky. Aquarius sits astride the ecliptic which means planets continually ... Read More »

The Serpent-Bearer

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SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Ophiuchus is one of my favorite constellations, perhaps because of its tongue twister name and similarly tough to pronounce component stars like Rasalhague. It is commonly represented as a man grasping or perhaps wrestling a large python-like snake. Ophiuchus is one of the original 48 constellations of the ancient Greeks. The snake itself is also a constellation, a rather unique one – Serpens is the only constellation split into two parts. The western part is referred to as Serpens Caput (head) and the eastern part is Serpens Cauda (tail). Ophiuchus extends downward inside ... Read More »

North by Northwest

Facing Northwest, 11:00PM July 19. Did you know that Thuban was the North Star when the Great Pyramids were built? SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Generally we look towards the south in this column, but tonight we will gaze northwestward. Here far from the Milky Way there are fewer stars and no star clusters of note. However, there are no dense clouds of dust to hide the wide spaces outside of our galaxy and a number of other galaxies are visible in binoculars. Each little circle on the chart marks the location of one. They are all rather faint and will not be seen with the Moon in the sky. For the naked eye observer there is the ... Read More »

An Embarrassment of Riches

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SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Tonight the two brightest constellations in the zodiac are rising high in the south. Sagittarius is associated with a centaur carrying a bow, while Scorpius is a scorpion of course. These two constellations lie in the direction of the center of our galaxy, and as a consequence this area is almost literally stuffed with clusters and nebulas. The chart tonight shows deep sky objects down to 8th magnitude – within the range of 9×50 binoculars. A dotted circle shows the location of an open cluster, a circle drawn with a solid line is ... Read More »

Ecliptic Notes

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SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net It has been some time since the ecliptic has been a topic of discussion in this column. As tonight the nearly full Moon has chased the lesser stars from the sky this would be a good time to contemplate this vitally important yet invisible line. The ecliptic is simply the apparent path the Sun makes in the sky during the course of a full year; or to put it another way it is the projection of Earth’s orbit upon the fixed stars. The Sun moves just under one degree along the ecliptic each ... Read More »

Summer Triangle Rises Again!

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SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net When the Summer Triangle rises you can be sure the rainy season is not far off! Which brings up an important point – careful observation of the night sky indicates what time of year it is. Indeed a Neolithic farmer could nail it down almost to the exact day, a vital importance determining when spring planting and harvest are due. He/she did this by noticing which stars were visible just before or after sunset. Since a misreading could be fatal (crop loss due to frost), there is speculation that certain people became specialists ... Read More »

Three Planets with One Glance

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SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net There are several dog constellations in tTonight we have a rare visual treat! We have not two, but three planets in conjunction, Venus, Jupiter and Mercury. Technically, a pair of planets are in conjunction when they share the same right ascension, the celestial equivalent of longitude, but the word is commonly used whenever planets make a close pass. In this case, Jupiter has been moving towards the western horizon for some time now. Earlier this month Venus appeared very low in the west and has been rising a little higher each evening as ... Read More »

The Lone Wolf

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SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net There are several dog constellations in the sky, but there is only one wolf – Lupus. Consisting of 2nd and 3rd magnitude stars it is a modestly bright constellation in the deep south lying between Scorpius and Centaurus. It appears to be on its back next to the Milky Way. In very ancient times the constellation was considered to be part of Centaurus but about 2,200 years ago it was split off and was included in Ptolemy’s catalog, who additionally was the first one to refer to it as a wolf. Most of ... Read More »

The Southern Cross Shines Above Marco

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By Mike P. Usher - usher34105@earthlink.net Once a year, it’s always nice to revisit the Southern Cross, technically known as Crux, as a reminder of just how far south Marco Island is located. Although the Cross rises above the horizon every day of the year, it is usually hidden by daylight, clouds or the ungodly lateness of the hour. Only at the end of April to mid-May can the Cross be seen by casual stargazers at a reasonable time. An additional problem with Crux is that while it is visible to Marco Islanders, it is just barely visible. The constellation is quite ... Read More »

The Virgo Supercluster of Galaxies

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By Mike P. Usher – usher34105@earthlink.net In the gap between Virgo and Leo lies one of the showpieces of the sky and all it takes is a pair of binoculars to glimpse it. In this area, mostly devoid of naked eye stars, lie a countless number of galaxies of which about a dozen are visible in 9×50 binoculars. In a dark spot rest your elbows on a sturdy object like a car roof and scan this area of the sky carefully. In the accompanying chart each galaxy is represented by a tiny circle; ones bright enough for binoculars have either ... Read More »

Follow the Goat Star

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Comet PanSTARRS almost exactly matched expectations earlier this month; binoculars were required to see it. Those of you who avoided the clouds were treated to a glimpse of the second magnitude comet with a tail about one degree long (twice the width of the full Moon). My club’s members beat the clouds by racing up and down the length of the beach in their vehicles trying to find a hole the comet could shine through! Tonight, we return to one of my favorite areas of the sky – the Taurus, Auriga, and Perseus section of the northern Milky Way. Here ... Read More »

Comet PanSTARRS Visible from Marco

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It has been said that Comets are dirty snowballs from deep space where they formed far from the Sun and warmth of the inner Solar System. The Oort Cloud surrounds the Solar System and extends outwards perhaps two or three light years. There are maybe a trillion comets orbiting the Sun in the Oort cloud; the grip of the Sun is very weak so far out, and every now and then a passing star may eject a few comets into interstellar space or cause them to fall inwards towards us. We have just such a visitor tonight. Comets are named ... Read More »

The Heavenly Twins

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By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net The title does not refer to the Olson twins, but the constellation Gemini is now at its zenith. As it is usually drawn in modern times, the constellation resembles two stick-figures holding hands; it is really quite easy to pick out once you locate Castor and Pollux. Pollux is the brighter of the two stars, but for some reason Bayer gave Castor the Alpha designation in his famous old catalog, while Pollux got the Beta designation. There has been some speculation over the centuries that either Castor has faded or Pollux has brightened since the ... Read More »

A Lion in the East

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By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Rising in the east tonight is the constellation Leo the Lion. Leo is one of the brighter zodiacal constellations and quite easy to find; simply reverse the pointer stars direction in the Big Dipper and you land in Leo. Leo is also one of the few constellations that bears some slight resemblance to the object for which it’s named. With a bit of imagination a crouching lion is revealed. Leo is also home to an asterism known as the sickle. It consists of the head and shoulders of the lion and really does look like ... Read More »