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Southern Skies

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 »

The Zenith

Facing South, but looking straight up, 9:00 PM February 28th. SUBMITTED photo

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Every now and then instead of facing a particular point of compass, it’s fun to look straight up — technically called the zenith. Looking up at the zenith has a couple of advantages over other directions: the sky becomes darker, and there is less atmosphere to absorb light so the stars tend to be brighter. The major difficulty is the human body is not well designed to spend an extended period of time staring straight up. Soon your neck starts hurting, and if you move suddenly, you could get dizzy and trip over ... Read More »

The Love Planet

Looking east-southeast, 6 AM, Feb. 14. Venus is beautiful to look at, but no place to visit. SUBMITTED photo

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Now that Valentine’s Day is upon us, it might be a good time to check out Venus, the namesake of the Goddess of Love. It might be mentioned in passing that Venus, the mythological being, was not exactly the goddess of love, but was solely the goddess of erotic love — not quite the same thing. Venus the planet, while beautiful to observe, is actually a fairly good approximation of Hell, with its 900 degree surface temperature, sulfurous smell and crushing air pressure. All this is due to the enormous quantities of carbon ... Read More »

Can You See the “G”?

Looking east, 9:00 PM January 31. SUBMITTED photo

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Here on Marco, the constellation Orion rides much higher in the sky than our northern visitors are used to. This allows the bright stars to really shine out with their full brilliance. Tonight, the chart depicts a close-up of this fascinating area of the sky. The first thing a casual stargazer should notice is how the bright stars in this constellation are all very blue — with one huge exception, Betelgeuse. This star, in the upper left of the constellation, is a red supergiant; despite the name, it looks rather closer to a ... Read More »

Can You See the “G”?

Looking east, 9:00 PM, January 17. SUBMITTED photo

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Tonight, the chart is showing just about everyone’s favorite portion of the sky, or it would be if it were not high in the sky on winter evenings when the normal temperature discourages viewing. This is not a problem on Marco Island, however; and this area contains something for every stargazer whether naked eye, binocular or telescope user. First, notice the enormous “G” shape formed by the eight first magnitude stars: Aldebaran, Capella, Castor, Pollux, Procyon, Sirius, Rigel and Betelgeuse. Nowhere else in the sky will you find such a concentration of bright ... Read More »

Jupiter Rises in the East

Looking Southeast, 9 PM January 3. Can you spot the river? Submitted Photo

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Tonight, mighty Orion has heaved himself above the horizon, but first, let’s look at the heavenly river Eridanus. Composed of mostly dim stars, the Eridanus is supposed to represent the Nile or the Euphrates. It arises near the foot of Orion and winds thru many twists and turns into the deep southern sky, terminating at the blue star Achernar. This star is one of the very brightest in the sky but is dimed by the murk above the horizon. Achernar is never visible further north than Macon, and in fact, is mostly impossible ... Read More »

Jupiter Rises in the East Comet

Looking East, 9:00 PM December 20th. Bright winter stars are rising  over Marco. SUBMITTED photo

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net Comet ISON was totally roasted on Thanksgiving day during its suicide dive into the close proximity of the Sun. Apparently nothing is left of the comet except perhaps a few rocks. At less than one solar diameter distance, the comet failed to endure temperatures hot enough to melt iron. Needless to say, my careful instructions on how to view the comet during December turned out to be useless. In the form of a consolation prize, we now have Jupiter visible again during the early evening hours this winter. It can not be missed ... Read More »

Comet ISON Survived?

Looking East, 6:15 AM December 6th. Can you spot Comet ISON? It might have been destroyed on Thanksgiving Day.  SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net At the time of this writing, the ultimate fate of Comet ISON was still in doubt. On Thanksgiving day the comet reaches its closest point to the Sun, (called perihelion by astronomers) and is less than one million miles from the solar surface. At that distance the heat is enough to melt solid iron! On the other hand, the comet is a big chunk of loosely packed ice and dust which is a pretty good insulator; it may well pull through. The odds are around 50-50. Until recently the comet was fizzling out, ... Read More »

Should You Buy a Telescope?

Looking East, 6:00 AM November 23rd. Can you spot Comet ISON? The comet is racing to possible destruction on the 28th when it passes by the Sun.  SUBMITTED PHOTO

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher usher34105@earthlink.net This morning, perhaps as you are walking the dog, look to the east and you have a chance to spot Comet ISON. It’s going to be quite low to the horizon and will be of uncertain brightness. Mercury and Saturn should be visible and they should provide handy reference points. The comet is moving fast, passing just below Spica on the 18th, and drops below Mercury by the 23rd. Both moonlight and twilight will interfere with the comets visibility. This is the time of year when everyone asks me “what kind of telescope ... Read More »

Goodbye to Summer


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


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


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 »