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Southern Skies

The Motion of the Moon

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher We don’t often discuss the Moon in this stargazing column because, frankly, it’s a real pain to stargazers worldwide – wiping out all but the brightest stars with its own brilliance. The Moon seems bright mainly by contrast; in reality the rock that makes up the Moon is not much more reflective than coal. The Moon is a fascinating object in its own right, various civilizations have amused themselves by finding patterns like the Man in the Moon, or a rabbit in the dark areas called Maria. The most notable thing about the ... Read More »

The Star That Vanishes

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher In the neck of Cetus, the sea-monster, just under the “C” on the accompanying chart, lies the star Mira. Most of the time it is invisible to the naked eye, so that is what the chart shows. About every 332 days Mira brightens to a maxima of about magnitude 3.5 and slowly sinks back to a minima of around 9. The given magnitudes are approximations; Mira is notably unpredictable. Historically it can get as bright as magnitude 2.0, making it the brightest star in the constellation or as dim as magnitude 10.1, making ... Read More »


SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher Periodically the question is asked about how a stargazer can take pictures of the night sky. To get really good pictures, it takes some thousands of dollars and a few hundred hours of practice and study; however, that being said, it’s possible to take fairly decent pictures to share among friends and family without too much trouble. To do so you need two things: a camera capable of making time exposures and a tripod. The quality of the photos depends on the size of the camera lens and sensitivity of the imaging chip. ... Read More »

Goats and water bearers

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher   Tonight Capricornus, the goat, rides fairly high in the southeastern sky. It is usually visualized as a hybrid half goat – half fish creature; it’s also extremely old – it has endured essentially unchanged for over 3,000 years. Likely this is because of its great importance (to an agricultural society) as being the site of the winter solstice in the early bronze age. Nowadays the winter solstice occurs in nearby Sagittarius. Capricornus is supposed to be the second dimmest of the zodiacal constellations after Cancer, but I don’t find it difficult to ... Read More »

The Hero rides high in the sky

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher Face west and look up; way, way up and spot the bright blue-white star Vega very nearly at the zenith tonight. If you can see anything at all you will see Vega, one of the brightest stars in the sky. It’s also the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, the lyre, which includes a small, but distinctive parallelogram just above Vega. For some completely mysterious reason a large number of people refer to Vega as the north star, which is odd as the star is quite some distance (over 50 degrees) away from ... Read More »

The unmentioned constellation

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher As Mars and Saturn sink towards the western horizon, leaving the evening sky planet-less until October, look instead to the south and view Ophiuchus. Ophiuchus, also known as the serpent-bearer, is a large constellation situated above the Milky Way and dipping all the way down to the ecliptic – making it the thirteenth zodiacal constellation. This fact is ignored in astrological columns for some reason even though the constellation has been recognized since ancient times. The constellation is usually depicted in old artworks as a man holding a very large snake, something like ... Read More »

The Realm of the Dragon

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher We rarely look northwards, but this is the only time of year Draco the Dragon rises high enough to be barely visible here in the deep south. It’s a rather faint constellation, which combined with it’s far northerly location make Draco tough to spot in South Florida during most of the year. You may wish to go out an hour earlier or a week later than indicated to avoid the bright rising Moon. Mythologically speaking, Draco represents Ladon, the snake or dragon guarding the Golden Apples. Hercules slew the dragon as he needed ... Read More »

The Teapot and the Scorpion

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher 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

By Mike P. Usher Look eastwards about 11:00 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 is really bright ... Read More »

It’s about Class

SOUTHERN SKIES  By Mike P. Usher  Classes in Collier County will soon come to an end in a few days when school lets out for the summer, but stars also have classes which they are stuck in for most of their lives. Classes are assigned to stars based on a very detailed analysis of their light; once you know the class a star belongs in it can tell you much of its past history, distant future, temperature, chemical composition and color. As far as a casual sky gazer is concerned class really only means color which in turn is ... Read More »

The Southern Cross rises again

SOUTHERN SKIES  By Mike P. Usher  May and June is the time of year when the most interesting objects in the very deep southern sky pop above the horizon for a few hours. First and foremost is the Southern Cross, technically named Crux. It is always a challenge to see the bottom star, Acrux, but the northernmost three are easy given a clear sky and a flat southern horizon. For this the best spot to be is a beach with a southern view. In terms of area Crux is the smallest full constellation in the sky, but there are ... Read More »

Venus Shines Bright in the West

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher Venus is still shining brightly in the west, for now. In just over a month Venus will shrink to a bright crescent and then temporarily vanish while it crosses over into the morning sky. Typically it remains invisible in the glare of the Sun for a week or two – but this time is not typical. Late in the afternoon on June 5, Venus will pass directly in front of the Sun and will be briefly visible as a tiny black spot on the face of our home star. As Venus reaches its ... Read More »


SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher 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 to ... Read More »


SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher Shining high in the sky in the southeast is the bright star Procyon in the otherwise non-descript of Canis Minor – the little dog. Canis Minor posesses 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 »


SOUTHERN SKIES  By Mike P. Usher  If you can drag your eyes away from the beautiful conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in the west, look towards the north and find everyone’s favorite asterism – the Big Dipper. Besides being easy to find it’s also useful; in addition to its famous ability to point out the North Star if you flip the direction of the pointer stars they indicate the direction of the constellation Leo. Extend the arc of the handle you will come to the bright star Arcturus, although you should wait until the Big Dipper is higher in ... Read More »


SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher Look west tonight, or any night for the next couple of months, and you can not fail to see Venus. In fact you can even see Venus in broad daylight with a little perseverance. The easiest way is to get up before dawn and keep an eye on Venus as the sun rises – I have done this many times. But this approach will not work until fall when Venus will be visible in the morning. To see Venus in the afternoon requires knowing exactly where to look; Venus is easily lost in ... Read More »

Auriga the Charioteer

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher 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 »

Mighty Canopus rises

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher Canopus is the second brightest star in the entire night sky after Sirius, located in the constellation Carina, the keel. It is visible throughout the southern United States but only in Florida does it rise high enough out of the horizon murk to show how bright it truly is. Tonight it will grow still brighter as it rises and crosses the meridian just before 10:00PM. Canopus is also the star with the greatest intrinsic brightness in our corner of the Galaxy; from 312 light years away it still reaches -0.65 magnitude and is ... Read More »

Mars returns to the evening

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher Tonight at 11:00 PM Mars is well clear of the horizon and appears in the constellation Leo, the Lion. Every night Mars is just a little brighter than the previous one as we draw closer to opposition on March 3; opposition happens when Mars and the Sun are 180 degrees apart. Opposition is a great time to observe planets. Earth is as close as it will get on this orbit around the Sun. The planet appears both larger, brighter and is visible all night long. In the case of Mars, the change in ... Read More »

The Dog Star rises

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher 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 ... Read More »