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Southern Skies

The Zenith

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

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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


SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher 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


SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher 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


SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher 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


SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher 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 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


SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher 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


SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher 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!


SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher 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 »