Monday , December 22 2014
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Southern Skies

Three Planets with One Glance


SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher 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


SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher 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


By Mike P. Usher – 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


By Mike P. Usher – 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


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


By Mike P. Usher 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


By Mike P. Usher 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 »

Defunct Constellation Argo Rises


SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher Nearly due south tonight burns the second brightest star in the sky – Canopus. This star can only be seen in southerly latitudes of less than 38 degrees and really only shines with its full brilliance in latitudes under 30 degrees; in Florida for example! Canopus is the brightest star in the constellation of Carina, the keel of the old ship constellation Argo Navis. In ancient mythology a man named Canopus was the navigator for Menelaus, the husband of the famous Helen. Argo Navis, after dominating the southern sky for a couple of ... Read More »

Jupiter Near the Zenith


SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher Tonight, Jupiter is very near the zenith (straight up); this is the best time to observe Jupiter with your binoculars. To be comfortable lie down in a pool chair, you can brace your elbows on the chair arms or chest to steady the binoculars. Through the binoculars you will be able to see the tiny disk of the planet itself and all four of the Galilean satellites. Io is by itself on the left side of the planet and on the right are Europa, Ganymede and Callisto moving outwards. The satellites are easy ... Read More »

The Dog Star


SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher Stargazers can look at this section of the sky for hours. Monoceros, the unicorn in the center, is not much to look at of course, but the Milky Way does run through it and there are some fine clusters awaiting inspection by binocular users. In particular, try to find M47 near the border with Canis Major. Sirius the Dog star is the brightest star in the sky, only the Moon and several planets are brighter. Not that anyone ever needs help finding it, but the belt stars in Orion point right towards Sirius. ... Read More »

What’s in a Name?


SOUTHERN SKIES  By Mike P. Usher  It’s been a couple of years since we have discussed star names. There are only about a couple of hundred stars that have actual proper names; the vast majority are only known by catalog numbers. Of the two hundred stars that do have names only about two dozen are in common use by astronomers. The charts attached to this article have a lot more names displayed than are in actual daily use; these names are only of historical interest and are useful mainly for amazing your friends with your intimate knowledge of the ... Read More »

Orion Leaps into the Sky


SOUTHERN SKIES  By Mike P. Usher  There is a lot to see in the eastern sky tonight! Both naked eye and binocular stargazers will be kept busy enjoying the sights nature is presenting this evening. Orion the hunter, undoubtedly one of the most recognized constellations in the world, is rising in the east. Many of the bright stars in this region of the sky are loosely related to each other, being members of what is called the Orion OB1 Association – a sort of loose cluster that is no longer gravitationally bound together. The stars of the belt and ... Read More »

Should you buy a telescope?

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 see three planets – Venus, Saturn and Mercury. Venus and Saturn are easy to spot, along with the first magnitude star Spica. Mercury is much more difficult as it is so close to the horizon. Wait a few minutes and it will rise higher – but wait too long and it will be lost in the morning twilight. Probably your best chance is to wait until November 30 when it reaches it’s farthest distance ... Read More »

The return of the King of the Planets

SOUTHERN SKIES  By Mike P. Usher  Tonight, Jupiter returns to the early evening sky after an absence of some months. Jupiter is nearing opposition which will occur on December 3; Jupiter will be 180 degrees away from the Sun and will rise as the Sun sets. Opposition is important because Jupiter will be at its closest point to Earth on this pass around the Sun. Jupiter will be extra big and bright the next couple of months just begging to be viewed with binoculars. Viewing Jupiter with your binoculars tonight you will see four of its largest moons (Jupiter ... Read More »

Major event just a year away!

SOUTHERN SKIES  By Mike P. Usher  We looked at this region of the sky just two weeks ago; notice how the sky has rolled upwards since then? Perseus, which was just starting to rise last edition is now well clear of the horizon. Being in the Milky Way Perseus is full of interesting deep sky objects, but it is probably best to wait until the constellation is a bit higher to scan it with your binoculars. Pay particular attention to Capella, which is just now rising. Observe how it sparkles, flashes on and off and changes colors constantly. This ... Read More »

Autumn Stars are Rising

SOUTHERN SKIES By Mike P. Usher It’s autumn in Southwest Florida, even when it doesn’t feel like it, when the irregular “w” of Cassiopeia rises high in the northeastern sky. This particular area of the celestial sphere is the home of one of the most dysfunctional families in Greek mythology. Found here is Cepheus the King, the aforementioned Cassiopeia the Queen, and their daughter Andromeda. The short version of their story goes like this: Cassiopeia bragged that she was more beautiful than the sea nymphs; who upon hearing this complained to Poseidon, the god of the sea. He sent ... Read More »

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 »