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Southern Skies

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 »

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 »