Star Gazing

Night Sky with Stars Moon GalaxyWelcome to our Star Gazing website.  We live in a vast, beautiful universe which is made up of billions of stars, galaxies, planets and meteors–many of which we can actually see from our planet Earth.  At one time or another, all of us have looked at the night skies with amazement and awe-wondering who or what is out there.  This website will share with you all the latest in updated news about what celestial images are best for viewing as well as any planned star gazing events around the planet.  We will also give you information about the latest in star gazing publications and tools available to enhance and enrich your star gazing experience.

The Beginnings of our Universe?

The Hubble Telescope has done it again!  This time it has located a number of galaxies that are the oldest ever observed by humankind.  These galaxies are thought to have formed somewhere between 350 and 600 million years after the Big Bang which formed our universe.  This article from Astronomy magazine gives us the details.

Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers announced December 12 that they have seen further back in time than ever before and have uncovered a previously unseen population of seven primitive galaxies that formed more than 13 billion years ago when the universe was less than 3 percent of its present age. The deepest images to date from Hubble yield the first statistically robust sample of galaxies that tells how abundant they were close to the era when galaxies first formed.

The results are from an ambitious Hubble survey of an intensively studied patch of sky known as the Ultra Deep Field (UDF). In the 2012 campaign, called UDF12, a team of astronomers led by Richard Ellis of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena used Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC 3) to peer deeper into space in near-infrared light than any previous Hubble observation.

To see the complete article, click here.

Who knows what else Hubble will find as it scours the universe for more clues to the beginnings of our universe?



Star Gazing Orientation

Let’s say you are new to star gazing and you are not sure exactly where/how to start. In this excellent article, Dana Wilde tells us to begin with orienting oneself to some major stars and/or major star constellations. Once you have learned your star gazing orientation skills  to the night sky, you will have a good base to your star gazing education.

The key to stargazing is points of orientation.

In the beginning, like for all beginnings, you take the simple points first, which in the case of stargazing is simply the brightest stars. There are two ways to use the bright stars, and like practically everything else in the universe, the two ways tend to merge: orientation by individual star and orientation by constellation. I mean, some stars are very bright and easy to spot, and some constellations are very prominent to the eye.

Star Gazing Orientation

Star Gazing Orientation

For example, in a clear field looking north at our latitudes (44.67 degrees north here in Troy), most people can pick out the bowl and handle of the Big Dipper without much help. Once you’ve got it, you can never miss it again. And a nice advantage to it is that in our part of the world it’s always up there; it never sets, it just whirls around and around night after night, sort of comforting in a way.

But anyway, once you have the Big Dipper (or Ursa Major, the Great Bear) for a point of orientation, the geography of the whole northern sky opens up. The two outer stars of the bowl make a line pointing northward at a fairly bright star — this is Polaris, the North Star. From Polaris you can trace a somewhat fainter curve of stars around to another smaller dipper — the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor, the Little Bear). And in the Big Dipper’s handle, the two end stars point roughly toward the fourth-brightest star in the sky, reddish Arcturus.

These are all, with a little patience and focus, easy to find, and you can never get lost in the northern sky again. That feels like it could come in pretty handy at some point, though I’m not sure when, exactly.

There are clear points of orientation in other parts of the sky in different seasons, too. In summer a fairly easily spotted constellation is the Northern Cross, or Cygnus, the Swan. It’s not quite as distinct as the Big Dipper because there are more visible stars in its vicinity, but once your eye lights on it, it’s in your memory for good because its five stars are in the exact proportion of a cross, or a flying swan or goose. To the side of the swan’s head end is the fifth-brightest star we see, Vega. A couple of skips farther on the other side of the swan’s head is another bright star, Altair. On August and September nights Altair is near the southwest horizon in the constellation Aquila, the Eagle, whose four brightest stars, when your eye catches them, look like a flattened diamond.

In September and October, if you look east just after sunset you’ll see four fairly bright stars in a distinct box shape, with few other stars visible among them; this is the Square of Pegasus. If you scan to your left a little bit, your eye will enter a star field, and in it are four quite bright ones in a lopsided W — this is Cassiopeia.

In winter the most striking shape in the southern evening sky is Orion, with his three-star belt and a sword hanging vaguely off it. Two bright stars above and below are at his head, or more precisely his shoulder (reddish-colored Betelgeuse), and foot (cold, bluish Rigel). At his heel is the brightest star in the sky that’s not the sun, Sirius, the Dog Star in the shoulder of Canis Major, the Big Dog, bounding along behind the hunter.

Now these are just beginnings. These bright stars and constellations are like outposts in space from where you can navigate further out. This is not like a video game. But with patience and repetition (they’re there every clear night, year after year), you’ll see less obvious constellations start to emerge from the welter of lights, like Hercules, which is a lopsided box with four stars like appendages shooting off it, between Ursa Major and Vega. Nearby is a crownlike semicircle of stars called Corona Borealis.

Between the Square of Pegasus and Cassiopeia is Andromeda, where if you’re patient and know how to use binoculars (simple — hold them up to your eye, aim them at something and focus the image), on clear nights you can pick up a smudge of light that is actually a galaxy, M31, 2.5 million light-years away.

These stars and constellations are bright points of orientation on your maps of the stupendous elsewhere that will eventually, if you let them, burn themselves into your mind. That could come in handy sometime. I’m not exactly sure how yet.

Star gazing orientation is great fun in and of itself.  All of a sudden, stars in the night sky start to have some meaning to you.  A whole new world will open up to you and your inquisitive mind.  So now that you have completed your star gazing orientation, you can get down to some serious star gazing.  Each new bit of star gazing knowledge will open up new worlds to you and will make your star gazing experiences more enjoyable each time you step out and look into the night skies.

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Star Gazing The Hubble Telescope

The Hubble Telescope was launched by the Space Shuttle in 1990.  Since then, it has given us some of the most spectacular pictures of outer space that we have ever seen.  Well now, according to the article below, we will have the opportunity to see the Hubble Space Telescope as it passes overhead in the night skies.

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) makes a pass at 7:47 tonight that takes it up past the brightest celestial objects currently visible: Venus, the Moon, and Jupiter. Rising out of the west, the HST will come within 2 degrees west (right) of Venus at about 34 seconds after 7:48 p.m. This makes an easy place to pick up the HST if you haven’t been able to see it while it was below Venus.

Hubble Space Telescope

Hubble Space Telescope

At 7:50 p.m., the HST will have risen higher, to pass less than 1 degree west of the barely visible planet Uranus. Uranus is just within naked-eye visibility but looks just like a very dim star. With binoculars and a detailed finder chart, you may be able to focus on Uranus and wait for the Hubble to heave into view at 7:50 p.m. With binoculars or a telescope you can notice the distinct bluish color of Uranus. This occurs about 5 degrees to the left of the crescent Moon hovering over Venus.

At about 7:51:26, the HST grazes past Jupiter. At the BCC planetarium, it will come about a degree east of Jupiter. The brighter satellites of Jupiter are much closer to Jupiter than that. The farthest, Callisto, is 7 minutes away (a minute is a 60th of a degree), about eight times closer. On the other hand, Jupiter’s gravity field extends over a much larger portion of the sky. The Jovian moon Sinope appears more than 140 minutes away from the mega-planet. That’s about two finger widths held at arm’s length.

The actual sky-position of the Hubble Space Telescope depends on where you are in Brevard County. It can affect your view by a couple of degrees. The description I’m giving is for BCC Planetarium and Observatory in Cocoa. In Melbourne, the HST appears a couple of degrees to the west of Jupiter. Somewhere in between, the HST must track directly over Jupiter. That would be quite a sight.

The Hubble reappears a few minutes earlier in a nearby track every night this week, so if you miss it tonight, it will make a similar appearance tomorrow or the next day. But don’t expect it to run right over Jupiter—it will be several degrees farther away each night.

So, here’s your opportunity to view the world’s greatest telescope as it passes over North America.  If you are lucky enough to get clear skies in the evenings this week, don’t miss out on this unusual opportunity!

Star Gazing Photography

This is the perfect time of year for star gazing in many parts of the world. Among the brightest objects in the southern sky at this time is the star Sirius. There are also plenty of planets visible inthe sky, and as you can see from the article below, there should be some great star gazing photography opportunities.

The arrival of the new year brings with it a star-studded lineup of some of the best skywatching events of the season.

Star Gazing Photography

Star Gazing Photography

The brightest star of the entire year, Sirius, shines like a lone beacon in the southern sky. The lead member in the constellation Canis Major or Big Dog, it’s so brilliant because it is one of the closest stars to Earth at just more than eight light years away. Surrounding it is a crown of stellar diamonds that are the hallmark of winter skies.

To its upper right is the granddaddy of all stellar figures, Orion the hunter – where you’ll find blue-coloured Rigel, orange Betelgeuse and its belt of three stars in between.

Meanwhile to the upper left of Sirius you can see the Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux, and just below it, Canis Minor’s Procyon.

Turning to planets, Mars glows faintly as an orange star in the southeastern sky late nights just below the rump of Leo and within the constellation Virgo. If you wait until dawn, the Red Planet will have glided over to the low southwest.

As Mars begins to get closer to Earth in the next few months, it will slowly begin to brighten and rise earlier in the evening as we head into spring in a couple of months. If you have a telescope handy, you may begin to see surface features on the planet as it increases in apparent size in the sky. By far the easiest to spot will be the bright white north polar cap of Mars, which is tilted toward Earth.

Also worth checking out with a telescope at dawn is the ringed planet Saturn. It now shines high in the south to the upper left of Virgo’s brightest star Spica.

Meanwhile, the moon will be involved in two must-see events in the coming weeks. While Venus has been dominating the western sky at sunset these past couple of months it will be joined by a crescent moon on Jan. 25 and Jan. 26, making for a great photo-op. The king of all planets, super-bright Jupiter high in the south at dusk gets its turn to dance with the first quarter moon on the evening of Jan. 30.

Finally, keep an eye on both Venus and Jupiter over the course of the next few months. You will see that they are slowly approaching each other as they head for a striking close encounter in March.

It should be an exciting year for star gazers in general.  But whether you are a pro or a beginner in star gazing photography, it should be a great year to get some awesome photos of our nightly skies.  So, keep your camera handy as you star gaze and you’re sure to capture a unique shot or two!

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Star Gazing the Quadrantid Meteor Shower

The first big star gazing event of 2012 is set for this coming Thursday, January 4. This meteor shower was first seen back in the 19th century and these meteors are leftovers from an asteroid. Meteor showers are fascinating to watch as you really don’t know what to expect until it happens. The best viewing times and locations for star gazing the Quandrantid Meteor Shower are explained in the below article.

The first meteor shower of 2012 — the lesser known Quadrantid meteor shower — will kick off a new year of skywatching when it peaks on Wednesday (Jan. 4).

Star Gazing The Quadrantid Meteor Shower

Star Gazing The Quadrantid Meteor Shower

While many meteor displays in 2011 were washed out by a bright moon, the Quadrantid meteor shower is expected to put on a spectacular light show, with no pesky moonlight to interfere. The peak of the Quadrantids will occur at around 2 a.m. EST (0700 GMT) on Jan. 4.

If you’re planning to stay up late to catch the peak, you could be treated to meteors at a rate of 100 per hour, NASA officials said in a statement. Luckily, the waxing gibbous moon will set at around 3 a.m. local time, so as long as there are clear skies, conditions should be ripe for meteor watching into the pre-dawn hours. The sky map available here shower where to look to see the Quadrantid meteors.

Unlike the more well-known Perseid and Geminid meteor showers, the Quadrantids last only a few hours, so skywatchers have a narrower window of opportunity to spot them.

Meteor showers occur when Earth travels through leftover debris from comets or asteroids. They are often known as “shooting stars,” because of the way they streak across the sky.

The Quadrantid meteors originate from an asteroid called 2003 EH1, and were first seen in 1825. According to some studies, this cosmic body could be a piece of a comet that broke apart several centuries ago, and the Quadrantids are the crumbled relics of debris from this fragmentation, NASA officials said. [12 Must-See Skywatching Events in 2012]

As Earth passes through, dust and debris will enter the planet’s atmosphere a blistering speed of about 90,000 miles per hour (almost 145,000 kilometers per hour). These fragments will burn up about 50 miles (80 km) above Earth’s surface, NASA officials said.

Most meteor showers get their name based on the constellations from which they appear to streak. When we look at the so-called radiants, we are looking down the paths of the meteors that strike Earth’s atmosphere.

Because of the location of the radiant, at the northern tip of the constellation Bootes, only northern hemisphere skywatchers will be able to see Quadrantids.

The Quadrantids were named after the constellation of Quadrans Muralis, the wall quadrant, which is located between the constellations of Bootes and Draco. Quadrans Muralis was named by the French astronomer Jerome Lalande in 1795.

The constellation represents an early astronomical instrument that was used to observe and plot stars. Interestingly, the constellation is no longer recognized by the astronomical community, but the name lives on with the January meteor shower.

Star gazing the Quadrantid Meteor Shower is just the first of many terrific sky watching events for the year!  Get ready for a promising year of star gazing.  We will keep you informed here at!

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Star Gazing From Lunar Orbit

NASA has started off the new year by placing two satellites in orbit around the Moon.  These satellites are intended to study the Moon’s gravitational field and do some star gazing from lunar orbit, among other things.  There are also several “firsts” for these satellites, as you can see from the article below.

As planet Earth rang in the new year, a different kind of countdown was happening at the moon.

Star Gazing From Lunar Orbit

Star Gazing From Lunar Orbit

After a 3½-month journey, a NASA spacecraft flew over the moon’s south pole, fired its engine and dropped into orbit Saturday in the first of two back-to-back arrivals over the New Year’s weekend.

Mission control at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory erupted in cheers and applause after receiving confirmation that the probe was healthy and circling the moon. An engineer was seen on closed-circuit television blowing a noisemaker to herald the New Year’s Eve arrival.

“Everything went just as we hoped. The burn was spot-on,” chief scientist Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said in a post-mission interview with The Associated Press.

The team toasted sparkling cider, but the celebration was brief. Despite the successful maneuver, the work was not over. Its twin still had to enter lunar orbit on New Year’s Day.

The Grail probes — short for Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory — have been cruising independently toward their destination since launching in September aboard the same rocket on a mission to measure lunar gravity.

Hours before revelers in Times Square celebrated the New Year, Grail-A approached the moon and fired its engine for about 40 minutes to get captured into orbit. Deep space antennas in the California desert and Madrid tracked every move and fed real-time updates to ground controllers

About 270 family members and friends of the mission team descended on the NASA campus to watch the drama unfold on a live feed.

“This is great, a big relief,” deputy project scientist Sami Asmar told the jubilant crowd.

Grail is the 110th mission to target the moon since the dawn of the Space Age including the six Apollo moon landings that put 12 astronauts on the surface. Despite the attention the moon has received, scientists don’t know everything about Earth’s nearest neighbor.

Why the moon is ever so slightly lopsided with the far side more mountainous than the side that always faces Earth remains a mystery. A theory put forth earlier this year suggested that Earth once had two moons that collided early in the solar system’s history, producing the hummocky region.

Grail is expected to help researchers better understand why the moon is asymmetrical and how it formed by mapping the uneven lunar gravity field that will indicate what’s below the surface.

Previous lunar missions have attempted to study the moon’s gravity — which is about one-sixth Earth’s pull — with mixed results. Grail is the first mission devoted to this goal.

Once in orbit, the near-identical spacecraft will spend the next two months refining their positions until they are just 34 miles above the surface and flying in formation. Data collection will begin in March.

The $496 million mission will be closely watched by schoolchildren. An effort by Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, will allow middle school students to use cameras aboard the probes to zoom in and pick out their favorite lunar spots to photograph.

Despite the latest focus on the moon, NASA won’t be sending astronauts back anytime soon. The Obama administration last year nixed a lunar return in favor of landing humans on an asteroid and eventually Mars.

A jaunt to the moon is usually speedy. It took the Apollo astronauts three days to zip there aboard the powerful Saturn V rocket. Since NASA wanted to economize by launching on a small rocket, it took Grail a leisurely 3 1/2 months to make a roundabout trip.

NASA’s last moonshot occurred in 2009 with the launch of a pair of spacecraft — one that circled the moon and another that deliberately crashed into the surface and uncovered frozen water in one of the permanently shadowed luna

It’s certainly nice to see NASA getting back in the groove after shutting down the shuttle program last year.  Even if we don’t have any manned space flights scheduled in the near future, NASA is still pursuing the art of space exploration.  Exploration and science are very important to us as human beings as well as to our country.  Here’s hoping that NASA will come up with some exciting new discoveries as these satellite do some star gazing from lunar orbit!

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Star Gazing Events For 2012

2011 was a terrific year for star gazers, but star gazing events for 2012 look very promising. This article published on takes a look at 12 of their top star gazing events for the coming year.  Obviously we’re hoping for more than 12 star gazing events next year, but this list is a good starting place.

As the year 2011 comes to a close, some might wonder what is looming sky-wise for 2012? What celestial events might we look forward to seeing?

I’ve selected what I consider to be the top 12 “skylights” for this coming year, and list them here in chronological order. Not all these events will be visible from any one locality … for the eclipses, for instance, you’ll probably have to do some traveling … but many can be observed from the comfort of your backyard.

Hopefully your local weather will cooperate on most, if not all, of these dates. Clear skies!

Jan. 4: Quadrantid meteor shower peaks

This meteor shower reaches its peak in the predawn hours of Jan. 4 for eastern North America. The Quadrantid meteor shower is a very short-lived meteor display, whose peak rates only last several hours. The phase of the moon is a bright waxing gibbous, normally prohibitive for viewing any meteor shower, but the moon will set by 3 a.m., leaving the sky dark for a few hours until the first light of dawn; that’s when you’ll have the best shot at seeing many of these bluish-hued meteors.

From the eastern half of North America, a single observer might count on seeing as many as 50-to-100 “Quads” in a single hour. From the western half of the continent the display will be on the wane by the time the moon sets, with hourly rates probably diminishing to around 25 to 50 meteors.

Star Gazing Events for 2012

Star Gazing Events for 2012

Feb. 20 to March 12: Best evening apparition of Mercury

In February and March, the “elusive” innermost planet Mercury moves far enough from the glare of the sun to be readily visible soon after sunset. Its appearance will be augmented by two other bright planets (Venus and Jupiter), which also will be visible in the western sky during this same time frame.

Mercury will arrive at its greatest elongation from the sun March 5. It will be quite bright (-1.3-to-0 magnitude) before this date and will fade rapidly to +1.6 magnitude thereafter. Astronomers measure the brightness of objects in terms of magnitude, with lower numbers corresponding to brighter objects.

March 3: Mars arrives at opposition

On March 3, the Earth will be passing Mars as the two planets wheel around the sun in their respective orbits. Because Mars reaches aphelion — its farthest point from the sun — on Feb. 15, this particular opposition will be an unfavorable one. In fact, two days after opposition, Mars will be closest to Earth at a distance of 62.6 million miles.

Compare this with the August 2003 opposition when Mars was only 34.6 million miles away. Nonetheless, even at this unfavorable opposition the fiery-hued Mars will be an imposing naked-eye sight, shining at magnitude -1.2, just a bit dimmer than Sirius, the brightest star, and will be visible in the sky all night long.

March 13: Brilliant “double planet”

The two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, team up to make for an eye-catching sight in the western sky soon after sunset. They will be separated by 3 degrees on this evening, Venus passing to the northwest (upper right) of Jupiter and shining nearly eight times brighter than “Big Jupe.” Although they will gradually go their separate ways after this date, on March 25 and 26, a crescent moon will pass by, adding additional beauty to this celestial scene.

May 5: Biggest full moon of 2012

The moon turns full at 11:35 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time and just 25 minutes later it will arrive at its closest point to the Earth in 2012, at a distance of 221,801 miles. Expect a large range in ocean tides (exceptionally low to exceptionally high) for the next few days. [Photos: 'Supermoon' of 2011]

May 20: Annular eclipse of the sun

The path of annularity for this eclipse starts over eastern China and sweeps northeast across southern and central Japan. The path continues northeast then east, passing just south of Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain. The path then turns to the southeast, making landfall in the western United States along the California-Oregon coast. It will pass over central Nevada, southern Utah, northern Arizona, the extreme southwest corner of Colorado and most of New Mexico before coming to an end over northern Texas.

Since the disk of the moon will appear smaller than the disk of the sun, it will create a “penny on nickel” effect, with a fiery ring of sunlight shining around the moon’s dark silhouette. Locations that will witness this eerie sight include Eureka and Reading, Calif.; Carson City, Reno and Ely, Nev.; Bryce Canyon in Utah; Arizona’s Grand Canyon; Albuquerque and Santa Fe in New Mexico and just prior to sunset for Lubbock, Tex.

A partial eclipse of the sun will be visible over a large swath of the United States and Canada, including Alaska and Hawaii, but no eclipse will be visible near and along the Atlantic Seaboard.

June 4: Partial eclipse of the moon

This partial lunar eclipse favors the Pacific Ocean; Hawaii sees it high in the sky during the middle of its night. Across North America the eclipse takes place between midnight and dawn. The farther east one goes, the closer the time of moonset coincides with the moment that the moon enters the Earth’s dark umbral shadow.

In fact, over the Northeastern United States and eastern Canada, the only evidence of this eclipse will be a slight shading on the moon’s left edge (the faint penumbral shadow) before moonset. Over the Canadian Maritimes, the moon will set before the eclipse begins. At maximum, more than one-third of the moon’s lower portion (37.6-percent) will be immersed in the umbra.

June 5: Rare transit of Venus across the sun

The passage of Venus in front of the sun is among the rarest of astronomical events, rarer even than the return of Halley’s Comet every 76 years. Only six transits of Venus are known to have been observed by humans before: in 1639, 1761, 1769, 1874, 1882 and, most recently, in 2004.

The next one will occur in the year 2114. When Venus is in transit across the solar disk, the planet appears as a distinct, albeit tiny, round black spot with a diameter just 1/32nd of the sun. This size is large enough to readily perceive with the naked eye. HOWEVER … prospective observers are warned to take special precautions (as with a solar eclipse) when attempting to view the silhouette of Venus against the blindingly brilliant solar disc.

The beginning of the transit will be visible from all of North America, Greenland, extreme northern and western portions of South America, Hawaii, northern and eastern portions of Asia including Japan, New Guinea, northern and eastern portions of Australia, and New Zealand. The end will be visible over Alaska, all of Asia and Indonesia, Australia, Eastern Europe, the eastern third of Africa, and the island nation of Madagascar.

Aug. 12: Perseid meteor shower

Considered to be among the best of the annual displays thanks to its high rates of up to 90 per hour for a single observer, as well as its reliability. Beloved by summer campers and often discovered by city dwellers who might be spending time in the country under dark starry skies. [10 Perseid Meteor Shower Facts]

Last summer a bright moon wrecked the shower by blotting out many of the fainter streaks, but in 2012 the moon will be three days past last quarter phase on this peak morning – a fat waning crescent presenting only a minor nuisance for prospective observers.

Nov. 13: Total eclipse of the sun

The first total solar eclipse since July 2010. Virtually the entire path of totality falls over water. At the very beginning, the track cuts through Australia’s Northern Territory just to the east of Darwin, then across the Gulf of Carpentaria, then through northern Queensland, passing over Cairns and Port Douglas before heading out to sea.

The rest of the eclipse path, including the point of the maximum duration of totality (4 minutes, 2 seconds) is, unfortunately, pretty much wasted by falling over the open waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Dec. 13-14: Geminid meteor shower

If there is one meteor display guaranteed to put on a very entertaining show it is the Geminid meteor shower. Now considered by most meteor experts to be at the top of the list, surpassing in brilliance and reliability even the August Perseids.

Bundle warmly against the winter chill; you can start observing as soon as darkness falls on the evening of Dec. 13 as Gemini starts coming up above the eastern horizon and continue through the rest of the night. Around 2 a.m. when Gemini is almost directly overhead, you might see as many as two meteor sightings per minute … 120 per hour! And the moon is new, meaning that it will not be a factor at all.

Dec. 25: Christmas evening and Jupiter

On Christmas, many will be looking skyward and wondering what that brilliant silvery “star” is hovering just above the waxing gibbous moon. It’s not a star (or Santa returning to the North Pole), but the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter, serving as a sort of holiday ornament with our nearest neighbor in space to cap off a year of interesting and predictable sky events that we all can enjoy!

Whether you are new to star gazing or your a veteran star gazer, this list is a good starting place to map out your star gazing schedule for the year 2012.  There should be some awesome star gazing events for 2012.  I personally cannot wait to see what wonders that Mother Nature and the Universe have in store for us!

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Star Gazing With Your New Telescope

Perhaps you were one of the lucky star gazers who received a new telescope for Christmas? Or maybe you found a great deal at one of the after Christmas sales? Either way, I’m sure you are anxious to get started star gazing with your new telescope? Especially if you are new to telescopes, you’ll be looking for some guidance. Well, we found a great article to help you get started.

As the gift-giving season comes to an end, maybe now you’ve got a shiny new telescope to call your own. Congratulations — you’re on your way to discovering many amazing things in the night sky. Be it a long, sleek tube or a compact marvel of computerized wizardry, every new telescope surely has an owner itching to try it out.

Star Gazing With Your New Telescope

Star Gazing With Your New Telescope

“Here are two important tips,” advises Robert Naeye, editor in chief of Sky & Telescope magazine. “First, set up your scope indoors and make sure you understand how everything works before you take it out into the night.” Trying to figure out unfamiliar knobs and settings in the dark and cold is no fun.  Second,” he adds, “be patient. Spend time with each sky object you’re able to find, and really get to know it.” Too many first-time telescope users expect Hubble-like brightness and color in the eyepiece — when in fact most astronomical objects are very dim to the human eye. And our night vision sees almost everything as shades of gray. Much of what the universe has to offer is subtle, and of course extremely distant.

On the other hand, the Moon and planets and bright and easy to find. These make excellent first targets for budding skywatchers. Here are some suggestions for getting the best possible views of them.

Viewing the Moon

The Moon is one celestial object that never fails to impress when seen in a telescope. It’s our nearest neighbor in space — big, bright, beautifully bleak, and just a quarter million miles away. This makes the Moon a wonderful target for even the most humble astronomical instrument. An amateur telescope can keep you busy on the Moon forever.

During the first week of January 2012 the Moon is excellently placed in the evening sky. Use your telescope to explore the thousands of impact craters and the dark lunar “seas,” vast lava plains that formed billions of years ago. The craters will appear in sharpest relief along the line dividing lunar day and night, called the terminator. Here the sunlight comes in at a low slant and shadows stand out starkly.

For guided tours of lunar features to seek out with your new telescope, see our online articles Take a Moonwalk Tonight and A Month of Moonwatching.

Venus and Jupiter

As soon as the Sun sets, you’ll see a dazzlingly bright “star” in the southwest. That’s the planet Venus, our closest planetary neighbor. If you point your telescope its way, you’ll see a small but brilliant, nearly round dot. It might not look like much now, because the planet is on the far side of the Sun from us and roughly 120 million miles away. But keep an eye on that little disk! Week by week, as Venus swings around in its faster orbit and comes closer to Earth, it’ll grow larger and change shape from gibbous to half-lit to crescent. Like the Moon, Venus displays a full cycle of phases. This is what convinced Galileo that Venus orbits the Sun, not Earth!

Now swing your gaze off to the left, and you’ll see bright Jupiter shining higher in the southeast. This giant planet outshines every star or planet in the night except Venus. “Jupiter is the king of the planets and the most interesting for a small telescope,” says veteran observer Alan MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky & Telescope. “It’s big, it’s bright, it has cloud belts, and it has moons that do interesting things.”

Even at 50× or 100×, you should be able to make out two dusky tan bands girding Jupiter’s midsection. These equatorial “belts” and the bright “zone” between them are cloud features akin to jet streams high in the Jovian atmosphere. (Jupiter is a gas giant with no solid surface.) At this time last year the southern belt was practically invisible, because some mysterious process in the planet’s atmosphere caused it to disappear. Now it’s back in full view, appearing wider than the northern belt.

Larger telescopes — those whose main mirror or lens is at least 6 inches across — may bring a few more belts and zones into view, along with an assortment of spots and streaks. The famous Great Red Spot, a huge cyclonic storm larger than Earth, is actually rather pale orange-tan now and can be easily overlooked. Jupiter rotates in just under 10 hours (causing its globe to bulge out visibly at the equator), and the Red Spot is easiest to see when this fast rotation carries it across the middle of Jupiter’s disk. You can find the times when this happens using our online app.

While watching Jupiter, your eye will immediately be drawn to a series of moons on either side of the planet, roughly aligned with the belts. These are the four Galilean satellites, named for Galileo, who discovered them from Italy in 1610. “Over time you’ll notice their movement as they shuttle around Jupiter,” notes MacRobert. “Sometimes not all four are visible: occasionally one of them ducks behind Jupiter or is hidden in its shadow.” Their tiny black shadows can sometimes be seen crossing Jupiter’s face. How can you tell which one is which? We’ve got an app for that too!

For more on what to look for on and around Jupiter, check out our observing guide.

Other Sky Sights

There’s more to the night sky than planets, of course. Winter evenings often bring crisp, transparent skies with a dazzling canopy of stars. But with so many inviting targets overhead, where should you point first?

The familiar constellation Orion climbs in the southeast after sunset. Look for three bright stars — Orion’s Belt — in a nearly vertical line. Just a few degrees to their south (lower right), you’ll find the Orion Nebula, a luminous cloud of gas and dust where stars are forming by the hundreds. This nebula is plain in any telescope once you get pointed at it, and so is the tight quartet of stars near its center, called the Trapezium.

Using the three stars in Orion’s Belt, draw an imaginary line to the upper right, past the relatively bright star Aldebaran (the reddish eye of Taurus, the Bull) to a little cluster of stars called the Pleiades. It’s about the size of your fingertip held at arm’s length. “This group is also known as the Seven Sisters,” Naeye explains. “In Japanese it’s called Subaru — look for them on the car’s logo.” Through binoculars or a telescope at low magnification, the Pleiades cluster shows dozens of stars. Astronomers have found that the entire cluster has about 500 in all.

To find much else, you’ll need a good, detailed star atlas (set of maps), a good deep-sky guidebook, and some practice in how to use the maps to locate things with your telescope.

So, if you haven’t already done so, take that new telescope out of the box, put it together and start star gazing!  Star gazing with your new telescope should only make the new year that much more exciting.  If you don’t already have a telescope, now would be a perfect time to purchase one.  There are many exciting celestial sights coming up in 2012 for all star gazers.

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Star Gazing With Your New Telescope

Star Gazing the Moon

NASA plans to start off the new year with some serious star gazing. They will park two probes over our nearest celestial neighbor, the Moon, this New Year’s. The probes will be doing some serious analyzing of the what’s beneath the surface of the Moon. The Moon is only 250,000 miles away, so it’s only logical that astronomers and other scientists spend some of their budget dedicated to studying the Moon. After all, it’s been nearly 40 years since the last Apollo mission left the surface of the Moon. The article below gives some more detail on what the probes will be looking for.

NASA announced Monday that it is entering a new stage of a mission intended to place a pair of probes around Earth’s nearest neighbor and only satellite.

NASA officials said Monday mission controllers are preparing for the twin spaceships, named Grail-A and Grail-B, to enter the moon’s orbit on New Year’s Eve. The pair of probes are tasked with measuring the uneven gravity field of the moon and determine what lies beneath — straight down to the core.

Star Gazing the moon

Star Gazing the Moon

NASA’s twin lunar Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) probes were launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on September 10, 2011. GRAIL-A is scheduled to arrive in lunar orbit beginning on Saturday, December 31, and GRAIL-B on Sunday, January 1. On New Year’s Eve, the pair of probes will fire their engine to slow down so that it could be captured into orbit. This move will be repeated by the other the following day.

Once in orbit, the pair will spend two months following each other around the moon. Scientists back on Earth will measure the varying distance between the pair of spaceships to calculate the lunar gravity field.

Speaking Monday, the team expressed confidence that the mission will continue to perform flawlessly, adding that they expect to gather an unprecedented amount of data from the mission.

“Both spacecraft have performed essentially flawlessly since launch, but one can never take anything for granted in this business,” said mission chief scientist Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Engineers said the chances of the probes overshooting are slim since their trajectories have been precise. Getting struck by a cosmic ray may prevent the completion of the engine burn and they won’t get boosted into the right orbit.

The straight-line distance from Earth to the moon is about 250,000 miles. It took NASA’s Apollo moon crews about three days to cover that distance. Each of the GRAIL twins is taking about 30 times that long and covering more than 2.5 million miles to get there. This low-energy, high-cruise time trajectory is beneficial for mission planners and controllers, as it allows more time for spacecraft checkout. NASA said the path would allow the program to save money and increase the chances of a successful mission.

The latest mission to the moon will allow scientists to focus on the moon’s gravitation field. As the probes circle the moon, regional changes in the lunar gravity field will cause them to speed up or slow down. This in turn will change the distance between them, allowing scientists to observe how the moon’s gravitation field interacts with smaller bodies. NASA officials noted that the observation and data gathered from the mission would allow them to better understand the moon’s composition.

The mission comes as NASA has sought to scale back its program in recent months. The space agency retired the last of its shuttle fleet earlier this year, leaving it reliant on private space ventures. The Constellation program was canceled last year by President Barack Obama, who favors landing on an asteroid as a stepping stone to Mars.

Since the United States is no longer flying space shuttles, it is vital that we continue space exploration in any form that we can.  The space program has given so much to our lives in the past.  It is important for future generations that we continue exploring the vast unknown of space.

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Skywatching A Rocket Booster

If you happened to be in Europe on Christmas Eve, then you were treated to quite a spectacle. No, it was’t Santa Claus that streaked across the sky–it was the remains of a rocket booster. Yes, indeed, you were skywatching a Soviet rocket booster! As the rocket booster re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, it apparently gave European star gazers quite a spectacular show.  See the article and video below.

On Christmas Eve, residents of Western Europe could eyewitness a rare phenomenon in the sky at night. Among the stars, not far from Venus, a bright object was flying slowly. The object had a glowing tail so it looked like a comet.

The citizens of Belgium, France, Netherlands and Germany, who were lucky to witness the unusual celestial phenomena, launched a vigorous discussion on the web, saying that they could probably see Santa Claus with his reindeer flying over the EU. The object was observed at around 17:27 local time (21:27 Moscow time) on December 24, said.

Numerous videos of the curious object appeared on the Internet very quickly. The comments to the videos turned into the stormy debate about the nature of the origins of the unusual phenomenon. Many versions were rejected fairly quickly during the brainstorm. It could not be a meteor because it was flying too slowly. It was not a comet either: it was flying too fastfor a comet. Some even thought at first that they could see a burning plane crashing.

Ironically, only a small part of those participating in the online discussion took the object for a UFO. The majority, noting the date, announced with certainty that it was Santa Claus and his reindeer flying in the sky. Some others said that it was the star of Bethlehem that shone in the German sky again. There were hilarious comments too.

“Yuri Gagarin is coming home,” writes ToughGuyver. “Justin Bieber received a kick in the ass from Chuck Norris,” believes FidgetyStories.

Most rationally-minded Internet users immediately identified Santa as space garbage. After a while, it became known that it was the third stage of Soyuz TMA-03M rocket flying above Europe that night. The rockt was launched from Baikonur spaceport on December 21. On December 23, the rocket delivered three members of the new crew to the ISS.

“The fireball, which was observed over the territory of Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, at about 17:30 local time on December 24, was the third stage of the Soyuz rocket, which was passing through the atmosphere,” a statement posted on the website of the Royal Observatory of Belgium said.

The Strategic Command U.S. Armed Forces (USSTRATCOM) confirmed that the third stage of the Soyuz booster actually entered the Earth’s atmosphere on December 24 at 16:26 GMT in the area of the 49th degree north latitude and 7th degrees east longitude.

“The Dutch press found themselves confused because of the phenomenon, – amateur astronomer sattrackcam wrote. – The police said that they talked to NASA, and NASA told them that it was a meteor or a comet. And this is what they say in the media now. I do not know whom they talked to at NASA – maybe to a janitor,” the blogger wrote. The blogger also posted the diagram of the USSTRATCOM, which showed the calculated trajectory of the fall of the Soyuz TMA-03M stages.

The British press was no better. British reporters took the Soyuz booster, which flew to the ISS, for the Soyuz that failed to take Russia’s Meridian satellite into orbit. Soyuz-2.1b blasted off on Friday at 16:08, Moscow time. The rocket was supposed to launch the satellite of the Defense Ministry. At 16:30, the debris of the satellite, which most likely exploded in the atmosphere, crashed in the Ordynsky district of the Novosibirsk region. A couple of fragments crashed into a house and a barn in the village of Vagaitsevo.

The following video is just one of many that captured this spectacular sight–
Skywatching A Rocket Booster

The video is awesome–I can only imagine how it must have been to see this spectacle in person.  Star gazing is fun as well as exciting, but occasionally star gazers also like to view man-made spectacles, such as skywatching a rocket booster.  We have a vast universe to skywatch, so here’s hoping that 2012 will give us a variety of stargazing as well as skywatching spectacles!

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