Best Views of Iconic Summer Triangle

Written by The Night Sky Guy on July 1, 2015 – 6:01 pm -

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Skychart showing the location of the Summer Triangle and its stars and constellations in the July evening sky. Credit: A.Fazekas/SkySafari

While watching fireworks on Independence Day–Saturday, July 4–look for the iconic Summer Triangle riding high in the southern, late night sky.

Not a constellation by itself, the Summer Triangle offers a great three-for-one deal for backyard stargazers. The individual stars not only anchor the triangle but also act as a guide to three separate constellations.

Leading off the triangle at the top is the most brilliant of the group, Vega, which is part of the constellation Lyra, the harp. This powerhouse star, located about 25 light-years away, is twice the size of our sun and burns 50 times brighter. Not surprisingly, it ranks as the fifth brightest star in the entire sky.

The next point of the triangle is Altair, the eye of Aquila, the eagle. It’s the faintest of the three despite being the closest–only 17 light-years distant. According to romantic Chinese legend, Altair is a young man who is in love with the beautiful princess, Vega. Unfortunately, they are destined to be separated forever by the fast flowing river that is the Milky Way.

Finally, the lowest point in this celestial triangle is marked by Deneb, the tail of Cygnus, the swan. But don’t be fooled by its serene appearance. This monster is about 200 times the size of our sun and burns an astonishing 100,000 times brighter, making Vega seem puny by comparison.


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Best Sights in the Sky This Week

Written by The Night Sky Guy on June 8, 2015 – 3:23 pm -

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Credit: NASA

From catching the moon dance with ice giants, Venus gliding by a stunning star cluster, to one of the largest asteroids offering its best views for 2015, there is something for everyone in the sky this week.

Over the next few days there are a number celestial events that are within reach of the backyard sky-watcher. While a few need binoculars and small telescopes, most can be seen with nothing more than unaided eyes.

Check out my weekly column over at National Geographic where you will find a detailed viewer’s guide and finder star charts.


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Catch Venus Now in the Sky

Written by The Night Sky Guy on June 1, 2015 – 6:17 pm -

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View of Venus in the low western sky after sunset in June. Credit: A.Fazekas/SkySafari

Look for the beacon of Venus about a half-hour after sunset on Saturday, June 6, above the southwest horizon.

The second-to-innermost planet, affectionately called the ‘evening star,’ will today appear at its farthest point from the sun, also called its greatest elongation. Sitting some 45 degrees east of the sun, Venus will shine at -4.4 magnitude, making it about 10 times brighter than Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, visible to its upper left.

After Saturday, Venus will sink closer to the horizon and the sun each day. By August 10th it will disappear in the glare of the sun and will reappear in the morning sky.

While Venus appears impressive to the naked eye all summer long, through even small telescopes, high magnification reveals the planet to be half-lit, much like a miniature quarter moon—a sight worth enjoying.

For more skywatching events check out my weekly National Geographic viewer’s guide.


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Asteroid Herculina Joins Celestial Snake

Written by The Night Sky Guy on May 15, 2015 – 11:17 am -

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After nightfall on Sunday, May 17 look towards the southeast for asteroid 532 Herculina as it reaches its biggest and brightest in our skies for the year.  The 9th magnitude space rock is now gliding through the backdrop of stars within the constellation Serpens, the snake between the bright orange-colorer star Arcturus, to its north, and yellow-hued Saturn to its south.

Herculina is currently 3 degrees southeast of the the  faint naked-eye, 3.7th magnitude star Epsilon Serpentis which should make it easier to hunt down with a small backyard telescope.

This 140 mile-wide (230 km) space rock is in the top 20 of the largest asteroids known to reside in the main belt of asteroids between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.


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Sky Fireworks for Earth Day

Written by The Night Sky Guy on April 22, 2015 – 4:56 pm -

Look to the northeast near the constellation Lyra to watch the Lyrid meteor shower starting at about 11pm on Wednesday, April 22.

Look to the northeast near the constellation Lyra to watch the Lyrid meteor shower starting at about 11pm on Wednesday, April 22.

Just in time to celebrate Earth Day, the Lyrid meteor shower comes into full swing! Stay up late on the night of Wednesday, April 22 and witness shooting stars that will seem to come from the northeast sky.

The peak of this light show will be after 11 pm and really kick in after midnight as the moon sets and leave behind dark skies. Enjoy 15 – 20 meteors per hour in areas outside the light dome of the city until the morning hours of Thursday.

For information about this celestial event and more, check out my National Geographic blog – StarStruck.


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A Crescent, a Planet, a Cluster and a Star

Written by The Night Sky Guy on April 20, 2015 – 5:07 pm -

Look toward the western horizon about an hour after sunset to view four spectacular celestial objects Monday, April 20.

Look toward the western horizon about an hour after sunset to view four spectacular celestial objects Monday, April 20.

A crescent moon marks the corner of a giant quadrilateral which is also held down by bright-white Venus, orange Aldebaran and the Pleiades.

About and hour after sunset, on Monday, April 20, look on the western horizon as twilight ends. The slowly darkening sky will make the Seven Sisters difficult to spy, however, with binocular, you should be able to hunt down this 300 light year distant star cluster. Happy Hunting!

For more information about this event and more, check out my National Geographic blog.


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Sisters Meets Goddess

Written by The Night Sky Guy on April 10, 2015 – 10:20 pm -

Venus meets the Pleiades Cluster low in the horizon just after dusk on Saturday, April 11.

Venus meets the Pleiades Cluster low in the horizon just after dusk on Saturday, April 11.

As the sun settles in for the night, on Saturday, April 11 the brightest “star” in the sky is the planet Venus which appears low on the western horizon. Very close to Earth’s sister planet is the Pleiades star cluster (M45), a tight stellar grouping that can looks like a scattering of diamonds through binoculars.

The nearby setting sun will make it difficult to see this cluster, but this 300-light-year distant group of young stars will slowly come in view as the darkness covers the sky. One of the closest clusters our planet, the Seven Sisters will appear only 2.5 degrees to the right of 9.4-light-minute-distant Venus.

For more information about this celestial event and others, check out my National Geographic blog – StarStruck.


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Sagittarius Nova Re-Awakens

Written by The Night Sky Guy on April 7, 2015 – 9:09 pm -

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Backyard astronomers are reporting that an exploding star is quickly coming back to life and brightening again in the southern constellation of Sagittarius the Archer.

First spotted by Australian sky-watcher John Seach on Sunday, March 15, the exploding star shot up in brightness a couple of weeks ago, then faded back down to magnitude 6, just past the limit for viewing by the unaided eye from a dark location. But in the past week and half, new observations show that the star has brightened again to magnitude 4.5—making it just barely visible to the naked eye from city suburbs and an easy target from dark locations.

Read the rest of my National Geographic Viewer’s Guide for this week.


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Watch Moon Turn Red

Written by The Night Sky Guy on April 3, 2015 – 9:59 pm -

A lunar disappearing act—the grand sky event of the week—occurs on the morning of Saturday, April 4, and will be visible from the western half of North America.
The moon will begin to enter Earth’s dark shadow at 3:16 a.m. PDT, when the first bite out of the moon’s disk becomes evident. The most dramatic part of the show, when the lunar disk takes on a dramatic orange-red hue, begins at 4:58 a.m. PDT, and this totality will last less than five minutes.
Moon turns blood red on Saturday morning starting at 3:16am PDT. Best seen in western North America. Photo: Sky & Telescope / Johnny Horne

Moon turns blood red on Saturday morning starting at 3:16am PDT. Best seen in western North America. Photo: Sky & Telescope / Johnny Horne

A lunar disappearing act—the grand sky event of the week—occurs on the morning of Saturday, April 4, and will be visible from the western half of North America.

The moon will begin to enter Earth’s dark shadow at 3:16 a.m. PDT, when the first bite out of the moon’s disk becomes evident. The most dramatic part of the show, when the lunar disk takes on a dramatic orange-red hue, begins at 4:58 a.m. PDT, and this totality will last less than five minutes.

If you can’t catch the show due to location or weather restrictions, try tuning into a LIVE broadcast of the event at The Virtual Telescope.

Check out other celestial events at my National Geographic blog StarStruck.


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Catch a Nova

Written by The Night Sky Guy on March 17, 2015 – 1:34 pm -

Find the Teapot asterism in the constellation Sagittarius, peak under its lid to see an active nova.

Find the Teapot asterism in the constellation Sagittarius, peak under its lid to see an active nova.

This weekend a nova was identified in the Sagitarius constellation, thanks to the eagle eyes of John Seach of Australia.

Named the un-glamerous PNV J18365700-2855420, this star was never before seen until star-gazer Seach saw it brighten to magnitude 6.3. This site was verified by Japanese amateur astronomers and confirmed that it is intensifying now to 5.3 magnitude, making it barely visible to the naked eye from a dark location, but easily with binoculars. Scientists will not know how bright it will get, but keen observation over the next few days will tell a better story.

Novae are the violent explosions of the outer atmosphere of tiny white dwarf stars. These Earth-size, hot cores of long-dead sunlike stars have a companion star from which they gravitationally siphon off gases. Over time, this matter accumulates on the surface of the white dwarf. When the star reaches critical temperature, it ignites in a massive thermonuclear explosion that can be seen thousands of light-years away.

To view this intriguing event, skywatchers will need to rise early in the Northern Hemisphere and look low on the southeastern horizon. Look for the constellation Sagittarius, which contains an asterism called the Teapot. Once found, train binoculars to just under the triangle teapot lid. Good Luck!

For more information about this or other celestial events, visit my National Geographic column StarStruck.


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