Kitt Peak Nightly Observing Program
Splendors of the Universe on YOUR Night!
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The Big Dipper (also known as the Plough) is an asterism consisting of the seven brightest stars of the constellation Ursa Major. Four define a “bowl” or “body” and three define a “handle” or “head”. It is recognized as a distinct grouping in many cultures. The North Star (Polaris), the current northern pole star and the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper, can be located by extending an imaginary line from Big Dipper star Merak (β) through Dubhe (α). This makes it useful in celestial navigation.
The Engagement Ring: Through binoculars, the North Star (Polaris) seems to be the brightest on a small ring of stars. Not a constellation or cluster, this asterism looks like a diamond engagement ring on which Polaris shines brightly as the diamond.
Constellation Ursa Minor is colloquially known in the US as the Little Dipper, because its seven brightest stars seem to form the shape of a dipper (ladle or scoop). The star at the end of the dipper handle is Polaris, the North Star. Polaris can also be found by following a line through two stars in Ursa Major—Alpha and Beta Ursae Majoris—that form the end of the ‘bowl’ of the Big Dipper, for 30 degrees (three upright fists at arms’ length) across the night sky.
The Winter Hexagon or Winter Circle/Oval is an asterism appearing to be in the form of a hexagon with vertices at Rigel, Aldebaran, Capella, Pollux, Procyon, and Sirius. It is mostly upon the Northern Hemisphere’s celestial sphere!
Auriga is located north of the celestial equator. Its name is the Latin word for “charioteer”, associating it with various mythological charioteers, including Erichthonius and Myrtilus. Auriga is most prominent in the northern Hemisphere winter sky, along with the five other constellations that have stars in the Winter Hexagon asterism. Auriga is half the size of the largest constellation, Hydra. Its brightest star, Capella, is an unusual multiple star system among the brightest stars in the night sky. Because of its position near the winter Milky Way, Auriga has many bright open clusters within its borders, including M36, M37, and M38. In addition, it has one prominent nebula, the Flaming Star Nebula, associated with the variable star AE Aurigae.
Boötes has a funny name. Pronounced boh-OH-deez, this constellation’s name means sheepherder, or herdsman. It looks kind of like a kite, or a shoe. Some remember that “Boötes look like a boot” to help pick it out in the sky.
Cancer is one of the zodiac constellations, which means the ecliptic—or plane of the Solar System, runs through it. The Sun, Moon, and planets move along the ecliptic, and therefore, you can sometimes find these Solar System objects in Cancer. Cancer is a medium-sized medium-brightness constellation, located between Gemini and Leo along the ecliptic. You can find the notable open star cluster Beehive cluster (also known as M44 or Praesepe) within Cancer. In greek mythology, cancer was a crab that, under the instruction of Hera, latched onto Hercules’s feet while he was battling Hydra. Hercules and Hydra are also constellations, and Hydra borders Cancer.
Canis Major, the “big dog”, boasts the brightest star in the night sky—Sirius! Also known as The Dog Star because of the constellation it resides in, Sirius is a massive, hot, blue star—and it’s right next door! One of the reasons Sirius is so bright is that it is so close to us—only 8.6 light-years away. It’s name comes from Greek, and means “glowing” or “scorcher”.
This little constellation with a name that means “little dog” has only 2 bright stars. One of them is Procyon—one of the brightest stars in the sky, and at only 11.5 light-years away, it’s one of our nearest neighbors in the galactic neighborhood. The name Procyon comes from Greek, and means “before the dog”, referring to the star Sirius, also known as The Dog Star in neighboring Canis Major, the “big dog”.
Corona Borealis, or “Northern Crown”, is a tiara-shaped, or C-shaped constellation. Its brightest star, called Alphecca, or Gemma, shines like the crown jewel centerpiece of a brilliant celestial tiara. It’s southern counterpart, Corona Australis, or “Southern Crown” lies just south of the ecliptic.
Gemini is a well known zodiac constellation. Zodiac constellations line up with the plane of the Solar System in our sky, an intersection known as the ecliptic. This means you will find planets passing through Gemini from time to time. Gemini is also grazed by the plane of the Milky Way, and therefore has a few deep sky objects within its boundaries. Gemini’s brightest stars get their names from twins Castor and Pollux of Greek mythology.
Hercules is named for the famous hero of Greek mythology by the same name. It’s one of the larger constellations, but its stars are of only moderate brightness. The Keystone is a well known trapezoid-shaped asterism (association of stars that are not an official constellation) within Hercules. This constellation is host to M13 (Messier 13), a globular star cluster. Otherwise known as the Hercules Globular Cluster, M13 is home to 300,000 stars, and is just over 22,000 light-years away.
Leo is a fairly well known constellation, because the plane of the Solar System runs through it. Such constellations are called Zodiac Constellations. Leo has some notable, bright stars, in it to boot. The brightest of these, Regulus is at the bottom of a series of stars arrayed in the form of a sickle, or a backwards question mark. This constellation does look more or less like the side profile of a lion lying on the ground, with its head up.
Ursa Major, or, the Big Bear, is one of the best known and most well recognized constellations, but you might know it by a different name. Contained within the boundaries of the constellation Ursa Major is the Big Dipper, which is not a true constellation, but an asterism. The Big Dipper is useful for finding both the North Star and the bright star Arcturus. Follow the curve of the handle to “arc to Arcturus” and use to two stars in the dipper opposite the handle to point to the North Star.
Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, is much fainter than it’s companion the Big Bear, Ursa Major. Within Ursa Minor is the well known asterism The Little Dipper. The end of the tail of the bear, or the end of the handle of the dipper, is a star called Polaris—the Pole Star, or the North Star. This special star happens to sit at the point where the Earth’s axis of rotation intersects the sky
Virgo’s brightest star Spica is found by following the curve of the handle of the Big Dipper (“arc to Arcturus, in Boötes, then spike to Spica”).The rest of the constellation isn’t particularly bright, but Virgo lies along the ecliptic—the plane of the Solar System, so bright planets pass through occasionally.
M13 Hercules Globular
M13, the “Great Globular Cluster in Hercules” was first discovered by Edmund Halley in 1714, and later catalogued by Charles Messier in 1764. It contains 300,000 stars, and is 22,000 light-years away. Light would need over a century to traverse its diameter.
M5 is a bright, large globular cluster, 25,000 light-years away. It is 13 billion years old, 165 light-years in diameter, and may contain as many as half of a million stars.
The ecliptic is a path in the sky, forming a great circle around the Earth, which the Sun and other planets of the Solar System move along. It is formed where the plane of the Solar System intersects with the Earth’s sky.
Quick streaks of light in the sky called meteors, shooting stars, or falling stars are not stars at all: they are small bits of rock or iron that heat up, glow, and vaporize upon entering the Earth’s atmosphere. When the Earth encounters a clump of many of these particles, we see a meteor shower lasting hours or days.
That clumpy band of light is evidence that we live in a disk-shaped galaxy. Its pale glow is light from about 200 billion suns!
Human technology! There are almost 500 of these in Low Earth Orbit (we can’t see the higher ones). We see these little “moving stars” because they reflect sunlight.
Zodiacal light is the faint, smooth glow marking the ecliptic (the plane of the solar system). It is sunlight scattered off of gas and dust that orbits the Sun. This is a rare sight, only visible under very dark skies, and best viewed early in the year when the Ecliptic is higher above the horizon.
M35 is an open star cluster of over 300 stars. It lies at a distance of 2,800 light-years from Earth, near the foot of Castor, one of the Gemini twins. Tiny nearby cluster NGC 2158 is in the same field of view.
M44 The Beehive
M44, the “Beehive Cluster,” and also known as “Praesepe,” is a large, bright, diffuse open star cluster containing about 400 stars. It lies fairly close, at a distance of under 600 light-years.
M97 (Owl Nebula)
Jupiter is the largest planet in the Solar System, a “gas giant” 11 Earth-diameters across. Its atmosphere contains the Great Red Spot, a long-lived storm 2-3 times the size of the Earth. The 4 large Galilean satellites and at least 63 smaller moons orbit Jupiter.
Betelgeuse (α Orionis)
Betelgeuse (also called Alpha Orionis, α Orionis, or α Ori) is one of the brightest and largest known stars, though it is not one of the most massive. Located approximately 600 light-years from Earth, it is part of the constellation Orion and a vertex of the Winter Triangle asterism. Its large volume suggests that if it were at the center of the Solar System, it would wholly engulf Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, with its surface extending out to between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It is classified as a red supergiant and as a semiregular variable star—that is, it shows considerable periodicity as its light changes, but this periodicity is sometimes irregular.
Castor (α Gem)
Castor (α Geminorum) is a multiple star in the constellation Gemini, the twins. Through the telescope, a close pair of bright white stars and a more distant red dwarf companion are visible, but these are each spectroscopic binaries, making Castor a six-star system. Castor is about 50 light-years away. The bright components orbit each other with a period of about 450 years.
Mizar & Alcor
In the handle of the Big Dipper, Mizar & Alcor (ζ & 80 Ursae Majoris) or the “Horse & Rider” form a naked-eye double star. They are traveling through space together about 80 light-years away from us, separated by about a light-year. However, it is unknown if they are actually gravitationally bound to each other. A telescope splits Mizar itself into two stars, but these both are again doubles, bringing the total in this system to six.
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