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.
Also called Cr 399, or Brocchi’s Cluster, this group of stars might remind you of a closet. The stars that make up The Coarhanger are not a part of a cluster, but instead, have randomly arranged themselves in a coathanger-like shape. Chaotic stellar orbital motion can sometimes make interesting shapes!
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.
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.
Libra is a fainter constellation, but easy enough to spot, once you’re familiar with the shape. It lies along the ecliptic (the plane of the Solar System), so planets pass through now and then. The names of the two brightest stars of Libra, which are Zubeneschamali and Zubenelgenubi, come form Arabic, and mean “the northern claw”, and “the southern claw”, respectively. Libra was once considered to be part of the constellation Scorpius, the scorpion. Zubeneschamali and Zubenelgenubi were seen as the claws of the scorpion.
Lyra is a small, but notable constellation. It is host to Vega—the fifth brightest star in the sky (or sixth, counting the Sun). Not far from Vega is Messier object 57—the Ring Nebula, which is perhaps the best known planetary nebula in our sky. Lyra’s name is Greek for lyre—a kind of harp.
Sagittarius, the archer, is often depicted as a centaur wielding a bow and arrow. Within Sagittarius, is a fairly recognizable teapot shape known to many simply as The Teapot (the teapot is not a true constellation, but an asterism). The plane of the Milky Way passes through Sagittarius, and in fact, the center of the Milky Way is in the direction of the westernmost edge of this constellation—just above the spout of The Teapot. With the plane of the Milky Way passing through, there are a plethora of deep sky objects to be found in Sagittarius.
Both the plane of the Solar System (called the ecliptic) and the plane of the Milky Way pass through Scorpius—the scorpion. As a result, you can find both the planets of our Solar System (which move along the ecliptic), and many kinds of deep sky objects in this constellation. Scorpius’s brightest star, Antares, is also known as the Heart of the Scorpion, because of it’s reddish hue and location in the chest of the scorpion. Being both red in color, and near the ecliptic, Antares is a rival of sorts to the planet Mars, which is also reddish in color, and occasionally passes through Scorpius. The name Antares means “opposing Mars”.
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.
M51 Whirlpool Galaxy
M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, gets its name from its bright and prominent spiral arms. It lies at a distance of 23 million light-years away. It also has a smaller, companion galaxy (NGC 5195). The two galaxies are one of the best examples of interacting galaxies.
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.
The twinkling of star light is a beautiful effect of the Earth’s atmosphere. As light passes through our atmosphere, its path is deviated (refracted) multiple times before reaching the ground. Stars that are near to the horizon will scintillate much more than stars high overhead since you are looking through more air (often the refracted light will display individual colors). In space, stars would not twinkle at all. Astronomers would like it if they could control the effects of this troubling twinkle.
The Green Flash
What we call “The Green Flash” is not so much a flash as a flicker of green color, seen on the top of the sun as it sets (or rises). This rare event needs just the right atmospheric conditions.
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.
Double Double (ε Lyr)
The Double-Double (ε Lyrae) looks like two stars in binoculars, but a good telescope shows that both of these two are themselves binaries. However, there may be as many as ten stars in this system! The distant pairs are about 0.16 light-year apart and take about half a million years to orbit one another. The Double-Double is about 160 light-years from Earth.
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.
3.5 Meter WIYN Telescope
The WIYN Observatory is owned and operated by the WIYN Consortium, which consists of the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), the University of Missouri, and Purdue University. This partnership between public and private universities and NOAO was the first of its kind. The telescope incorporates many technological breakthroughs including active optics hardware on the back of the primary mirror, which shapes the mirror perfectly, ensuring the telescope is focused precisely. The small, lightweight dome is well ventilated to follow nighttime ambient temperature. Instruments attached to the telescope allow WIYN to gather data and capture vivid astronomical images routinely of sub-arc second quality. The total moving weight of the WIYN telescope and its instruments is 35 tons. WIYN has earned a reputation in particular for its excellent image quality that is now available over a wider field than ever before through the addition of the One Degree Imager optical camera.
Mayall 4 Meter Telescope
The Mayall 4 Meter Telescope was, at the time it was built, one of the largest telescopes in the world. Today, its mirror—which weighs 15 tons—is relatively small next to the mirrors of the world’s largest telescopes. Completed in the mid-’70s, the telescope is housed in an 18-story tall dome, which is designed to withstand hurricane force winds. A blue equatorial horseshoe mount helps the telescope point and track the sky. A new instrument called DESI (Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument) will soon be installed on the 4-meter. Once installed, DESI will take spectra of millions of the most distant galaxies and quasars, which astronomers will use to study the effect of dark energy on the expansion of the universe.
The Mayall 4 Meter is named for Nicholas U. Mayall, a former director of Kitt Peak National Observatory who oversaw the building of the telescope.
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