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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
M6 The Butterfly Cluster
M6, the “Butterfly Cluster” is an open star cluster, located near the tail of Scorpius, next to another open cluter: M7. Containing a few hundred stars, it is smaller than neighbor cluster M7, at about 12 light-years across, and is 1,600 light-years away.
M7 Ptolemy Cluster
M7, also known as the “Ptolemy Cluster” is an open star cluster near the “stinger” of Scorpius. It is a group of suns in a gravitational dance, 25 light-years across and about 1,000 light-years away.
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.
The same side of the Moon always faces Earth because the lunar periods of rotation and revolution are the same. The surface of the moon is covered with impact craters and lava-filled basins. The Moon is about a fourth of Earth’s diameter and is about 30 Earth-diameters away.
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.
2.1 Meter Telescope and Robo-AO
The 2.1 Meter telescope has an 84″ primary mirror made of Pyrex, that weighs 3,000 lbs. The telescope became operational in 1964—one of the first operational reserach telescopes on the mountain. As part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) for many decades, it is an important part of the history of the mountain, and has made many important contributions to astronomical research. Despite its significant role within the National Observatory, by 2015 the time came to pass the telescope on to new tenants, so NOAO could focus its efforts on its newer, more advanced telescopes. The Robo-AO team stepped in, and installed their state-of-the-art robotic adaptive optics system on the 2.1 Meter. Adaptive optics allows telescopes to nearly eliminate the distorting effects of the atmosphere, greatly increasing the resolution of the telescope. Thanks to its new tenants, suite of instruments, and the dark skies of Kitt Peak, the 2.1-meter continues to make important contributions to astronomical research.
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.
McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope
The Mc Math Pierce Solar Telescope is actually 3 telescopes-in-one. It was, at the time of its completion in the 1960s, the largest solar telescope in the world. It will remain the largest until the completion of the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) in 2018. The Solar Telescope building looks like a large number 7 rotated onto its side. The vertical tower holds up 3 flat mirrors, which reflect sunlight down the diagonal shaft—a tunnel which extends 200 feet to the ground, and another 300 feet below ground, into the mountain. At the bottom of this tunnel are the three curved primary mirrors, which reflect the light of the Sun back up to about ground level, where the Sun comes into focus in the observing room.
The web page for the program in which you just participated is at
Nightly Observing Program. Most of the above images were taken as
the Overnight Telescope Observing Program. For more information on this unique experience please visit Overnight Telescope Observing Program.
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