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.
The Summer Triangle is an asterism involving a triangle drawn on the northern hemisphere’s celestial sphere. Its defining vertices are the stars Altair, Deneb, and Vega, which are the brightest stars in the constellations Aquila, Cygnus, and Lyra, respectively.
The brightest stars in the zodiac constellation Sagittarius form the shape of a teapot, complete with lid, handle, and spout. The plane of the Milky Way runs through Sagittarius, and just over the spout and lid of the teapot, making it look as if steam is rising from the spout of the teapot. The center of our Milky Way galaxy is in the direction of this starry steam.
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!
Andromeda was the princess of myth who was sacrificed by her parents to the sea monster Cetus. Fortunately, the hero Perseus came along to save her, and they were eventually married. The constellation Andromeda is host to the Andromeda Galaxy. Although there are smaller, dwarf galaxies that are closer to our galaxy, Andromeda is the closest big galaxy like our own; in fact, it’s bigger.
Aquarius, the water-carrier is said to resemble a figure carrying a jug of water. This aquatic constellation is one of the zodiac constellations, so the planets, Sun, and Moon move across its boundaries. Aquarius and other nearby aquatic-themed constellations make up a region of the sky known as “the Sea”.
Aries is a medium-brightness constellation, but with few stars and an indistinctive shape, which makes it more challenging to recognize.
This faint zodiac constellation’s name means “horned goat”, and is often depicted as not only a goat, but a sea-goat. It’s faint and hard to spot, but is roughly triangular-shaped. Zodiac constellations are the constellations along the ecliptic—the plane of the Solar system. This means planets pass through Capricornus from time to time.
Cassiopeia is widely recognized by its characteristic W shape, though it may look like an M, a 3, or a Σ depending on its orientation in the sky, and your position on Earth. However it’s oriented, once you’ve come to know its distinctive zig-zag pattern, you’ll spot it with ease. The plane of the Milky Way runs right through Cassiopeia, so it’s full of deep sky objects—in particular, a lot of open star clusters. Cassiopeia is named for the queen form Greek mythology who angered the sea god Poseidon when she boasted that her daughter Andromeda was more beautiful than his sea nymphs.
Cygnus is a large constellation, prominent in the Northern Hemisphere. Its name comes from the Greek for “Swan” and can be imagined as a giant, celestial swan, flying overhead, with its wings fully extended. The brightest star in Cygnus is Deneb, which is one of the brightest stars in the sky, and a whopping 800 lightyears away! Deneb is one point of an asterism called the Summer Triangle—three very bright stars that form a large triangle shape prominent in the Northern hemisphere summer skies.
Draco the dragon lies close to the North polar point of the celestial sphere. Thus, it is best viewed from north of the equator. This celestial dragon has a long serpentine shape that winds around the constellation Ursa Minor (better known by the name Little Dipper), which is far fainter than it’s companion, Ursa Major. The tail of Draco separates these two constellations.
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.
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.
This constellation is named for one of the most beloved creatures of Greek mythology—the winged horse named Pegasus. Within Pegasus is a well known asterism containing the 3 brightest stars in the constellation (+ 1 in Andromeda) called The Great Square of Pegasus. Alpheratz, the brightest star in the square, actually belongs to the constellation Andromeda, but in the past, this star had been considered to belong to both constellations.
Hero of Greek mythology, Perseus is the character who slayed Medusa and rescued the Princess Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus. This is why you will find the constellations Andromeda, Cetus, and Andromeda’s parents Cassiopeia and Cepheus, nearby each other in the sky. Perseus’s brightest star is called Mirfak (Arabic for elbow). The plane of the Milky Way runs through Perseus, so there are many deep sky objects to be found.
Pisces, the fish, is a faint, roughly V shaped constellation. It has been depicted as two fish tied to the ends of a rope (or cord) which is bent into a V shape. None of the stars in Pisces are particularly bright, or well known, but occasionally, bright planets pass through Pisces as they follow the path of the ecliptic (the plane of the Solar System) across the sky. This is why Pisces is well known despite being faint—it’s a zodiac constellation.
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.
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
M17 Swan Nebula
M17, also known as the “Swan Nebula,” or the “Omega Nebula” is a vast cloud of gas—mostly hydrogen, in which clumps of gas are contracting to make new stars. The nebula is 15 light-years across, and 5,500 light-years away.
M8 Lagoon Nebula
M8: The “Lagoon Nebula.” A huge cloud of gas and dust beside an open cluster of stars (NGC 6530). The Lagoon is a stellar nursery, 4,100 lightyears away, towards the galactic core.
M31 Andromeda Galaxy
The Andromeda Galaxy is our nearest major galactic neighbor. It is a spiral galaxy 2,500,000 light-years away, and has a diameter of 220,000 light-years. This galaxy contains as much material as 1.5 trillion suns.
M33 Triangulum Galaxy
The Triangulum Galaxy, like M31, is a prominent member of our local group of galaxies. It lies at a distance of 2,900,000 light-years away and is approximately 60,000 light-years across.
M15 is a distant globular cluster, 33,000 light-years away. It has 100,000 stars, and is one of the oldest known globular clusters, having formed about 12 billion years ago.
Near the top of the “teapot” in Sagittarius, M22 is one of the brightest globular star clusters in our sky, and therefore, was probably the first globular cluster ever discovered. Its 80,000 stars span a diameter of about 100 light-years.
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 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.
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.
The “Double Cluster” (NGC 884 and NGC 869) is a pair of two open star clusters that are a treat for binoculars and telescopes alike. Each is a congregation of many hundreds of stars, around 50-60 light-years in diameter. These clusters are both about 7,500 light-years away.
M57 Ring Nebula
M57: The Ring Nebula. This remnant of a dead star looks exactly as it’s name says – a ring or doughnut shape cloud of gas. The nebula is about 2.6 lightyears across and lies about 2,300 lightyears away.
Albireo (β Cyg)
Named long before anyone knew it was more than one star, Albireo (β Cygni) comprises of a set of stars marking the beak of Cygnus, the swan. Through a telescope, we see two components shining in pale, but noticeably contrasting colors: orange and blue. The difference in color is due to the stars’ difference in temperature of over 9000°C! The brighter orange component, Albireo A, is actually a true binary system, though we can’t resolve two stars in the telescope. The fainter blue component, Albireo B, may be only passing by, and not gravitationally interacting with Albireo A at all. Albireo is about 430 light-years 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.
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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