Kitt Peak Nightly Observing Program
Splendors of the Universe on YOUR Night!
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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.
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.
Aries is a medium-brightness constellation, but with few stars and an indistinctive shape, which makes it more challenging to recognize.
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.
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.
Orion is a famous constellation, well known especially for the Belt of Orion—three stars in a line at what seems to be the waist of a human figure. The bright stars Rigel and Betelgeuse are two of the brightest stars in the sky. Between the Belt and Rigel you can see the Orion Nebula—the closest star forming region to our Solar System. A beautiful object in a telescope or binoculars, you can also just make out the nebula naked-eye.
Sculptor is a faint constellation best seen from the Southern Hemisphere. The Sculptor Galaxy lies just within the northern boundary of the constellation—an exciting binocular or telescope object almost visible to the naked eye.
You can look to Taurus, the bull, to find the two closest open star clusters to our Solar System. The Pleiades (or, Seven Sisters) is the second closest at 444 light-years away. It’s an obvious cluster to even the naked eye. The Pleiades is named for the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione of Greek Mythology. To the left of the pleiades, the Hyades (siblings to the Pleiades in mythology) is the closest open star cluster to Earth at 153 light-years away. The Hyades has a characteristic V shape to help identify it.
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
M42 The Orion Nebula
M42, the Orion Nebula is a region of star formation about 1,300 light-years away—the closest to our Solar System. It is roughly 30 light-years across, and contains enough material to make 2,000 stars the size of our sun.
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.
NGC 253 Sculptor Galaxy
Ngc 253: The “Silver Dollar Galaxy”. A lumpy, dusty, nearly-edge-on spiral galaxy just a bit smaller than the Milky Way. At least 75 billion solar masses, eleven million lightyears from here. It was discovered by Caroline Hershel in 1783.
Kitt Peak has an abundance of clear nights, but that doesn’t mean the clouds never move in. We hope you’ll join us again another time when our dark mountain skies are at their best!
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.
M103 is one of many open star clusters in the constellation Cassiopeia. At a distance of about 10,000 lightyears, this is one of the most distant open star clusters known. The apparent brightest star in the cluster is not actually a member of the cluster at all, but actually a foreground star. The brightest star in the cluster is a red giant star; it has a redish orange tinge.
M45 The Pleiades
M45, the “Pleiades,” is a bright, nearby star cluster, in the last stages of star formation. About seven stars stand out as the brightest in the cluster, and is why the cluster is also known as the “Seven Sisters,” alluding to the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters from Greek mythology. In Japanese, the cluster is known as “スバル,” “Subaru,” and is featured as the logo of the automobile manufacturer of the same name. The Pleiades lies about 440 light-years away and is a very young (for an open star cluster) 100 million years old.
Messier 52 is an open star cluster, which was discovered in 1774 by Charles Messier. The density near the center is about 3 stars per cubic parsec. The cluster is only 35 million years old—very young for stars. The distance of this cluster from our Solar System is not very well known; estimates range between 3,000 and 7,000 light-years. M52 can be seen as a nebulous patch in a good pair of binoculars or a small telescope. In larger telescopes, it appears as a fine, rich, compressed cluster of faint stars, often described as of fan or “V” shape. M52 can be found by extending the line from Alpha over Beta Cassiopeiae by 6 1/2 degrees to the NW to 5th mag 4 Cassiopeiae; M52 is roughly 1 degree south and slightly west of this star.
NGC 2392 Eskimo Nebula
NGC 2392: The “Eskimo Nebula.” A round cloud of gas ejected by a dying star. Since this sort of object always appears round, William Hershel named them “planetary nebulae” (he discovered this one in 1787).
Almach (γ And)
Almach (γ Andromedae) appears as a golden and blue double star in small telescopes. The blue star itself is actually three stars, too close together to see as individuals, making Almach a four-star system. It is about 350 light-years away, and orbits with a period of several thousand years.
Mesarthim (γ Arietis)
Mesarthim is one of the brighter stars making up the constellation Aries—the ram. It is actually a pair of stars—a double star—204 light-years away. It’s component stars are of similar brightness and both white. They are separated by about 500 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun, and take approximately 5,000 years to orbit each other. The apparent (slightly) dimmer star, Gamma-1, is actually the hotter and more luminous star. Much of its light is ultraviolet, and invisible to human eyes. The apparent (slightly) brighter star, Gamma-2, has some interesting characteristics that suggest not only that it may be evolving from a dwarf to a subgiant, but also that it is highly magnetized.
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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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