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.
The brightest star in Aquila is Altair—one of the brightest starts in the summer sky, and a point of The Summer Triangle. The name aquila is latin for eagle, and the brightest stars in this constellation do seem similar to the shaape of an eagle standing upright with its wings spread out at its sides. Altair is at the head, or more precisely, the eye of the eagle. In Greek mythology, Aquila carried Zeus’s thunderbolts.
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.
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
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.
M20 Trifid Nebula
M20, the “Trifid Nebula” gets its nickname from the dark dust lanes that seem to split it into three parts. It is a region of star formation—a giant cloud of gas, roughly 30 light-years across, and about 5,200 light-years away.
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.
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.
We also saw M12, which is a different globular cluster in the constellation Ophiuchus!
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.
M11 Wild Duck Cluster
M11 is an open star cluster also known as the “Wild Duck Cluster,” due to its purported prominant V-shape, reminiscent of a flock of wild ducks in flight. This open cluster is 20 light-years in diameter and 6,200 light-years away.
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.
M27 Dumbbell Nebula
M27: The “Dumbbell Nebula” is the ghost of a star; the ejected outer shell of gas is of gas is still illuminated by the star’s white-hot core. Hershel named this type this type of object a “planetary” nebula, just because it looks round.
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 Galilean Moons
Jupiter’s four largest moons are known as the Galilean Moons, named for Galileo, who was the first astronomer to study them in depth and determine that they were orbiting Jupiter. Their individual names are Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto—in orbital order from closest to Jupiter to furthest out. Ganymede is the largest of these four moons, and is the largest moon in our Solar System. Io, the closest of these four moons to Jupiter, is the most volcanic world in our Solar System. Io is home to hundreds of active volcanos. Its neighbor, and the next furthest from Jupiter of the four, Europa, is a dramatic contrast to Io with its icy surface. Europa is covered by water, which is frozen solid at the surface. The furthest our of the four, Callisto is a fascinating world in our Solar System because it is so utterly geologically dead. Without weather, moonquakes, volcanism, or any other surface-altering processes, Callisto’s surface is billions of years old—a kind of record of the history of the Solar System.
61 Cygni is a binary star system in the constellation Cygnus consisting of a pair of K-type stars, similar to each other in radius, mass, and brightness. The pair orbit each other in a period of about 659 years. This binary system can be seen with the naked eye in areas with low light pollution. 61 Cygni became of interest to astronomers in the early 19th century when its large proper motion was discovered—meaning its position moves slightly respective to the other stars around it. 61 Cygni currently has the highest proper motion among naked-eye visible stars. The distance to stars with large proper motion can be measured using the parallax method, and 61 Cygni became one of the first stars to have its distance measured.
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.
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