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.
Teapot and Teaspoon
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. If you look above the handle of the teapot, you might spot a teaspoon.
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.
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.
King Cepheus from Greek mythology was husband to Cassiopeia and father of Andromeda. The brightest stars in the constellation Cepheus seem to form a kind of crooked house, with the roof pointing to the North. this constellation is very near the Celestial North Pole, so it’s not visible from the Southern Hemisphere. The star Delta Cephei was the first ever identified cepheid variable star, a very important kind of variable stars that helps astronomers determine distances to nearby galaxies.
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.
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.
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”.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
M2 is a globular star cluster containing roughly 150,000 stars, and is located about 35,000 light-years away. It has a diameter of 170 light-years, making it one of the largest known clusters by volume.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks for joining us on the mountain tonight! Y’all have transitioned into astronomers now! Cheers!
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Nightly Observing Program. Most of the above images were taken as
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