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 Winter Hexagon or Winter Circle/Oval is an asterism appearing to be in the form of a hexagon with vertices at Rigel, Aldebaran, Capella, Pollux, Procyon, and Sirius. It is mostly upon the Northern Hemisphere’s celestial sphere!
Smaller and more regularly shaped is the Winter Triangle (also known as the Great Southern Triangle), an approximately equilateral triangle that shares two vertices (Sirius and Procyon) with the larger asterism. The third vertex is Betelgeuse, which lies near the center of the hexagon. These three stars are three of the ten brightest objects, as viewed from Earth, outside the Solar System. Betelgeuse is also particularly easy to locate, being a shoulder of Orion, which assists stargazers in finding the triangle.
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.
Auriga is located north of the celestial equator. Its name is the Latin word for “charioteer”, associating it with various mythological charioteers, including Erichthonius and Myrtilus. Auriga is most prominent in the northern Hemisphere winter sky, along with the five other constellations that have stars in the Winter Hexagon asterism. Auriga is half the size of the largest constellation, Hydra. Its brightest star, Capella, is an unusual multiple star system among the brightest stars in the night sky. Because of its position near the winter Milky Way, Auriga has many bright open clusters within its borders, including M36, M37, and M38. In addition, it has one prominent nebula, the Flaming Star Nebula, associated with the variable star AE Aurigae.
Canis Major, the “big dog”, boasts the brightest star in the night sky—Sirius! Also known as The Dog Star because of the constellation it resides in, Sirius is a massive, hot, blue star—and it’s right next door! One of the reasons Sirius is so bright is that it is so close to us—only 8.6 light-years away. It’s name comes from Greek, and means “glowing” or “scorcher”.
This little constellation with a name that means “little dog” has only 2 bright stars. One of them is Procyon—one of the brightest stars in the sky, and at only 11.5 light-years away, it’s one of our nearest neighbors in the galactic neighborhood. The name Procyon comes from Greek, and means “before the dog”, referring to the star Sirius, also known as The Dog Star in neighboring Canis Major, the “big dog”.
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.
Monoceros is a faint constellation nestled within the bright constellations Canis Major, Orion, and Canis Minor. The name monoceros comes from the greek “mono” meaning single, and “keras” meaning horn, in other words: unicorn. As a faint collection of stars, it was not established until the early 17th century, but may have been based off of an older constellation. Many modern constellations are descended from much older versions of themselves. You may find this faint constellation challenging to pick out in the sky.
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.
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.
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
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.
M5 is a bright, large globular cluster, 25,000 light-years away. It is 13 billion years old, 165 light-years in diameter, and may contain as many as half of a million stars.
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.
The Hyades is the nearest open star cluster to the Solar System at about 150 light-years away and thus, one of the best-studied of all star clusters. It consists of hundreds of stars sharing the same age, place of origin, chemical content, and motion through space. In the constellation Taurus, its brightest stars form a V shape along with the brighter red giant Aldebaran, which is not part of the cluster, but merely lying along our line of sight. The age of the Hyades is estimated to be about 625 million years. The cluster core, where stars are most densely packed, has a diameter of about 18 light-years.
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.
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.
M76 Little Dumbbell Nebula
M76: “The Little Dumbell”. This complex bubble of gas is the cloud of material ejected by a dying star. This ghostly glow has a fairly bright rectangular component with very dim outer loops. M76 is estimated to be more than 2,500 light years away; which means the bubble of gas is more about 1.2 light years across.
NGC 7662 Blue Snowball
NGC 7662: A planetary nebula nicknamed the “Blue Snowball.” It is a round cloud thrown off by a dying star, expanded to 1.6 lightyears in diameter. The expanding hot gas would have fried any planets orbiting the star.
51 Pegasi is a Sun-like star located about 50 lightyears from Earth. The 51 Pegasi system is home to the first exoplanet to ever be discovered, known as 51 Pegasi b or Dimidium. 51 Peg b is a large planet, about half the mass of Jupiter, orbiting very close to its parent star. The star 51 Pegasi can actually be seen with the naked eye under fairly dark skies.
Betelgeuse (α Orionis)
Betelgeuse (also called Alpha Orionis, α Orionis, or α Ori) is one of the brightest and largest known stars, though it is not one of the most massive. Located approximately 600 light-years from Earth, it is part of the constellation Orion and a vertex of the Winter Triangle asterism. Its large volume suggests that if it were at the center of the Solar System, it would wholly engulf Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, with its surface extending out to between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It is classified as a red supergiant and as a semiregular variable star—that is, it shows considerable periodicity as its light changes, but this periodicity is sometimes irregular.
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