Archive for September 2nd, 2009

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Mission 6: Not Everyone’s Pot of Tea

September 2, 2009

Mission Objectives: Constellation, Globular Cluster, Open Cluster, Nebula

Equipment: Naked eye, Binoculars, Telescope

Required Time: 5 minutes

Related Missions: Eye of the Scorpion

Instructions: Go outside shortly after dark, face south, find Antares, and to the left/east of Scorpio, look for a teapot.

Sagittarius with lines

Yes, really. The heart of Sagittarius, allegedly the Archer, looks strikingly like a teapot. Which, I think we can all agree, is a considerably less aggressive incarnation. Once you’ve spotted it, it will be hard to avoid seeing it any time you look toward that part of the sky. It’s especially easy if you can trace Scorpio–it looks like the teapot is about to pour on the scorpion’s tail. Here’s the plain version so you can practice:

Sagittarius sans lines

Sagittarius is the thick of the summer Milky Way and contains the core of the galaxy. As a result, it is just loaded with deep sky objects (DSOs)–it hosts 15 of the 110 Messier objects, more than any other constellation. It has star clusters in its hair and hanging out of its pockets. Some are open clusters, the result of relatively recent bouts of star formation (“relatively recent” here means “within the last half-billion years or so”), but many are globular clusters or “globs”, spherical micro-galaxies of up to a million stars apiece that orbit the core of the Milky Way in an extended halo.

Sagittarius also has a stunning emission nebula, M8 or the Lagoon Nebula, which is second only to the awesome Orion Nebula (M42) for Northern Hemisphere observers. Like the Orion Nebula, the Lagoon is a site of active star formation; it is lit by the young stars it contains, and more are forming even as you read this (the Lagoon Nebula is only 4100 light years away, and it is highly unlikely that the multi-million-year process of star formation has suddenly stopped since the pyramids went up).

Sagittarius DSOs

With a clear southern sky and a pair of binoculars–which have hopefully by now been warmed ever so slightly by the brilliant light of Jupiter–you can see three beautiful DSOs that illustrate three stages in the life cycle of stars and of the galaxy itself.

Globular cluster M22 is a fuzzy ball above and to the left of the teapot–I imagine it forming a right angle with the northeastern stars of the teapot lid, as shown above. Through a telescope of less than about 6 inches aperture it will likely remain a fairly fuzzy ball, but pouring on more aperture and magnification will resolve it into something approaching this (image from Wikipedia):

M22HunterWilsonM22 is full of very old main sequence stars, and astronomers estimate its age at about 12 billion years, meaning that it has been around for more than 90% of the history of the universe. Its stars are Population II, which means that they formed shortly after the universe itself, when there had been little time for successive waves of novae and supernovae to seed the universe with heavy elements. No one knows if the Population II stars have planets; if they do, they are probably gas giants and any solid bodies are probably icy and metal-poor. If life arose in this or any globular cluster, it is hard to imagine how any of it could have become starfaring or even radio-using with few or no metals. Nobody knew this back in 1974, when Arecibo sent a “Hey, how are ya?” radio message to the globular cluster M13. M13 was chosen because it is nearby and has tons of stars; somewhat ironically, those stars are the least likely to have civilizations capable of receiving the message or responding (which may be a good thing, if you take a pessimistic view of the likely intentions of technologically superior species).

Closer to us in time of origin is the open cluster M7. It seems to me to form the right wing of an extended kite shape that is otherwise made up of the three stars that form the teapot spout. This bright ball of about 80 stars is about a thousand light years away and its oldest members are about 220 million years old–about 2% the age of those in M22. It is sobering to realize that these cosmic youngsters formed about the time that the first mammals and the first dinosaurs were getting up and running in the Late Triassic Period.

Youngest of all is M8, the aforementioned Lagoon Nebula, which sits right above the spout of the teapot like a tiny puff of steam. In cosmic terms, we’re catching M8 in the act of giving birth. A few tens of millions of years ago it was just another cloud of cosmic flotsam and probably neither bright nor particular pretty. Now it is lit from within, like a paper lantern, by its stellar offspring. In another 200 million years, M8 may look like M7 does today, with all of its ethereal clouds of gas and dust either consumed or blown away by the brash young stars that are even now forming at its heart.

So grab those binos and go see the universe–a stellar nursery (M8), primary school (M7), and retirement community (M22) await. If Jupiter blew your socks off, have a look at M22 and remember that you are looking at stars that are almost three times as old as our solar system. How often do  you get to see something 12 billion years old? Not often, I’ll wager!

…or rather, see these things if you can. There’s a reason that Sagittarius is not everyone’s pot of tea. Like Scorpio, it’s a fairly southerly constellation, which means it never gets very far above the horizon, especially for folks who live up north. Here’s what it looks like from southern England:

Sagittarius from EnglandSo if you’re farther north than about the 40th parallel, you’re probably hosed. You’ll need a clear southern horizon, sans trees, mountains, and especially the light domes of our myriad cities to get a good look. Still, give it a shot–letting the light of 70,000 12-billion-year old stars–photons that have been in transit since the end of the last ice age–fall on your retinas is worth a little effort.

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Mt Wilson in the clear?

September 2, 2009
Martin Mars tanker flies over the dome of the 100-inch Hooker telescope on Mt Wilson.

Martin Mars tanker flies over the dome of one of the CHARA array telescopes the 100-inch Hooker telescope on Mt Wilson.

Yes and no. No because the Station Fire is still a going concern and one front of it is still on the move in the Mt Wilson area. Yes because there are lots of firefighters up there now and the Mt Wilson pumps have been repaired, so the firefighters have access to 750,000 gallons of water on site. That’s equivalent to 100 Martin Mars drops or 37.5 drops by the 747 supertanker. Also, a series of backfires around the observatory has cleared a lot of the fuel from in front of the advancing Station Fire.

The fire has put Mt Wilson back in the public eye. Astronomy has a great article on the history of the observatory and some of the cool ongoing projects there, and the LA Times has a nice op-ed piece about the observatory’s importance. Internet lines to the mountain are out, so the observatory has a backup website with regular updates here. Also check out some amazing photographs of the current LA area fires here, here, and here; image at top from that last link.

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Mission 5: Hail to the King

September 2, 2009

Moon and Jupiter Sept 2 2009

Mission Objective: Planet, Moons

Equipment: Naked eye, Binoculars, Telescope

Required Time: 5 minutes

Instructions: Look southeast in the early evening and find the intensely bright star!

The ancients recognized several categories of celestial objects: the Sun and Moon, the fixed stars, transitory and unpredictable phenomena from the commonplace (meteors) to the alarming (comets), and a special category of stars that moved in relation to all the others. The Greeks called this last group the planetes asteres (“wandering stars”) or simply planetoi (“wanderers”), and the term survives little changed to this day.

The ancients could see five wandering stars. Mercury, closest in, swings around the Sun every 87 days, and so was identified with the swift messenger of the gods. Venus, the goddess of love, gave her name to the brightest object in the heavens after the Sun and Moon, the morning and evening star. Blood-red Mars was named, appropriately, for the god of war. Saturn, dimmer than Jupiter and traveling more slowly, was named for the Titan Jupiter displaced, the two-faced god of beginnings and of agriculture.

Was it coincidence that the ancients gave the name of the king of gods to the planet that is, in fact, the largest in the solar system? Possibly not. From Jupiter’s long orbital period they probably deduced that it is very distant from Earth, and yet it is the fourth brightest object in the sky, yielding only to the Sun, the Moon, and Venus. Possibly Jupiter’s stately pace through the heavens was thought more seemly for the king of gods than the frantic Sun-centered scurrying of Mercury and Venus (it would have been obvious, then as now, that the two innermost planets never get very far from the Sun).

If you don’t catch Jupiter in the  early evening, don’t fret. It rises near sunset and will be traveling across the southern sky for much of the night. And tonight, Sept. 2, it will be very close to the moon–as it will be again this time next month. (The moon was on the other side of Jupiter last night, but I was too wound up about Mt Wilson to post this then.) That’s an easy twofer whether you’re using binoculars, a small telescope, or the good ole Mark 1 eyeball.

Speaking of binoculars…just for the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that you’ve either got a scope and know how to use it, or don’t have one and aren’t going to change that by nightfall. We’ll talk about choosing and using telescopes a lot more in the future, but for now I feel that my advice will have maximum impact for people in possession of binoculars. The pool of people who own a pair of binoculars is huge; the fraction of those people who have used them for stargazing is probably tiny. And Jupiter and the moon are the two celestial objects that benefit most from being viewed with binoculars. So here goes.

First off, don’t worry about what kind of binoculars you have. The 10×50 size is most often recommended for stargazing–at 50mm and above, the objective lenses start to really pull in the faint light for chasing star clusters and nebulae. But the Moon and Jupiter are both crazy bright, so light gathering is not the prime consideration. The prime consideration, as always at this blog, is getting out and seeing something you wouldn’t otherwise. (If you don’t have binoculars but want some, consider these).

Second, the view through steady binoculars is a qualitatively different experience than the shaky hand-held view. There are several ways to hold binoculars steady, but the cheapest (i.e., free), fastest, and easiest is just to brace your elbows against something (top of the car works great for me) or to brace the binoculars themselves against something. My first self-conducted astronomical observation, not quite two years ago, was of Jupiter and its moons, using the humble Tasco 7×35 birding binoculars I’d gotten at Wal-Mart back in high school, leaning up against a street lamp to hold the binoculars steady.

Jupiter in binoculars

What will you see? In even modest binoculars, Jupiter will be a circle, not a point, with between one and four little points of light next to it. The picture above is the simulated binocular view. On one hand, you’re not going to see any detail on the planet. And the four Galilean moons will just be little sparks.

On the other hand–the hand you should be concentrating on–you went to the closet, knocked the dust off whatever binoculars you already had, pointed them at that bright star over there, and now you can see that it is visibly a planet (despite being almost half a billion miles away) and, oh yeah, those little sparks are moons. If you’ve never seen this before with your own eyes, you will have an emotional reaction. Even if you have seen it before, you’ll probably have an emotional reaction. I still do. And usually that reaction is, “Holy BLEEP! That’s BLEEPin’ Jupiter! And its BLEEPin’ moons!” And I want to laugh and cry at the same time, and most of all I want to grab whoever is close and make them look, too. This entire blog is the extension of that feeling.

Jupiter moons by Galileo

You want more coolness still? Using only binoculars, you should be able to sketch the positions of the four Galilean moons over several nights (apparently some Italian yahoo dreamt up this diversion like 400 years ago). Drawing in hand, you can open up Stellarium or pick up the current issue of Sky & Telescope or Astronomy and figure out which moon is which. From inside (closest to Jupiter) out, the four biggest moons are Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. I remember them like this: vowels (I, E) before consonants (G, C), and both sets in reverse alphabetical order.

Alternatively, you can look up the moons’ positions first, quickly commit them to memory (or draw them, or take the magazine or laptop outside with you), and then when you see them in the binoculars you’ll know that that little spark right there is Io, entirely covered in sulphurous volcanoes, or Europa, whose ice-encrusted oceans are the best possibility for finding life elsewhere in the solar system.

As far as I’m concerned, observing Jupiter in binoculars is both a thrill and a blessing. It’s a moving sight, and it can be the basis of a very accessible and very rewarding observing program (like, er, one of these). It only gets better in a telescope. My 90mm Maksutov shows several cloud belts on clear nights, and occasionally the perfectly black, perfectly round pinpoint of a moon shadow transiting the bright face of the planet. My 6-inch reflector shows more bands and more detail, and so on up from there. BUT, as I frequently say, it’s not about the equipment. It’s about the seeing. And Jupiter is one of the best things out there to see.

If you want the fast facts about Jupiter in an attractive, portable, and free format, check out the IYA2009 presentation about Jupiter. It’s part of the upcoming Galilean Nights event on October 22-24, when amateur and professional astronomers all over the world will set up thousands of telescopes to show the general public the wonders of the heavens.

Oh, one more thing: right after sunset, Jupiter is almost directly below Altair. So if you can find Jove, you can find the Summer Triangle, and vice versa. Get after it!