Paul Derrick's Stargazer



Stargazer Columns 2003

Dec. 22, 2003: Season's Symbols in the Night Sky
Dec. 6, 2003: Earthlings Invade Mars
Nov. 22, 2003: Stargazing's Life Lesssons
Nov. 08, 2003: Total Eclipse of the Moon Tonight
Oct. 25, 2003: The Milky Way Triangle
Oct. 11, 2003: Astronomy Clubs
Sep. 27, 2003: A Planet Named George?
Sep. 13, 2003: Planetary Show for Morning Stargazers
Aug. 30, 2003: Mars in History and Fiction
Aug. 16, 2003: Viewing Mars
Aug. 02, 2003: Some Facts About Mars
July 19, 2003: Seeing Mercury and Friends
July 05, 2003: Cosmic Wrestling in the Macho Quadrangle
June 21, 2003: Summer Solstice
June 07, 2003: Realistic Expectations for Mars Historic Visit
May 24, 2003: Jupiter Visits the Crab
May 10, 2003: Total Eclipse of the Moon
Apr. 26, 2003: Highlights of Spring's Night Sky
Apr. 12, 2003: The Big and Little Dippers
Mar. 29, 2003: Deep Impact
Mar. 15, 2003: Other Life in the Cosmos?
Mar. 01, 2003: The Voyager Mission
Feb. 15, 2003: Orion the Hunter
Feb. 01, 2003: Things That Move in the Night
Jan. 18, 2003: Stargazing and Comfort
Jan. 04, 2003: Astronomical Highlights for 2003

Back to Top

December 20, 2003

Season's Symbols in the Night Sky

In Christianity the manger symbolizes the birth of Jesus while the cross represents his death. As pointed out some years ago by tv's Star Gazer, Jack Horkheimer, the Christmas season is the only time of year when the astronomical version of these two religious symbols are in the night sky in early evening.

Low in the northwest is the constellation Cygnus the Swan, the middle five stars of which form a pattern called the Northern Cross. At 9 p.m. the base of the cross stands on the horizon. The cross' brightest star, Deneb, is at the top 24 degrees above the horizon with the crossbar spanning 16 degrees. (The width of your fist held at arm's length is 10 degrees.)

Coming up in the east is the constellation Cancer the Crab. While Cancer itself isn't much to see, consisting entirely of faint stars, it is home to a lovely star cluster popularly known as the Beehive, but formally named Praesepe, Latin for "manger." Under dark, moonless skies, Praesepe appears as a soft fuzzy patch about twice the size of a full Moon. Binoculars easily resolve several dozen individual stars.

As the Northern Cross stands on the northwestern horizon, Praesepe is just rising across the sky in the east northeast, a bit low for easy viewing at 9 p.m. It will be easier to see an hour later when it has climbed to 20 degrees above the horizon.

This time of year is special in many religions, Christianity being but one. Whatever yours, the Stargazer wishes for you and yours--and for our troubled world--peace, joy and love.

  • Astro Milestones: Dec. 25 is the 361th anniversary of the birth of Isaac Newton (1642-1727), father of modern physics. Dec. 27 is the 432th anniversary of the birth of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), discoverer of elliptical orbits.

Back to Top

December 6, 2003

Earthlings Invade Mars

It wasn't enough that we Earthlings spent weeks spying on Mars during its recent close approach. Over the next few weeks we're really going to get in its face as five space probes from Earth are about to join the two already orbiting the red planet.

But before we look at these missions and what they hope to accomplish, let's set the tone for realistic expectations. Given our history of attempted Mars' missions, we can expect less than 100% success. Since the 1960s, NASA has attempted 14 Mars missions, 5 of which failed. (The U.S.S.R.'s record was worse with 13 of 16 missions failing.) Two of our 5 failures were recent: the 1998 Mars Climate Orbiter and the 1999 Mars Polar Lander reached Mars only to vanish. NASA's 1975 Viking 1 & 2 and 1997 Pathfinder/Sojourner are the only successful Mars landers.

Of the 5 spacecraft now en route to Mars, one is already in trouble. Launched in 1998, Japan's Nozomi is intended to orbit Mars to study its atmosphere, but unfortunately it has serious fuel and communications problems. Although Nozomi means "hope" in Japanese, there may be little left for this mission. We'll know soon as it is scheduled to arrive and go into orbit Dec. 13.

The European Space Agency's Mars Express, launched in June 2003, is to arrive and begin orbiting Mars Dec. 26. Its objective is to map Mars' surface and atmosphere more thoroughly than has ever been done, specifically looking for direct evidence of liquid water or ice, past or present.

Britain's Beagle 2, being carried to Mars on ESA's Mars Express, will descend onto the planet's surface Dec. 25. After activating its compact robotic laboratory it will look for signs of Martian microbial life, past or present. (Beagle 2 is named after the 19th century oceangoing ship from which Charles Darwin made his historic discoveries leading to his theory of evolution.)

NASA's two Mars-bound spacecraft, both with similar objectives, will land on different sides of Mars. Spirit, launched June 10, 2003, will arrive Jan. 4; Opportunity, launched July 7, 2003, will arrive Jan. 25. Each will deploy a rover with an array of geological instruments to study Mars' climatic and geologic history, and specifically to look for signs that Mars might have had a life-supporting environment.

While hopes abound, the extremes of outcomes of these missions are enormous: all could fail leaving crushing disappointment, or Beagle 2 could shake human history by discovering life on Mars.

To learn more about these missions, see Govert Schilling's "Mars Attacked!" in the January 2004 issue of Sky & Telescope.

Back to Top

November 22, 2003

Stargazing's Life Lessons

Well, darn. The Nov. 8 total eclipse of the Moon was totally eclipsed by clouds from Ft. Parker State Park where I spent the weekend, so I saw nothing. How about you--did you see it?

Missing it illustrates one of the "life lessons" that can be gained from stargazing: you have to handle life's disappointments and move on. Stargazing holds other life lessons as well.

Stargazing can teach persistence. Finding faint galaxies in a telescope isn't easy. It's tempting to give up quickly, but when the temptation is resisted and the object found, the rewards are not only the joy of viewing another "island universe" but the satisfaction derived from successfully meeting a challenge.

Stargazing can increase appreciation of our senses, especially vision. As my eyes have grown older, along with the rest of my 63-year-old body, they see less clearly. Early cataracts and floaters now come between me and those faint fuzzies I love to view. How I wish I'd known long ago to shade my eyes (and skin) from the Sun's damaging ultraviolet rays.

Stargazing can teach patience. I recall once growing impatient awaiting a meteor shower. After a while I gave up, only to hear that the shower peaked less than an hour after I went in. What was my hurry? Nature moves at her own pace which is usually far slower than the speed of our busy "civilized" lives.

Texas naturalist Roy Bedichek, in his 1947 classic book, Adventures with a Texas Naturalist, wrote: "Nature herself is deliberate. Ninety-nine percent of her performance is gradual. What a large percentage of urbanized populations miss beginning the day under the spell of the silent, pervasive, leisurely preparations of the heavens to receive the sun!"

Stargazing can't help but increase our awe at the grandeur of the cosmos and our place in it. A Serbian saying urges: "Be humble for you are made of dung. Be noble for you are made of stars." And it's true. Our bodies come from the elements of the Earth, much of which is recycled waste. And many of those same elements were formed in supernova explosions of dying stars.

While we are insignificantly small compared with the incomprehensibly enormous cosmos, yet as Max Ehrmann, in his 1948 Desiderata, proclaims: "You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. You have a right to be here."

Back to Top

November 8, 2003

Total Eclipse of the Moon Tonight

Early this evening there will be a total eclipse of the Moon, and Central Texans will get to enjoy all but the first few minutes of the 3 1/2-half hour show. (Those in the eastern part of the U.S. will see the entire show, those in the west, less than the full show.)

The partial phase begins at 5:32 p.m. (CST) as the Moon rises in the east and the Sun sets in the west. As the sky darkens and the Moon climbs, it will become increasingly eclipsed. By the time the 25-minute period of totality begins at 7:06 p.m., the sky will be dark with the Moon high enough for easy viewing. Mid-eclipse occurs at 7:19 p.m. with totality ending at 7:31 p.m., and the final partial eclipse ending at 9:05 p.m.

Lunar eclipses occur during those full Moons when the Sun, Earth and Moon align and the Moon passes through Earth's shadow. We have a full Moon every month, so one might wonder: why don't we have a lunar eclipse every month? The plane of the Moon's orbit around Earth is slightly tilted from that of Earth's orbit around the Sun, so the Moon usually passes just above or below Earth's shadow at full Moon, resulting in no eclipse. But when they do align, the Moon is eclipsed--briefly hidden from the Sun's direct light--by Earth's shadow.

Traveling 2,300 miles per hours around Earth, our satellite takes a while to pass through Earth's shadow. How long depends mainly on whether the Moon passes through the large central part of the shadow or nearer the edge. This eclipse being the latter, the Moon will be totally eclipsed only 25 minutes. It will be in partial eclipse--when part of the Moon is in our shadow--for 94 minutes before totality, and another 94 minutes after totality.

The Moon makes no light, and is visible only when sunlight reflects off its surface. During totality with the Moon hidden from direct sunlight, we might expect it to completely disappear, but it doesn't. As sunlight passes Earth, some of it goes through the atmosphere around Earth's edge. Like a lens the atmosphere refracts (bends) some light, and particularly red light, into the shadowed area. Depending on how much clouds, volcanic ash, dust and pollution the sunlight encounters in our atmosphere, the eclipsed Moon may appear anywhere from a nearly-invisible dark gray to a beautifully-eerie rusty orange.

Let's hope for clear skies so we can see and enjoy this event.

Back to Top

October 25, 2003

The Milky Way Triangle

Visible in the evening from June through December is a large triangle formed by three of the night sky's brightest stars, Vega, Deneb and Altair. Most stargazers call this the Summer Triangle, but I prefer its less common name, the Milky Way Triangle, since it's prominent in the fall as well as the summer, and the Milky Way always runs through it.

High in the northwest in the evening, Vega, in the constellation Lyra the Musical Lyre, is the brightest star seen. At a distance of 26 light years and three times the size of our Sun, Vega is the 5th brightest star in the entire night sky. For movie buffs, in the fictional movie "Contact" (based on Carl Sagan's novel), Vega is the star from which The Message came.

The triangle's second star, Deneb in Cygnus, the Swan, is 24 degrees to the upper right (northeast) of Vega. (The width of your fist held at arm's length is 10 degrees.) With a diameter 60 times that of our Sun, this huge star is one of the largest known. Although intrinsically much brighter than Vega, it doesn't appear as bright because it is much further at 1,600 light years. Even at that distance, Deneb is still the 19th brightest star in our night sky. The five central stars of Cygnus form the pattern known as the Northern Cross with Deneb at the cross's top.

The final star, Altair in Aquila, the Eagle, is 34 degrees to the upper left (southeast) of Vega. The night sky's 12th most luminous star, Altair is a mere 16 light years away and is just a little larger than our Sun. It has one of the fastest rotations of any visible star, turning on its axis about every six hours--nearly 100 times faster than our Sun. This would make it quite fat around its equator, so any Altairians on an orbiting planet would see their sun as a fat pancake rather than a round ball.

When viewed from dark skies, one can see the Milky Way running through the great triangle (hence its name), with Vega on the western side, Altair on the eastern side and Deneb in the middle.

  • BACK TO STANDARD TIME: Tonight at 2 a.m. we "fall back" (set our clocks back an hour) from Daylight to Standard Time. According to an old Stargazer legend, that's the one time each year we get a free second chance. At 1 a.m. try something new. If you don't get it right, don't worry. At 2 a.m. when you set your clock back, try it again and the first time won't count.

Back to Top

October 11, 2003

Astronomy Clubs

Hopefully you attended a Mars viewing party during the planet's recent close approach to Earth. If you didn't it's not too late. While not as big and bright as it has been, it's still impressive and will be for several more weeks.

Having participated in several Mars parties sponsored by my area's astronomy club, the Central Texas Astronomical Society, I heard comments like, "I'd forgotten how beautiful the night sky is," and "How can I do more of this?" Of course, we made membership applications available, and I suspect some will join.

CTAS is but one of more than 30 astronomy clubs in Texas. You can look for one near you at Click on Resources, then on Clubs & Organizations, and then type in your city (or just the state if you want to see all the clubs in the state). Some smaller clubs come and go, so the listing may not be current, but it's a good starting place.

Astronomy clubs are open to all. Ours, like most, is composed of young and old, female and male, beginners and veterans, various colors of the human rainbow and a spectrum of political and religious persuasions. Some become very active in club events while others are content to remain casual members. And members need not have a telescope or other equipment.

Benefits of membership include opportunities for new learnings and camaraderie with other lovers of the night sky. Most clubs publish monthly newsletters to keep members abreast of cosmic happenings as well as club events and regular star parties, many of which are not open to the public. Access to club-operated observatories and viewing sites is often restricted to members, except during special public events.

Membership in most clubs includes membership in the Astronomical League with a free subscription to their quarterly publication, The Reflector. Club members can receive substantial discounts on subscriptions to the popular amateur astronomy magazines, Astronomy and Sky & Telescope. If and when one decides to purchase a telescope, experienced club members can offer valuable advice and assistance. Also of interest, especially to those in remote areas with no nearby club, is the American Association of Amateur Astronomers (, an Internet "virtual astronomy club" open to all.

Back to Top

September 27, 2003

A Planet Named George?

Can you can name our Sun's nine planets? How about Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, George, Neptune and Pluto. Perhaps you're thinking: George? Did he call Uranus "George?" Is he nuts? Well that's what it was originally named.

Since long before recorded history humans have known about Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Earth. For most of that time the prevailing view had Earth at the center of the cosmos with the heavenly objects--the Sun, Moon, "wandering stars" and "fixed stars"--going around it. The nature of the five "wandering stars," which we now call planets, wasn't known, nor was it recognized that Earth is also one of the wanderers.

While our species has been around countless thousands of years, it was only 400 years ago that Galileo, using the newly invented telescope, turned that long-held view upside down. Discovering and observing the four largest moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus, the brilliant Galileo established evidence supporting Copernicus' Sun-centered theory of the cosmos.

Galileo's work, along with Kepler's discovery of elliptical orbits and Newton's laws of gravity, enabled astronomers to arrive at a more accurate understanding of the nature of the planets and their movement in the sky. With that new knowledge and with greatly improved telescopes, it was just a matter of time until more planets would be discovered.

In the mid-1700s, a German-English musician, William Herschel, was bitten by the stargazing bug. He composed and conducted for a living, but devoted his private time to making telescopes and studying the night sky. Working from his home observatory in Bath, England, and assisted by his younger sister Caroline, he discovered in 1781 a seventh planet well beyond Saturn.

For his discovery England's King George rewarded Herschel with a generous stipend to continue his astronomical work. Out of gratitude, Herschel named his new planet George. Mercifully, the astronomical community decided to rename the new planet Uranus.

Over the next few weeks Mars passes near Uranus, and can serve as a guide to seeing the faint, difficult-to-find planet using binoculars and the accompanying diagram. Uranus is easier to see under dark, moonless skies, so your best viewing times will be the next few nights after the crescent Moon sets, and then again for a couple of weeks after the Oct. 10 full Moon.

The circle in the diagram represents the field of view seen in typical 7-power binoculars. The reddish-colored Mars, now prominent in the southeast in the early evening, is vastly brighter than Uranus or the neighboring stars. Uranus appears about as bright as the stars but has a slightly blue-green tint.

  • VIEWING MARS: The Central Texas Astronomical Society's final public Mars viewing session is tonight at the Central United Methodist Church (Bagby off Hwy. 6) beginning at dark.

Back to Top

September 13, 2003

Planetary Show for Morning Stargazers

With all the well-deserved attention Mars is getting in the evening sky, the other planets (as well as morning stargazers) might be feeling neglected. So as not to offend anyone, Mother Nature will shortly be presenting a morning planetary show worth noticing. The principals will be Jupiter and Mercury with help from the Moon, a star and Saturn.

After spending the past few weeks in the Sun, Jupiter is now becoming the "morning star" low in the east before sunrise. The faster-moving Mercury, currently near the morning Sun, is rapidly separating from the Sun. It will pull to within 7 degrees of Jupiter by Sept. 21. (The width of your fist held at arm's length is 10 degrees.)

By the morning of Sept. 26, the fleet Mercury will be at its maximum of 18 degrees from the Sun (called greatest elongation west of the Sun). That's still pretty near the Sun as Mercury, the innermost planet, is never seen far from the Sun.

The highlight of the show comes the morning of Sept. 24 when a thin crescent Moon joins the cast. Forty-five minutes before sunrise, Mercury will be 6 degrees above the eastern horizon with Jupiter 7 degrees higher. The Moon will be to their left, forming a triangle with the planets. Binoculars will enhance the show as all three can be seen (barely) within the same field of view of most 7X or less binoculars.

If that's not enough, 6 degrees above Jupiter is Leo's bright star, Regulus. Even further up, Saturn is looking down upon the show from 65 degrees above the horizon. So there you have it--three planets, a bright star and a crescent Moon giving some morning competition to Mars' great evening show.

  • VIEWING MARS: The Central Texas Astronomical Society is still hosting public Mars viewing sessions throughout Central Texas. Visit my Website for dates and locations.

  • ASTRO MILESTONES: Sept. 23 is the 157th anniversary of the 1846 discovery of Neptune. Based on disturbances in the orbit of Uranus, the 7th planet from the Sun, Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier of France hypothesized the existence of an 8th planet and even calculated a predicted position. Having no telescope of his own, he persuaded Johann Galle & Heimrich d'Arrest of Germany's Berlin Observatory to search the suspected area of the sky. Within half an hour, they found the planet which came to be named Neptune, after the ancient god of the seas.

Back to Top

August 30, 2003

Mars in History and Fiction

On Aug. 27 we passed closer to Mars than we've been in 60,000 years. If you've not yet seen it, don't fret--its still putting on a good show and will for a few more weeks. The brightest starlike object in the night sky, Mars is low in the southeast at dark and highest in the south an hour after midnight. Naked-eye views are impressive, but telescopic views are better.

Mars, along with Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn, have been known about since antiquity. Recognizing that these five "stars" moved against the background of "fixed stars," ancient astronomers called them planets, which is Greek for wanderer.

The planets are named for ancient gods. Mars (Roman name for the Greek god Ares) is one of the offspring of Jupiter (Zeus) and is the god of war--undoubtedly due to its blood-red color.

Mars has been a favorite for science fiction, such as Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and the 1950 movie Rocketship X-M. But probably no Mars-story had a greater impact than Orson Welles' 1938 radio drama of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. A fictional account of Earth being invaded by hostile Martians, Welles presented the drama like news--that U.S. cities were being attacked and destroyed by an unstoppable army of Martians. The convincing drama created widespread panic.

Mars even had a role in the 1930 discovery of the planet, Pluto. Percival Lowell was a wealthy Bostonian obsessed with two ideas in the late 1800s. He was convinced Mars had canals made by intelligent beings, and he believed there was a ninth planet beyond Neptune, which itself had only been discovered in 1846.

In pursuit of proof he founded Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ, in 1894, and searched for years--but to no avail. He couldn't prove the existence of Martian canals and couldn't find Planet X. He died in 1916, broken with disappointment.

Subsequent observations with larger telescopes and spacecraft have confirmed there are no Martian canals. But in 1929 Lowell Observatory began yet another search for Planet X, and in less than a year Clyde Tombaugh found what Lowell sought. Tombaugh named the new planet Pluto, the first letters--PL--in honor of Percival Lowell. As a final irony, it was later found that Lowell had captured Pluto on photographs taken in 1915, but failed to recognize it as the planet he so desperately wanted to find.

  • VIEWING MARS: The Fossil Rim Wildlife Center near Glen Rose, in conjunction with Tarleton State University, is hosting a Safari Star Watch tonight. The event costs $20 for adults, $10 for children. Get more information at * The Central Texas Astronomical Society is hosting free public Mars viewing sessions throughout Central Texas. Visit my Website for dates and locations.

Back to Top

August 16, 2003

Viewing Mars

If you're not already doing so, it's time to start watching Mars. Now rising in the east an hour after sunset, it comes up a few minutes earlier each night. The evening of Aug. 27, Mars and Earth will be just 34.6 million miles apart--closer than they've been in thousands of years (although just slightly). Mars will look larger and brighter than "modern" humans have ever seen it.

So what can we expect to see? First, let's debunk an Internet email rumor: Mars will NOT appear as large as a full Moon. If only that were true! To the naked eyes Mars will look like a brilliant reddish star, but considerably brighter than any star. Binoculars held very steadily may show a tiny disk. But the best views will come in telescopes.

As correctly reported in another widely distributed email, when viewed through a telescope at 75-power, Mars will appear the size of a full Moon seen with naked eyes--which is still smaller than one might think. At higher powers, of course, Mars will look even larger. For reference, if you've seen Jupiter in a telescope, Mars will look half as large as Jupiter appears.

And that will be big enough to reveal some Martian features, even if subtly. Mars' surface will show darker and lighter areas, but not identifiable craters and mountains as seen in telescopic views of the Moon. Mars southern polar cap, which is shrinking since it's summer in Mars' southern hemisphere, should be visible as a faint whitish area at the planet's edge--upper or lower, depending upon whether the scope inverts the image. And, of course, Mars appears reddish, the color coming from its surface material which is laden with rusty-tinted oxidized iron.

And what won't we see? Mars' moons, Deimos and Phobos, are too tiny and close to Mars for most amateur scopes. Early last century Percival Lowell (founder of Arizona's Lowell Observatory) reported seeing canals on Mars, but we won't see any because they don't exist. Seems ol' Percival wanted to see canals so badly his imagination conjured them up.

  • MARS VIEWING OPPORTUNITIES: * The Lake Whitney State Park Star-B-Q, co-sponsored by the Central Texas Astronomical Society (CTAS), will be Aug. 23. The event is free with the optional B-B-Q costing $5. Get more information at or call Dave Eisfeldt at 254-799-1541. * CTAS will also host a number of free public Mars viewing sessions in the Waco area through latter September, including Aug. 26 (9 p.m.) at the Central United Methodist Church (Hwy 6 and Bagby). Check my Website for a listing of other dates and locations. * The Fossil Rim Wildlife Center near Glen Rose, in conjunction with Tarleton State University, is hosting a Safari Star Watch Aug. 30. The event costs $20 for adults, $10 for children, and $6.95 for an optional dinner. Get more information at or call Nancy Pricer at 254-968-9071.

Back to Top

August 2, 2003

Some Facts About Mars

As you've probably heard, Mars and Earth are about to pass closer than they've been in nearly 60,000 years, and Mars will appear larger and brighter than at any time in recorded history.

It will be nearest Aug. 27 at 34.6 million miles, but don't wait until then. It already dominates the night sky, shining far brighter than any star. From now through early October it will be a sight to see, especially through a telescope. As you view the red planet, here are some interesting facts to keep in mind.

As the fourth planet out from the Sun (Earth is third), Mars orbits the Sun at an average distance of 142 million miles compared to Earth's 93 million miles. Mars takes 687 Earth-days to circle the Sun compared to our 365 days.

Mars' diameter of 4,222 miles is half that of Earth's 7,926 miles and twice that of our Moon's 2,159 miles. With a mass (weight) one-tenth that of Earth's, a 150-pound Earthling would weight 56 pounds on Mars.

Surface conditions on Mars would not support life as we know it. Its thin atmosphere is mostly of carbon dioxide with just traces of water vapor and oxygen. Mars has no known liquid water although it appears there have been large oceans in the distant past, and there might still be frozen water beneath its surface. With an average surface temperature of -67 degrees (Fahrenheit), Martian temperatures vary widely. Polar winter nights can drop to -207 degrees while summer afternoons can reach 80 degrees.

Mars' topography also varies more than Earth's. Its lowest natural point (Valleris Marineris) is far deeper than Grand Canyon, and its tallest mountain (Olympus Mons) soars to an incredible 89,000 feet--three times the height of Mt. Everest, and over twice as high as commercial jet airplanes fly.

Mars has two tiny, irregularly shaped moons--Phobos and Deimos. Since Mars orbits just inside the asteroid belt, these moons are probably asteroids which drifted near Mars and were "captured" by the planet's gravity.

Next time we'll talk some specifics about observing Mars.

  • METEOR SHOWER: The annual Perseid meteor shower occurs the night of Aug. 12/13. Although the Perseids are usually one of the best showers, this year's nearly full Moon will be in the sky all night washing out all but the brightest meteors. Even so, it might still be worth a look, especially after midnight. Meteors appear in all parts of the sky, so your best bet is to look in directions away from the Moon.

Back to Top

July 19, 2003

Seeing Mercury and Friends

If you're like most folks and have never seen planet Mercury, you can have a new life experience between now and mid-August.

As the innermost planet, Mercury never appears far from the Sun. Half the time it's too near the Sun to be seen, and when visible, can only be seen shortly after sunset or before sunrise.

Mercury is currently in our evening sky. Now setting almost an hour after the Sun, it will reach its maximum separation Aug. 14 when it sets a little over an hour after sunset.

Surprisingly bright--brighter than any star now in our sky--Mercury is still a challenge to spot as it's always seen near the horizon and when the sky is not completely dark. But you can see it with your naked eyes. From a location with a view down to the western horizon, start looking just above the horizon 30 minutes after sunset. If you don't spot it pretty quickly, use binoculars to determine its location, then look again without them.

Friday evening Mercury will be less than a moonwidth to the upper right of brighter Jupiter. Thirty minutes after sunset the pair will be 7 degrees above the horizon. (The width of your fist held at arm's length is 10 degrees.)

If you have a telescope--even a modest one--use it for this show. Both planets, as well as Jupiter's four Galilean moons, will appear in the same field of view at low to moderate power.

The evenings of July 29 and 30 will provide additional treats. July 29 Mercury will be less than two moonwidths to the lower right of Leo's brightest star, Regulus, with Jupiter 6 degrees to their lower right.

The next night, Mercury will have moved to Regulus' upper left. And as a bonus, a tiny crescent Moon be within 4 degrees of their upper right. Most 7x binoculars will show all four objects--two planets, a bright star and a crescent Moon--in the same field of view. It should be an unforgettable sight, so go for it.

  • ASTRO MILESTONES: July 20 is the 34th anniversary of one of humanity's greatest: Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land and walk on the Moon. (If you're at least 40-something, I'll bet you vividly remember watching it happen--probably on an old black and white tv.)

Back to Top

July 5, 2003

Cosmic Wrestling in the Macho Quadrangle

Growing up on Galveston Bay in the early days of television, I loved watching Houston's "Friday Night Wrestling" on our black & white tv set. To this skinny country boy, these muscle-bound guys were heroes--at least until I discovered it was all faked.

I've had no interest in wrestling since, but my childhood memories remind me of an area of the night sky I've named the Macho Quadrangle. There's a huge wrestling ring with four corner posts represented by four of the summer sky's brightest stars--Arcturus, Vega, Altair and Antares.

Reddish Arcturus is the summer's brightest star high overhead at 10 p.m. Sixty degrees to the northeast is the gleaming white star, Vega, second in brightness only to Arcturus. (The width of your fist held at arm's length is 10 degrees.) Then 34 degrees southeast of Vega is Altair, also white but not as bright as Vega. And 60 degrees southwest of Altair is reddish Antares situated 30 degrees above the southern horizon.

Entering the ring between Arcturus and Vega is the well-known defending champion Hercules the Strongman. He's large but not very bright. We know he's the champ because beside him is his crown, Corona Borealis the Northern Crown, and his personal trainer, Bootes the Herdsman.

The challenger is the lesser-known Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer. He's also large and only slightly brighter than Hercules. As if he's trying to intimidate the champion, Ophiuchus is holding Serpens the Serpent in his hands.

Since announcers always give the weights of combatants, we have Libra the Scales outside the ropes between Arcturus and Antares. And finally, as a trophy for the victor, Scutum the Shield is outside the ropes between Antares and Altair.

And there you have it, occupying much of the summer's night sky--the cosmic wrestling match in the Macho Quadrangle. And unlike tv wrestlers, the stars aren't faked.

Back to Top

June 21, 2003

Summer Solstice

Today is the summer solstice--our first day of summer. By coincidence, and perhaps surprisingly, summer begins less than two weeks from when Earth is farthest from the Sun.

Like all orbiting objects, Earth's annual trek around the Sun follows an elliptical rather than a perfectly circular path. There is a point where our planet is nearest the Sun, called perihelion, which happens to occur in early January. And another point where it is farthest, called aphelion, which comes in early July--this year July 4.

At first thought, it might seem we would be closest to the Sun during our hot summers and farthest during cold winters. However, this idea can be dismissed when we consider that the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere.

Seasons are caused, not by the slight changes in Earth's distance from the Sun, but by its tilt on its axis. Rather than being straight up and down relative to its orbit around the Sun, our planet is tilted 23 degrees, likely the result of a colossal collision with another planet a few billion years ago.

During our summer months, when the Northern Hemisphere leans toward the Sun, our days are longer giving us more hours of warming sunshine. And with the noonday Sun as high as it gets in our sky, sunlight strikes us more nearly straight down, yielding increased warmth. In the winter months, when we lean away from the Sun, shorter days mean less warming sunshine, and with the Sun is at its lowest noonday altitude, sunlight comes down at a greater angle, generating less warmth.

If our hot Texas summer gets too much for you, consider visiting New Zealand or Australia where it's now winter.

Back to Top

June 7, 2003

Realistic Expectations for Mars Historic Visit

Perhaps you've heard--late this summer Mars will come closer to Earth than its been in 60 millennia.  The red planet will appear larger and brighter than at any time in recorded history.  It'll be an astronomical show you won't want to miss.

Now with that being said, let's put this in proper perspective.  Between now and the end of August, the hype will intensify, leading to great, and maybe unrealistic, expectations.

Do you recall the 1986 visit of Halley's Comet, the famous comet that comes around every 76 years?  It generated great interest and anticipation, but also considerable disappointment.

It's 1910 pass was reportedly spectacular, so expectations ran high for 1986--folks anticipated an equally awesome display.  But when Halley put on only a good, but not spectacular, show, many were disappointed.

So that Mars in 2003 doesn't repeat the 1986 Halley experience, let's look at what we can realistically expect this summer.

At 4:51 a.m., August 27, 2003, Mars and Earth will be separated by 34,646,418 miles.  According to Italian astronomer Aldo Vitagliano, an expert in orbital mechanics, the last time Mars was this close to Earth was in 57,617 BCE, back when our ancestors presumably were proverbial "cave men."

When seen in telescopes, Mars will appear about half the diameter of Jupiter.  For a few weeks it will be brighter than Jupiter ever gets, and second only to Venus and the Moon. 

So what can we expect to see?  Since neither Jupiter nor Venus will be prominent this summer, the fiery red planet will dominate the naked-eye night sky on moonless nights throughout August and September, blazing brighter than any star. 

While binoculars won't add much, telescopes will reveal Mars as a small reddish ball.  Any visible surface features will be faint and subtle.  Mars' southern hemisphere is now tilted toward us, exposing its southern polar cap which will be prominent through June.  But as it's now spring in Mars' southern hemisphere, the white-colored polar cap will partially thaw and grow smaller in July and August.  It should still be visible, just smaller.

There are sure to be public Mars-viewing star parties hosted by local astronomy societies, so watch for announcements.  And we'll be talking more about Mars, so stay tuned to this column.

Back to Top

May 24, 2003

Jupiter Visits the Crab

Since last summer Jupiter has been visiting the constellation Cancer, the crab. These two cosmic residents are a study in contrasts, and a reminder of how Cancer became a constellation.

Brighter than any star, Jupiter is one of the night sky's most brilliant objects. Cancer, however, is composed of only faint stars and is the least conspicuous constellation on the ecliptic.

Jupiter's pass through Cancer every 12 years is a reminder of the story of how Cancer came to be in the night sky. In the religions of ancient Greece and Rome, Jupiter (also known as Zeus) was the god of the heavens and earth. In addition to his goddess wife, he had many lovers (some other goddesses, some mere mortals), and thus many offspring. The progeny he fathered with goddess mothers were fully gods, like Mars and Mercury. Those fathered with mortals were demigods--part mortal, part divine.

One of Jupiter's most notable demigod sons was Hercules who displayed great strength and courage through many heroic adventures, one of which was killing Hydra, the water snake. During the battle, Hercules was pinched on his toes by Cancer, which Hercules promptly stepped on and crushed. Another god, feeling sorry for the lowly crab, gave it immortality in the sky.

Situated between the Gemini twins and Leo, the lion, Cancer's primary claim to fame is its location on the ecliptic (known in astrology as the zodiac). The ecliptic is the path taken by our Sun across our sky through the course of a year. Of course, we can't see the Sun pass through constellations, but, since Earth and the other planets (as well as the Moon) orbit on nearly the same plane, the planets (and Moon) also pass through the same constellations as the Sun. So like all ecliptic constellations, Cancer is regularly visited by the planets and the Moon.

Cancer is also home to two nice star clusters, one of which is among the loveliest in the night sky--the Beehive (also known as Praesepe, the Manger, and M44). To the naked eye the Beehive appears as a subtle fuzz of light the size of the full Moon. Binoculars reveal a swarm of stars, giving rise to its name.

Although the stars forming Cancer are too faint to be seen except under dark skies, Jupiter can now help identify its location--even if you can't see it. Around 10 p.m. they are situated half way up in the west, with Jupiter being the brightest star-like object in the night sky. As a special treat, a crescent Moon forms a triangle with Jupiter and the Beehive the evening of June 4. .

Back to Top

May 10, 2003

Total Eclipse of the Moon

Clear your schedule and hope for clear skies. Thursday evening (May 15) our part of the world will be treated to a total eclipse of the Moon, and at a convenient time.

The Moon will rise in the east southeast as the Sun sets in the west northwest. It begins entering Earth's shadow at 9:03 p.m., is totally eclipsed from 10:14 to 11:06 p.m. and leaves the shadow at 12:17 a.m. Mideclipse is at 10:40 p.m.

Even during the 52 minutes of total eclipse the Moon won't disappear from view. Earth's atmosphere--that thin layer of air, water vapor, clouds and other airborne particles surrounding our planet--will give our satellite an eerie reddish appearance. As sunlight passes through our atmosphere, the red (but not blue) light rays are bent into the shadowed area, giving the Moon its reddish tint--essentially the same thing that paints our skies the beautiful red-orange-pink colors during sunrises and sunsets.

Traveling 2,300 miles per hour, the Moon circles Earth every 27.3 days--once each month ("moonth"). Its orbital plane is nearly, but not exactly, the same as Earth's orbital plane around the Sun, so twice each month--at new and full Moon--the Sun, Moon and Earth align.

At new Moon, when the Moon passes between the Earth and Sun, the Moon can't be seen as sunlight illuminates its far side rather than the side facing us. Occasionally the alignment is exact and we have a solar eclipse where the silhouetted Moon briefly passes in front of and blocks out the Sun. (This will occur May 30/31, but unfortunately not over the U.S. except Alaska.)

During full Moons the Moon passes behind Earth. Usually the Moon passes just above or below Earth's shadow, displaying its fully illuminated side. However when the Sun-Earth-Moon alignment is exact, as it will be this Thursday, the Moon passes through Earth's shadow, giving us a lunar eclipse.

This event can be enjoyed with or without optical aids, but since it's more fun with company you might consider having a lunar eclipse party. And if you happen to miss this one, don't fret--we'll have a repeat performance in November.

Back to Top

April 26, 2003

Highlights of Spring's Night Sky

With fewer bright stars and a less prominent Milky Way, the evening sky of spring pales in comparison to the richer skies of winter and summer. Still it has plenty to commend it.

For starters spring is when the Big Dipper is highest in the north with its pointer stars aiming down at Polaris, the North Star. (The pointer stars are the two stars forming the bowl's outer edge.) The dipper is upside down, and according to legend, emptying its contents on Earth, producing our spring showers.

The Big Dipper is helpful in finding other inhabitants of the spring sky. The dipper's handle, sticking out from the bowl's right, arcs 30 degrees to the bright orange star, Arcturus, now half way up in the east. (The width of your fist held at arm's length is 10 degrees.) The arc continues another 30 degrees to the bright white star, Spica, lower in the southeast.

A corny but useful saying can help you remember this: The Big Dipper's handle "arcs to Arcturus and drives a spike to Spica."

In the opposite direction the bowl's pointer stars point to the large spring constellation Leo, the Lion, almost straight overhead now. Leo's brightest star, Regulus, is 45 degrees from the nearer pointer star. Leo's head is facing west (right if you're facing south) and is shaped like a sickle or backward question mark with Regulus as the question mark's dot. Between Leo and the southern horizon the sky is rather devoid of bright stars.

This spring features two additional delights: the planets Jupiter and Saturn. Brighter than any star, Jupiter is high in the west 20 degrees to the right of Regulus and only 2 degrees from Cancer's Beehive star cluster, a subtle but beautiful swarm of stars best seen in binoculars. (The field of view of typical binoculars is about 7 degrees, so Jupiter and the Beehive can be seen together.)

Somewhat less bright than Jupiter, Saturn is lower in the west, 40 degrees from Jupiter and 20 degrees above the horizon 2 hours after sunset.

The evening sky of spring is also the site of the cosmic baseball field, but we'll hold that one for another column.

Back to Top

April 12, 2003

The Big and Little Dippers

Most folks can recognize the northern night sky's Big Dipper, the pattern of seven moderately bright stars looking like a large ladle. This familiar star group has also been noted by other cultures although not as a dipper. The British see it as the Plough while other Europeans know it as the Wagon. It has been viewed as Seven Wise Men in Greece and the Wild Boar in Syria.

Although well known the Big Dipper is not a constellation but rather only part of the larger constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear. And there is a strange curiosity about that. While neither the dipper nor the constellation resembles a bear, many cultures throughout history and from different parts of the world have associated these stars with a bear. For example, before contact with Europeans some Native Americans saw in the pattern a bear (the dipper's four "bowl" stars) being hunted by three braves (its three "handle" stars).

Is this merely an uncanny coincidence? Or does it point to mythology handed down from common prehistoric ancestors? Or is there another explanation? No one seems to know.

While many people can identify the Big Dipper, the nearby Little Dipper is more elusive. It also consists of seven stars resembling a smaller ladle, but most of its stars are faint. Six of the Big Dipper's seven stars are bright enough to be seen even from urban areas--enough to make out the dipper pattern. But only three of the Little Dipper's seven stars are easily seen, not enough to visualize its dipper pattern.

Though difficult to find, the Little Dipper is "less in size but valued more by sailors" (Poste's Aratos), being the home of the northern hemisphere's most important star, Polaris, the North Star. The end star of the Little Dipper's handle, Polaris is fairly bright and easier to find than the Little Dipper itself. The two stars forming the outer end of the Big Dipper's bowl, called the "pointer stars," point to Polaris.

  • Astro Milestone: Today is the 42nd anniversary of Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's 1961 historic 108 minute orbital flight around Earth.

  • Astro Fact: Seven solar system's moons (including our Moon) are larger than planet Pluto, and two are larger than Mercury.

Back to Top

March 29, 2003

Deep Impact

Have you heard? This May Earth is supposed to be impacted by a "10th planet" named Nibiru which will induce widespread earthquakes and volcanoes, cause the Earth to stand still for 3 days and wipe out 90% of humanity. If you've not heard, maybe it's because of the "media blackout" and "government cover-up" alleged by the elusive predictors.

If you don't buy that, how about this one: On July 4, 2005, a comet impact will blast out an 80-foot deep football field-sized crater--and this one is being predicted by NASA. In fact, it's being planned by NASA, but there's a twist. The comet won't impact us, rather NASA will blast a crater out of Comet Tempel 1.

Discovered in 1867, Comet Tempel 1 orbits the Sun every 5.5 years in an elliptical (oval-shaped) orbit. It's nearest point to the Sun (called perihelion) is the distance of Mars while it's farthest point (called aphelion) is nearly out to Jupiter. The planned impact will occur during the comet's next near approach.

Mission Deep Impact, to be launched Jan. 2, 2004, will consist of a "flyby" spacecraft and a smaller 770-pound "impactor." The day before impact the impactor will be released to carry out its suicide mission. A camera on the impactor will return images of the comet's solid nucleus up to seconds before impact.

The flyby spacecraft will also observe the impact, taking images and collecting other data for scientific study. Since comets are composed of ice and other particles which date back 4.5 billion years to the very origin of our solar system, their interiors contain primordial stuff which could further our understanding of star and solar system formation.

In case you're wondering, NASA says Comet Tempel 1's orbital path won't be disturbed by Deep Impact. A 770-pound object traveling 23,000 mph doesn't have enough force to change the direction of a 4-mile wide comet. But it is anticipated that the ejected material will produce a dramatic brightening of the comet which hopefully will be visible from Earth.

  • Time Change: Remember to advance your clocks and watches one hour ("spring forward") to Daylight Time before retiring Apr. 5.

  • Star Party: Today is the Lake Whitney State Park Spring Star Party with afternoon and early evening programs and nighttime sky tours and telescope viewing.

Back to Top

March 15, 2003

Other Life in the Cosmos?

Recently I received an email from a reader, Becky Brock, who wrote: "Is it logical to think we are the only galaxy with a living/livable planet and human beings? Possibly there are people on other galaxies that are just like us..."

The short answer is: We just don't know. We've yet to find a shred of evidence of life, intelligent or otherwise, beyond Earth, so all we can do is speculate based on what we do know.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), which searches our galactic neighborhood for messages from other life, has yet to hear a thing. But that's not surprising as we've only been searching a few years, and with beginners' equipment. (We are a young species, new to technology. Imagine our technology in even 500 to 1,000 years, if we don't self-destruct.)

Our Milky Way galaxy contains a 100 billion stars, and there are billions of other galaxies, each with billions of stars. Astronomers are finding many stars have planets, so the number of planets in the cosmos could be staggering. If even a fraction of them have life-friendly conditions, that's still billions of potential "homes" for life. And if an abundance of life has evolved on our planet, why not on countless others as well?

While I'd be amazed if the cosmos didn't abound in life, I doubt "they" necessarily resemble us. Like all Earth life, we are evolutionary adaptations to conditions on Earth, and who even knows what we'll look or be like in another 100,000 years. Assuming evolution is a fundamental process of nature, other life will be evolutionary adaptations to their planets' conditions.

As for contacting other life, don't hold your breath. The cosmos is incredibly large with vast distances separating stars and galaxies. A message from our nearest stellar neighbor would take over 4 years to reach us, and a message from the "nearby" Andromeda galaxy would take over 2 million years. By the time we got their message, the Andromedian senders might well be extinct!

And as for the likelihood of a visit from alien beings, that is best left to the realm of science fiction--at least for now.

  • New Stargazer Book: The Stargazer's new 87-page, self-published book, Learning the Night Sky, is now available for $15 or $17.50 by mail.

Back to Top

March 1, 2003

The Voyager Mission

Just over 25 years ago NASA launched two spacecraft known as the Voyager mission. Voyager 2 left Earth Aug. 20, 1977, followed 16 days later by Voyager 1. These amazing explorers increased our knowledge about our solar system's four giant gas planets--Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune--more than the most optimistic planners had dared dream.

In 1979, both Voyagers flew by Jupiter, nearly a half-billion miles away. Then in 1980 and 1981, they passed Saturn, nearly a billion miles distant. (Both planets had been visited previously--Jupiter by Pioneer 10 in 1973 and 11 in 1974, and Saturn by Pioneer 11 in 1979.)

Voyagers used gravitational assist to speed up their journey. As they passed Jupiter, itself moving thousands of miles per hour around the Sun, the planet's gravity and direction of motion propelled the craft onward, like a skater at the end of a line of skaters in a "pop the whip" maneuver.

After passing Saturn Voyager 1 turned away from the plane of the planets. But Voyager 2's work was only half done. Moving into unexplored territory, Voyager 2 passed Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989. (Pluto was not in position for a Voyager visit.)

In 12 years Voyager discovered 23 moons, confirmed the existence of rings around each of the gas giants, and even discovered that Jupiter's moon Io is geologically alive with active volcanoes. Aside from scientific contributions, more impressive to us ordinary folks were the dazzling photos of the planets and their moons and rings.

Amazingly the Voyager mission continues. From distances well beyond Pluto--Voyager 1 at 8 billion miles, Voyager 2 over 6 billion miles--both still return data as they head for the outer limits of our Sun's magnetic influence and toward interstellar (between the stars) space.

It's easy to lack appreciation for the marvel of Voyager, equipped only with 1970s technology. (Remember the 70s--no personal computers, cell phones, digital cameras, CDs and other things we take for granted today?) And looking around your home and workplace, how many pieces of equipment been in service since 1977 with no maintenance or repairs?

In what probably has mostly symbolic value, Voyager is also an ambassador from Earth. Each carries a gold-plated phonograph record with encoded images, greetings and Earth sounds--a "message from Earth" to any intelligent life forms which might intercept Voyager, even centuries or millennia into the future.

  • ASTRO MILESTONES: Mar. 13 is the 222nd anniversary of William Herschel's 1781 discovery of Uranus. Mar. 14 is the 124th anniversary of the birth of German-American cosmologist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) whose name is synonymous with "genius."

Back to Top

February 15, 2003

Orion the Hunter

Other than the Big Dipper, there's probably no better known star pattern than Orion the Hunter. This time of year he stands tall high in the south around 8 p.m. One of the premiere constellations of winter, Orion is distinctive in several ways.

Of the night sky's 21 brightest stars (classified as 1st-magnitude), 16 are visible from most of the U.S. (The other 5 are too far south to rise above our horizon.) Orion is the only constellation we can see with 2 of these 1st-magnitude stars.

Perhaps even more eye-catching is Orion's belt, formed by three equally-spaced, nearly equally-bright 2nd-magnitude stars in a row, a configuration found nowhere else in the night sky.

Orion's brightest star, Rigel, is a blue-white supergiant vastly larger and brighter than our Sun. If viewed from Rigel's distance, our Sun wouldn't even be visible to the naked eye.

Some 15 degrees to Rigel's upper left is the red supergiant, Betelgeuse, also much larger and brighter than our Sun. (The width of your fist held at arm's length is 10 degrees.) Being in the last stages of its stellar life, Betelgeuse could supernova any day. (Astronomically, that means it could happen tonight or anytime within the next several hundred thousand years.)

Orion's 3 belt stars--Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka--are located half way between Rigel and Betelgeuse on a diagonal pointed to the upper right. Less prominent is Orion's sword, a fainter row of stars hanging below the belt. Binoculars easily reveal that the sword's middle "star" is really a star-birthing cosmic cloud called the Orion nebula.

Orion enters our evening sky in the late fall, is highest in the winter, and leaves in the early spring. Thus unlike many earthly animals, Orion "hibernates" in the summer. He must be a northerner who can't handle our hot Texas summers.

  • ASTRO MILESTONES: Feb. 15 is the 439th anniversary of the birth of Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who spent his last years under house arrest--condemned by the Papal church-state of the heretical "sin" of demonstrating that the Earth and other planets orbit the Sun. * Feb. 18 is the 73rd anniversary of Clyde Tombaugh's discovery of planet Pluto from Lowell Observatory near Flagstaff, Arizona. * Feb. 19 is the 530th anniversary of the birth of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) whose theory that the Sun, not Earth, is at the center of the universe revolutionized scientific and theological thinking in the western world.

Back to Top

February 02, 2002

Things That Move in the Night

When stargazing, it's not uncommon to see things move across the night sky. I'm not referring to the gradual motion of the stars caused by Earth's rotation, or the Moon's orbital movement. I mean objects traveling at clearly perceptible rates.

Perhaps the most dramatic are meteors--those small pieces of space debris streaking across the sky in their fiery demise as they burn up in our atmosphere. Even more fascinating to many are slower-moving, human-made satellites orbiting high above Earth. While most meteors (also called shooting stars and falling stars) are visible only a second or less, satellites can be followed for several seconds, and some even a minute or more.

There are also high-flying airplanes, less interesting, but often confused with satellites. If there's a red, green or blinking light--and it might take binoculars to tell--it's a plane as satellites don't have external lights. They only reflect sunlight, making them look like stars slowly moving across the sky. Since their light is reflected sunlight, they are only seen for a couple of hours after dark or before dawn, not deep into the night when the Sun is far below the horizon.

Some are so faint as to be barely perceptible while others can be brighter than Venus. Often their brightness increases, then gradually decreases until they fade away.

Satellites travel far higher and faster than planes--100-300 miles above Earth at thousands of miles per hour compared to planes' altitudes of 6-7 miles at speeds of a few hundred mph.

Meteors, traveling at tens of thousands of miles per hour, are far faster than satellites--but not higher. Most are no more than 50-70 miles above Earth. So while from Earth we look up at meteors, orbiting astronauts look down at them.

  • Astro Milestones: Feb. 3 is the 97th anniversary of the birth of Pluto-discoverer Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997), the only American astronomer to discover a planet.

Back to Top

January 18, 2003

Stargazing and Comfort

As an avid stargazer I have an embarrassing confession: I'm a cold-weather wimp. I love the night sky, but I just can't enjoy all those heavenly bodies when my own body is shivering and my toes, fingers and nose are feeling nothing but pain.

Fortunately not all stargazers are such wimps. Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930, spent many freezing nights in an open, unheated Arizona observatory. And comet-hunter David Levy surely would have missed some of his discoveries had he wimped out on cold nights. Even some of my own stargazing buddies brave the cold long after I've gone home.

I'm probably not going to make any great discoveries, but then that's not what drives me. I stargaze for enjoyment, so comfort is important to me. If it's also important to you, here are some tips to consider when stargazing.

Weather, of course, is a major comfort factor. Always take at least one more layer of clothing than you think you'll need. As the night progresses, the temperature drops. Unless you're unusually hyperactive, stargazing is a sedentary activity that keeps the body's metabolism rate low, so that after a while 50 degrees can feel like it's freezing. Keep a cap, gloves, ear-muffs and even some extra socks in your observing bag.

Insect repellent should also be in your bag. It's no fun stargazing while slapping mosquitoes and scratching itchy bites.

You'll probably want a reclining lawn chair, especially for meteor showers and binocular viewing. You'd be surprised how tired your neck and arms can get when looking up while standing.

Finally, you might want drinks and snacks. In cold weather, coffee, hot tea or hot chocolate can be as welcome as stargazing companions. In fact, maybe even take enough to share.

  • Column Anniversary: With this column, Stargazer begins its 14th year. Thanks for your continued interest.

Back to Top

January 4, 2003

Astronomical Highlights for 2003

The past year featured some interesting stargazing shows--several dazzling planetary alignments and conjunctions, a couple of good meteor showers, and even an unexpected naked-eye comet. And this year's line-up promises some good shows of its own, including one show-stopper performance by the planet Mars.

Indeed, 2003 might aptly be called "the year of Mars." Not only will the red planet be in our night sky the entire year, in late August it will come closer to Earth, and appear larger and brighter, than it's been in recorded history. Now visible in the morning, Mars will move into the evening sky in early summer as it brightens with each passing night.

But Mars won't be the year's only show. Saturn and Jupiter will dominate the evening sky into the summer, and Saturn is giving one of the best displays of its famous rings in years. Venus, the "morning star" until summer, will pass near Neptune and Uranus in March, helping telescopic observers locate the faint, difficult-to-find planets.

There will be two solar eclipses, but neither will be visible from the U.S. We will, however, get to see a total eclipse of the Moon in May and again in November. May will also feature a transit of Mercury, when the solar system's tiny, innermost planet passes across the face of the Sun (as seen from Earth), but unfortunately it won't be visible from North America.

The year is not promising for meteor showers as the best ones, such as August's Perseids, will be washed out by moonlight. A couple of lesser-known comets are due to return and could reach naked-eye visibility. We'll keep you posted.

Regarding the Mars' show--this will surely receive much media attention, but be wary. Hopefully most of what you hear and read will be sound, but some might be sensationalized hype. Finally, talk with a member of your local astronomy club before buying any "Mars-watcher" telescopes that might hit the market.

Back to Top


 Copyright by Paul Derrick.  Permission is granted for free electronic distribution as long as this paragraph is included.  For permission to publish in any other form, please contact the author at