Paul Derrick's Stargazer



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

Stargazer Columns 2007

Dec. 29, 2007: Earth Closest to the Sun
Dec. 15, 2007: Dispelling Dangerous Theories
Dec. 01, 2007: It's Time to Start Watching for Mars
Nov. 17, 2007: Comet Holmes Bursts on the Scene
Nov. 03, 2007: Birth, Life, and Death in the Cosmos
Oct. 20, 2007: Most Days Really Aren't 24 Hours
Oct. 06, 2007: Watching Satellites
Sep. 22, 2007: The Space Age at 50
Sep. 08, 2007: Keeping Stargazing in Perspective
Aug. 25, 2007: Early Morning Total Lunar Eclipse
Aug. 11, 2007: Good Year for Perseid Meteors
July 28, 2007: The Mars Hoax Is Back
July 14, 2007: July 16 Early Evening Rendezvous
June 30, 2007: Names of Some Prominent Stars of Spring and Summer
June 16, 2007: Venus Closes in on Saturn
June 2, 2007: MESSENGER to Mercury
May 19, 2007: Venus -- A Heaven or Hell?
May 05, 2007: Omega Centauri -- a Southern Jewel
Apr. 21, 2007: Ancient Astronomers
Apr. 07, 2007: Long-range Anticipations
Mar. 24, 2007: Farewell to Orion and the Winter Arc
Mar. 10, 2007: The Stargazer and UFOs?
Feb. 24, 2007: Earth Report
Feb. 10, 2007: New Horizons and Gravity Assist
Jan. 27, 2007: Using Venus to Find Uranus
Jan. 13, 2007: Night Sky Highlights for 2007

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December 29, 2007
Stargazer #469

Earth Closest to the Sun

On Jan. 2, in the heart of winter, we will be closer to the Sun than at any point in the year, a fact that begs two questions: Why are we closer? Why aren't we hotter?

If Earth's orbit around the Sun was perfectly circular we would always remain 93 millions miles away, but our path is slightly oval-shaped, called elliptical. So once each year we reach a point farthest from the Sun, and once nearest.

At the farthest point, called aphelion, we are 94.8 million miles away, and at the nearest, called perihelion, 91.1 million miles from the Sun. Perihelion, always in early January, is Jan. 2 this year, and aphelion, in early July, will be July 4.

So if we're now closer to the Sun, why is it cold?

If our orbit was more elliptical, like Mars', then perihelion and aphelion would have a noticeable effect on our temperature, as it does on Mars. But since our distance from the Sun varies by only 4%, it isn't enough to make much of a difference.

Our seasonal temperature variations result from an event that occurred a few billion years ago when the solar system was young. A planet-like object (likely Mars-sized) struck Earth a glancing blow. This cataclysmic event destroyed the other body, and many astronomers theorize that debris blasted from Earth eventually formed our Moon.

The collision also knocked Earth a little wacky, leaving it with a 23-degree tilt on its axis--and this tilt creates our seasons.

During Earth's annual orbit around the Sun, the northern and southern hemispheres take turns tilting toward and away from the Sun. When a hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun, the Sun's warming rays strike that half of Earth more directly and days are longer yielding more daily hours of exposure to the Sun's warmth.

The hemisphere tilted away from the Sun experiences the opposite as Sun's rays strike at a greater angle and there are fewer daily hours of warming sunlight.

Our northern hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun September through March, centering around Dec. 21, the first day of winter. At that same time, the southern hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun so Dec. 21 marks first day of summer below the equator. The other half of the year the seasons are reversed.

So aphelion and perihelion coming within two weeks of the summer and winter solstices is a coincidence that has no bearing on our seasons.

  • Next Two Weeks. Avg. sunrise: 7:29 a.m.; avg. sunset: 5:39 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * Today the Moon is at 3rd quarter.
    * Tue. (Jan. 1) the Moon is to the lower right of the star Spica.
    * Thu. night/Fri. morning (Jan. 3/4) the Quadrantid meteor shower peaks in the northeast with little interference from the crescent Moon which rises at 4 a.m. on Friday to the right of Venus.
    * The morning of Jan. 5 the Moon is below the star Antares.
    * The mornings of Jan. 7 & 8 Venus passes nearest Antares.
    * The Moon is new Jan. 8.
    * The latest sunrise for latitude 30 degrees north is on Jan. 9.

  • Naked-eye Planets. Evening: Mars, well up in the east, dominates the evening sky as Saturn rises around 10 p.m. Morning: Venus is the brilliant "morning star" in the east, Saturn is high in the southwest, and Mars is setting in the west.

  • New Telescope? If you have a new telescope, bring it to the Central Texas Astronomical Society's star party tonight at the Waco Wetlands starting at 7 p.m. where members will offer free instruction. For a map and directions MAPS & DIRECTIONS elsewhere in this website.

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December 15, 2007
Stargazer #468

Dispelling Dangerous Theories

The other day old Zeke told me he wanted to dispel a couple of dumb and dangerous theories he'd read about in my columns--dumb because "they fly in the face of common sense" and dangerous because "they undermine our cherished traditions." I invited him to proceed.

"First of all," he said, "it's incredible for you to claim the Earth is round. Don't you even believe your own eyes?"

It seems Zeke conducted a little experiment a few years back during a trip to Australia, the one and only plane trip he's ever taken. Checking a world globe before he left, he found Australia at the globe's bottom, and decided it was a perfect test case.

While en route, flying high above the Pacific, he watched the Earth from his window the entire way. "Not once," he said emphatically, "did I see anything but flat ocean beneath me. From horizon to horizon--flatter'n a flipper."

But the real theory-killer came when he landed. If the round-Earthers were right, then he figured he'd find Australia, being at the bottom of the globe, to be upside down. "But, heck no!" he reported. "When I stepped off that airplane, everything was upright, just like I knew it would be. People walked with their feet down, trees grew up, and the sky, Sun, Moon and stars were all up above--so there!" he stated triumphantly.

So much for the silly round-Earth theory. He then launched immediately into the dumb second theory.

"And contrary to all evidence," he exclaimed, "you tell folks that the Sun rather than the Earth is at the center of things, and what's more, you want us to believe that little ball of fire is really huge when any fool can see it's no bigger than our tiny Moon." "All you have to do," he pleaded, "is stay outside from dawn to dusk and watch the little bugger go across the sky." "It's so obvious." Zeke said, full of exasperation, "It comes up in the east, scoots across the sky during the day, and then goes down in the west--day after day, year after year. And if you'd just notice, at night the stars and planets do the same."

"What more evidence do you need?" he asked. Then showing great alarm, old Zeke looked me square in the eye and said, "Paul, these kinds of theories are dangerous. Next thing you know, hair-brains like you are gonna start saying there's aliens out there--aliens that's even smarter than us."

Shaking his head, he asked, "Why can't you science-types just accept it? The universe was made for us and us alone, not for no aliens?"

He was quite distressed that these "stupid theories" have found their way into schools and textbooks. When I asked him what he thought about the theory of evolution, Zeke just spit on the ground and said, "Don't even get me started."

  • Next Two Weeks. Ave. sunrise: 7:24 a.m.; ave. sunset: 5:30 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * The Moon is at 1st quarter Monday.
    * Winter begins Dec. 22.
    * The Dec. 23 full Moon, called Long Night Moon and Moon Before Yule, is within one moonwidth of Mars.
    * The morning of Dec. 28 the Moon is between the star Regulus (upper right) and Saturn (left).

  • Naked-eye Planets. Mars is now at its best and brightest, so don't miss it as it rises in the east at sunset and is up all night. Saturn comes up before midnight and is high in the south by morning. Venus is still the brilliant "morning star" in the east.

December 1, 2007
Stargazer #467

It's Time to Start Watching for Mars

OK, now it really is time to start watching for Mars. No, it won't look as big as a full Moon--it never does, regardless of what you read on the Internet. It won't even be as bright as it was in 2003, but will still be brighter than any star.

About every other year Mars spends six or so months in our evening sky. It is now up by 8 p.m. and rising a few minutes earlier each night. It then spends the rest of night moving across the sky and is high in the west by morning.

Some years Mars appears brighter than others, and this year is average. All planets circle the Sun in elliptical rather than circular orbits, so at times they are a bit nearer the Sun and at other times further. Thus sometimes Earth and Mars pass nearer each other than other times, and the nearer they pass the larger and brighter Mars looks.

Four years ago Mars and Earth passed about as close as they ever can, and Mars was dazzling--brighter even than Jupiter. It won't be that bright again until 2016, 2018, and 2020. The best of those three in 2018 will approach what we saw in 2003.

So, let's see how to find Mars which, like the Sun, Moon and other planets, rises approximately in the east. Known as the red planet, Mars does appear reddish, but so does Orion's bright star Betelgeuse. And by coincidence, the two now rise at the same time and rather near each other. As the star is rising almost due east, the planet is coming up 20 degrees to its left--twice the width of your fist held at arm's length. Even though Betelgeuse is one of the brightest stars, Mars is noticeably brighter.

Viewed with naked eyes or binoculars Mars looks like a bright star, however, through a telescope it appears as a small red-tinted ball. If you've seen Saturn in a scope, Mars now appears about the same size. In larger scopes some surface features might be discernible as well as one, or possibly both, polar caps. (It's spring on Mars so neither pole is tilted toward the Sun or us.)

For the next few weeks Mars will continue to rise earlier and grow brighter. It comes closest to Earth Dec. 18, and is at its brightest the entire last half of December. When it reaches opposition (opposite the Sun from Earth) on Dec. 24 it will rise at sunset, be visible all night, and set at sunrise--a nice holiday gift from Mother Nature.

  • Next Two Weeks. Ave. sunrise: 7:16 a.m.; ave. sunset: 5:25 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * This morning the 3rd quarter Moon is below Saturn high in the south.
    * Monday evening is the earliest sunset at latitude 30 degrees north.
    * Wed. morning the crescent Moon is below the star Spica and to the right of Venus in the southeast.
    * The Moon is new Dec. 9.
    * The nights of Dec. 13 & 14 the Geminid meteor shower peaks with the best viewing being from mid evening after the Moon sets until sunrise.

  • Naked-eye Planets. Evening: Jupiter is sinking into the setting Sun; Mars is up by 8 p.m. Morning: Brilliant Venus dominates the eastern sky while Saturn in high in the south and Mars high in the west.

  • Star Party. The Central Texas Astronomical Society hosts its free monthly star party tonight at the Waco Wetlands starting at 7 p.m. Following an indoor program will be a laser-pointer guided tour of the night sky and telescope viewing. See my website for directions and a map.

November 17, 2007
Stargazer #466

Comet Holmes Bursts on the Scene

Talk about bursting on the scene...that's exactly what Comet Holmes has done. Discovered in 1892, this comet is usually so faint that most amateur telescopes can't even see it. But recently that changed, and literally overnight.

Oct. 23 the comet was its usual faint self, but within hours it flared out dramatically, and within 2 days was 1 million times brighter and visible to naked eyes. Astronomers aren't sure what caused this, but they have an idea.

Comets are composed of a nucleus, a head, and a tail. At its core is the solid nucleus composed mostly of ice embedded with rock and carbon materials. Dubbed a "dirty snowball," the nucleus is usually no more than a few miles in diameter, and far too small to be visible from Earth. (Recent studies suggest that this conception may need modification, but that's another story.)

Surrounding the nucleus is the head (also called the coma), a cloud of gas and dust. The head is much larger, often ranging up to many thousands of miles in diameter. (The diameter of Comet Holmes' head is now larger than our Sun.) This we can see from Earth as sunlight reflects off the cloud, like auto headlights reflect off fog.

Some comets also develop a tail, a long span of gas and dust streaming away from the comet's nucleus and head. Comet tails, also visible by reflected sunlight, can extend for millions of miles. (Some comets, including Holmes, have very faint ion tails that are usually visible only in photos.)

Astronomers suspect that when Comet Holmes came nearer the Sun in its elliptical orbit, the Sun's warmth caused part of its nucleus to rupture and release a cloud gasses and dust. This quickly formed the unusually bright head, although as of yet, virtually no visible tail.

It's not known how long Comet Holmes will to be easily visible, but it is still a fairly easy target. Under reasonably dark skies naked eyes see it looking like a rather faint star. Through binoculars it looks like a big fuzzy cloud, subtle and diffuse, but unmistakable, even from with cities.

To find Comet Holmes, face northeast around 7 p.m. and look for the bright star, Capella, 10 degrees above the horizon. (Your fist held at arm's length is 10 degrees wide.) About 20 degrees above Capella is the fainter Alpha Persei, the brightest star in Perseus. Comet Holmes, which is gradually moving each night to the upper right against the background stars, is currently near Alpha Persei. The comet, up virtually all night, is nearly straight overhead by midnight.

Here's hoping we have clear skies and that Comet Holmes stays bright a while longer. For regular updates, see

  • Next Two Weeks. Ave. sunrise: 7:04 a.m.; ave. sunset: 5:26 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * Tonight (Saturday) the Moon is at 1st quarter.
    * Tomorrow (Sunday) morning the Leonid meteor shower peaks with the best viewing coming after the Moon sets at midnight.
    * The Nov. 24 full Moon is called Frosty Moon and Beaver Moon.
    * The evening of Nov. 26 the bright gibbous Moon is four moonwidths to the left of Mars.
    * The morning of Nov. 30 Venus passes to the left of Virgo's brightest star Spica.

  • Naked-eye Planets. (The Sun, Moon and planets rise in the east and set in the west due to Earth's west-to-east rotation.) Evening: As Jupiter is sinking into the setting Sun in the west, Mars is rising in the east a little earlier each night. Morning: Before dawn Mercury is just above the eastern horizon with brilliant Venus above and Saturn even further up, and Mars is high in the west.

November 3, 2007
Stargazer #465

Birth, Life, and Death in the Cosmos

We're well aware of nature's process of birth, life, and death. It is so fundamental it transcends biological life and applies to most things in nature, all the way to the cosmic level.

In stargazing virtually all we view are stars in one stage or another of their life-cycle. Today's column will look at star birth; we'll deal with star life and death in subsequent columns.

Stars live out their life cycle in galaxies--swirling aggregates of gas, dust, and stars. Our Milky Way galaxy, 100,000 light years in diameter, contains 100 billion stars. With many billions of galaxies in the cosmos, the number of stars is staggering.

Within galaxies, stars are born in cosmic clouds of gas (most hydrogen) called star-birthing nebulae. The force forming them is gravity--the mutual attraction all physical objects have for one another. Gravity causes the gas clouds to contract into multiple swirling clumps, each clump destined to become a star.

As each swirling clump grows, its gravitational attraction increases, causing it to pull in more gas, making it even bigger. As this clump, called a protostar, grows it becomes heavier and its central core becomes increasingly compact.

Did you ever play "pile on" where kids see how big a pile of kids they can make. It's a dangerous game because as more kids pile on top, those on the bottom are crushed by hundreds of pounds, enough of which can eventually cause injury or worse.

With a protostar, as material piles on, the core gets so crushed that the pressure and temperature in the core rise to incredible levels. Finally atoms of hydrogen are forced together and merge into atoms of helium. Called nuclear fusion, it is a reaction that gives off vast amounts of energy including heat and light.

When fusion begins, the inward pressure of gravity begins to be countered by the outward pressure of the nuclear reactions, the piling on stops, and the star is born.

Planets are formed from debris still swirling around (orbiting) the new star when it turns on. Larger stars collapse quickly and form in 10s of thousands of years while smaller stars take a billion years. Our average size Sun formed in 30 million years.

While the Hubble Space Telescope has taken images of protostars, they are beyond the reach of amateurs. We do, however, see many star-birthing nebulae (called star nurseries) and new stars within them. The best-known is the Orion Nebula, the middle "star" in Orion's sword. It appears as a fuzzy star to naked eyes, a tiny cloud in binoculars, and is breath-taking in telescopes. Now up before 11 p.m., Orion rises a few minutes earlier each evening so watch for it low in the east.

  • Next Two Weeks. Ave. sunrise: 6:52 a.m.; ave. sunset: 5:33 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * Monday morning the Moon is to the upper right of Venus.
    * Wednesday morning a thin crescent Moon is above Spica which is to the right of brighter Mercury, all near the eastern horizon an hour before sunrise.
    * The Moon is new Friday.
    * The evening of Nov. 12 the crescent Moon to the lower left of Jupiter low in the southwest at dusk.

  • Naked-eye Planets. Evening: Jupiter is sinking into the setting Sun. Morning: Before dawn Mercury is just above the eastern horizon with brilliant Venus above and Saturn further up. Mars rises in mid-evening and is in the southwest by morning.

October 20, 2007
Stargazer #464

Most Days Really Aren't 24 Hours

When we speak of short winter days and long summer days, we're referring to changes in the hours of daylight during the year. But, of course, we know that even though the amount of sunlight varies with the seasons, every day really lasts 24 hours--the time it takes Earth to make one rotation on its axis relative to the Sun.

Right? Wrong! In reality, the lengths of days really do change, but we're scarcely aware of it. While the average length of a day is 24 hours, actually only four days each year are exactly 24 hours. All the others are either more or less than 24 hours, deviating by as little as a second up to a half a minute or so.

This variation is caused by a combination of two factors. The Earth's tilt on its axis, which also causes seasons, is partly to blame. But the main culprit is the fact that Earth's orbit around the Sun is a slightly oblong circle called an ellipse.

Because of its elliptical orbit, Earth in early January comes nearest the Sun (called perigee) and in early July swings farthest from the Sun (called apogee). When nearer the Sun it travels a little faster than when it's further away.

Analemma of Sun

So Earth's speed around the Sun isn't constant, but its rotation on its axis is--producing differing day lengths. In theory, the Sun would be exactly due south every day at noon (ignoring one's location within a time zone and daylight time). But when Earth is traveling slower around the Sun seconds are shaved off the days, and conversely when traveling faster seconds are added.

The accompanying diagram, called an analemma, displays the Sun's noontime position throughout the year. In addition to showing that the noonday Sun is lowest in the winter and highest in the summer, it also shows that usually the Sun is either early or late in reaching due south. At the extremes, it reaches south 16 minutes after noon in early November and 14 minutes before noon in early February.

Yes, we got a bit technical this time, but I hope you stayed with me. When trying to make sense of the analemma, keep in mind that the pattern is produced by the interaction of two effects--Earth's tilt and its elliptical orbit.

  • Next Two Weeks. Ave. sunrise: 7:40 a.m.; ave. sunset: 6:44 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * The Orionid meteor shower peaks tomorrow (Sunday) morning and will be best after the Moon sets around 2:30 a.m.
    * Thursday's full Moon is the Hunter's Moon.
    * The morning of Oct. 30 the Moon is to the right of bright Mars high in the southwest.
    * Oct. 31, Halloween, is a traditional cross-quarter day celebrating the middle of fall.
    * The Moon is at 3rd quarter Nov. 1.

  • Naked-eye Planets. (The Sun, Moon and planets rise in the east and set in the west due to Earth's west-to-east rotation.) Evening: Jupiter is the brightest object low in the southwest. Morning: Venus is the brilliant object in the east with Saturn the brightest object above it. Bright red Mars rises before midnight and is high in the south by morning.

  • Astro Milestones. Oct. 29 is the 351st birthday of English astronomer Edmund Halley (1656-1742) of Halley's Comet fame.

October 6, 2007
Stargazer #463

Watching Satellites

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1957 launch of the first human-made satellite, Sputnik 1, many can recall the awe of seeing Sputnik and other first generation satellites move across the night sky. Most were small and faint, but still a thrill to see when one was lucky enough to be out at the right time.

Even 50 years later, the awe is still there. At star parties it's not unusual to hear, "Look, there's a satellite." We marvel at seeing things we know to be in outer space.

In contrast to the earlier days, there are now vastly more satellites, and most are bigger and brighter--some much brighter. And we don't have to be so lucky to spot one as virtually every night several pass overhead.

Sometimes high-flying airplanes are confused with satellites as a plane flying 500 mph at 30,000 feet appears to be moving about the same speed as a satellite traveling 17,000 mph 200 miles above Earth. If there's a red, green or blinking light--and sometimes it takes binoculars to be sure--you're seeing an airplane. Satellites, which don't have external lights, have shiny surfaces that reflect sunlight like big mirrors.

Since satellites are visible only by reflecting sunlight, they are rarely seen more than 2-3 hours after sunset or before sunrise, when the Sun is below our horizon yet still visible at the satellite's altitude.

It's fun being surprised spotting a satellite, but you don't have to leave it to luck. Satellites are highly predictable, and there are websites that tell when and what satellites will be visible over your location, what time, where to look, how bright they will get, and even how long they will be visible.

The best website I'm aware of is at If you've never used Heavens-Above you'll need to register the first time, but it free and easy. Be prepared to enter the latitude and longitude of your viewing location.

And if you want the exact time, you can get it by tuning a shortwave radio to 5,000, 10,000 or 15,000 kHz. Time is given in Universal Time, so in Texas subtract 6 hours (5 hours when daylight time is in effect).

  • Next Two Weeks. Ave. sunrise: 7:30 a.m.; ave. sunset: 6:59 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * Tomorrow morning low in the east look for a close grouping of two planets, a star and the Moon as brilliant Venus and the fainter star Regulus are just above the crescent Moon and Saturn; all will fit within the field of view of most binoculars.
    * Tuesday morning the Draconid (Giacobinid) meteor shower peaks with virtually no Moon interference. * The Moon is new Thursday.
    * The morning of Oct. 14 Venus passes six moonwidths to the right of Saturn.
    * The early evening of Oct. 15 the crescent Moon is below Jupiter with the red star Antares to the Moon's lower right.
    * The Moon is at 1st quarter Oct. 19.

  • Naked-eye Planets. (The Sun, Moon and planets rise in the east and set in the west due to Earth's west-to-east rotation.) Evening: Jupiter is the brightest object in the southwest. Morning: Saturn and Venus are the brightest objects low in the east with red Mars high in the southeast.

  • Star Party. The Central Texas Astronomical Society hosts its free monthly star party tonight at the Waco Wetlands starting at 7:30 p.m. Following an indoor program will be a laser-pointer guided tour of the night sky and telescope viewing. See my website for directions and a map.

September 22, 2007
Stargazer #462

The Space Age at 50

When I reflect on my childhood on Galveston Bay, and then look at the world I find myself in today, I wonder when it was that someone surreptitiously beamed me to another planet. The upcoming 50th anniversary of Sputnik 1 definitely elicits such wonderings.

Flashing back to 1954... Our scout troop held a campout across Clear Lake a few miles from my home at which, according to an old newspaper story, we "enjoyed nature study and saw deer, wild turkeys, rabbits and squirrels, and heard owls and wolves in the distance." Never in our wildest imaginations could we have guessed that a decade later that very wilderness would be NASA's Mission Control.

Then to 1957... In a Clear Creek High School physics class, we marveled at the news of Russia's launch of Sputnik 1. Until then outer space had been the exclusive domain of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and other science fiction characters.

But rather than envision what Sputnik might portend for our future, we worried that Russia was getting ahead of us in the Cold War. Even so, we could no more have anticipated the progeny of that modest little satellite than we could have envisioned our wilderness camp as Mission Control.

On October 4, 1957, the Russians didn't merely launch a tiny 23-inch round satellite--they launched the Space Age. In so doing they laid the groundwork for revolutionary changes in our world, changes that 50 years ago would have been difficult to predict.

Few areas of life today are untouched by the Space Age and the fleet of satellites swarming around Earth. We watch television signals beamed from 22,000 miles above and see images of storms and other weather patterns. With satellite radio we no longer encounter radio-dead zones when we travel, and with GPS navigation devices we don't have to wonder where we are, or how to get to where we want to go. We can access the Internet via satellites and have our telephone voices bounced around the world. For fun we can use Google Earth to look for our house, while not-for-fun military and other reconnaissance satellites can see not just our house but us! And who hasn't enjoyed the amazing photos from the Hubble Space Telescope?

And these are just some examples of life in the post-Sputnik Space Age. I doubt if we can we even begin to imagine what our grandkids' lives will be like 50 years down the road in 2057. Will 2007 seem to them like another planet?
  • Next Two Weeks. Ave. sunrise: 7:21 a.m.; ave. sunset: 7:16 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * Tonight at dusk Mercury is less than two moonwidths to the upper left of slightly fainter Spica low in the west.
    * Sunday is the first day of fall.
    * Wednesday's full Moon is the Fruit Moon, and the Harvest Moon being the full Moon nearest the fall equinox.
    * The mornings of Oct. 2 & 3 the Moon passes to the upper left, then lower left of Mars high in the southeast.
    * The Moon is at 3rd quarter Oct 3.
    * The morning of Oct. 4 the star Regulus is between two planets--Venus above and Saturn below.
    * The next morning the Beehive star cluster is 2 moonwidths off the right horn of the crescent Moon, with Venus, Regulus and Saturn below them; binoculars will help see the cluster.

  • Naked-eye Planets. Evening: Mercury is near the western horizon at dusk and Jupiter is the brightest object in the southwest. Morning: Saturn and brilliant Venus are the brightest objects low in the east with Mars high in the southeast.

September 8, 2007
Stargazer #461

Keeping Stargazing in Perspective

My wife and I, both retired, share a home office where we spend considerable time engaged in our individual endeavors. Usually we work quietly and are only vaguely aware of what the other is doing. Recently, however, I found her activity distracting.

A member of Waco's Community Race Relations Coalition, she was previewing a DVD on racism on her computer. As hard as I tried, I couldn't tune it out even though it wasn't overly loud. It was the subject matter I found deeply disturbing.

Without belaboring the details, the DVD forced me, once again, to examine a question I revisit from time to time: How can I spend time peering at other worlds when in our own world so many fellow passengers on Spaceship Earth live in such pain and need?

All my life I've embraced the ideal of leaving the world better than I found it. Becoming a father reinforced that resolve, and likely contributed to my choice of a career in social work where I spent 35 years trying to improve my small corner of the world.

A part of me asks: Haven't I now earned the right to retire to the sidelines? Haven't I fulfilled my obligation to humanity? Didn't my 35 years help make the world at least a little better? But before I can give myself permission to rest on my laurels, another part of me asks: So am I now satisfied with the world I'm leaving my young grandchildren? Can I now ignore my fellow passengers' continuing plights?

Of course not, which is why I stay involved and continue making my modest contributions. But given the distressing state of our world, why am I not spending every waking moment working to improve it? And why haven't I sold my telescopes and given the money to the local hunger relief agency or homeless shelter?

I solace myself with the notion of balance. We all know examples of the perils of "all work and no play" as well as the empty folly of "all play and no work." Both remind us of the importance, indeed necessity, of balance in our lives.

So I stargaze. Am I rationalizing? I hope not, but I do wonder why my questions periodically resurface. Maybe re-examining them helps me maintain the right balance and perspective in my life.

  • Next Two Weeks. Average sunrise: 7:13 a.m.; average sunset: 7:34 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * This morning a thin crescent Moon is below the Beehive star cluster with Venus to their lower left low in the east before dawn.
    * Tuesday's new Moon produces a partial solar eclipse that won't be visible here.
    * Thursday evening a thin crescent Moon is between the star Spica (upper left) and Mercury (right) low in the west after sunset.
    * The evening of Sep. 17, the Moon is below Antares with Jupiter above them.
    * The next evening they form a triangle.
    * The Moon is at 1st quarter Sep. 19.
    * The evening of Sep. 21 Mercury is a moonwidth to the lower right of Spica near the western horizon after sunset; binoculars will help.

  • Naked-eye Planets. Evening: Mercury is low in the west at dusk; Jupiter is the brightest object in the southwest. Morning: Saturn begins to emerge ahead of the rising Sun as Venus becomes the brilliant "morning star" low in the east and Mars is high in the southeast.

  • Star Party. The Central Texas Astronomical Society hosts its free monthly star party tonight at the Waco Wetlands starting at 7:30 p.m. Following an indoor program will be a laser-pointer guided tour of the night sky and telescope viewing. See my Web site for directions and a map.

August 25, 2007
Stargazer #460

Early Morning Total Lunar Eclipse

The Aug. 28 full Moon passes through Earth's shadow producing a total eclipse of the Moon. The good news: much of the eclipse will be visible over Texas. The bad news: it occurs in the wee hours before most of us are up.

Lunar eclipses only happen at full Moon when the Moon, passing on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun, moves through Earth's shadow. This full Moon is called Grain Moon and Green Corn Moon, but it won't be green.

Depending upon Earth's atmospheric conditions it might disappear in darkness during totality when the entire Moon is in Earth's shadow. However, it is more likely to be deep orange or an eerie coppery color. As sunlight passes Earth, the atmosphere around our planet's outer ring (as seen from the Sun) bends rays from the red end of the light spectrum so that part of the Sun's light shines into Earth's shadow, coloring the eclipsed Moon red.

If there are heavy clouds, air pollution, smoke or volcanic ash in the atmosphere to block even the red rays, the Moon disappears into virtual darkness.

The earliest stage of eclipse, producing a subtle shading of the Moon, begins just before 3 a.m. (CDT). It will barely be noticeable so you can sleep through it without missing much.

However you'll want to be out by 3:50 a.m. when the partial eclipse begins and Earth's shadow begins taking an increasingly large bite out of the Moon. This "consuming of the Moon," as some earlier cultures viewed it, continues for an hour until totality begins at 4:52 a.m. We will then see whether the Moon disappears or turns a rusty red.

Totality ends at 6:23 a.m. as the Moon begins emerging from Earth's shadow, but by then the Moon will be low, dawn will be breaking, and the show will be essentially over in our part of the world. Only locations in the western U.S. and Pacific will get to watch the Moon re-emerge fully.

If you're like me, getting up that early takes some doing, so fortunately there are other incentives to entice us. As totality begins the sky will darken, revealing what would be seen on a moonless night. Looking to the Moon's right, the three bright stars of the Milky Way Triangle are setting--Altair low in the west, brighter Vega low in the northwest, and Deneb above them forming a large nearly equilateral triangle.

Turn around and you'll get a preview of the Great Winter Arc with Taurus, Gemini, Orion and others rising in the east. And reddish Mars, now in Taurus, is high and bright in the east.

  • Next Two Weeks. Average sunrise: 7:04 a.m.; average sunset: 7:52 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * The next several mornings Mars passes to the left of the reddish star Aldebaran high in the east.
    * Shortly before midnight Sep. 2 the Moon rises just above the Pleiades, then for the next several hours as they climb in the sky, the Moon grazes the edge of the beautiful star cluster, passing in front of several stars; binoculars will help.
    * The morning of Sep. 4 the 3rd quarter Moon passes to the upper right of Mars.

  • Naked-eye Planets. (The Sun, Moon and planets rise in the east and set in the west due to Earth's west-to-east rotation.) Bright Jupiter is prominent in the south in the evening as Mercury is starting to appear low in the west after sunset. Mars is high in the east in the morning as Venus begins its stint as the "morning star."

August 11, 2007
Stargazer #459

Good Year for Perseid Meteors

Barring clouds, this should be a good year for the annual Perseid meteor shower which peaks tomorrow (Sunday) night. This year's shower coincides with the new Moon, so the whole night will be free of interfering moonlight.

Of the dozen or so better known annual meteor showers, the Perseid is usually the best and most popular. Perseids are fast-moving, often bright and colorful, and many leave glowing trains visible for several seconds.

While above-average activity is likely all night, most meteors can be expected between midnight and dawn. The constellation Perseus, from which Perseids seem to radiate, rises in the northeast before midnight and is up the rest of the night.

Meteors appear in all parts of the sky, so it's best to lay back on a reclining lawn chair or blanket with your feet to the east and your eyes looking upward. Since light pollution reduces the number of meteors one sees, more are visible away from city lights, but if viewing from within an urban area, look in the direction with the least light pollution.

Most meteors--also called shooting stars and falling stars--are debris left by passing comets. Like dirty snowballs up to several miles in diameter, most comets spend their entire lives orbiting the Sun in the deep-freeze of space well beyond Pluto, where the Sun appears no more than a bright star.

However, some comets whose orbits have been perturbed wander into the inner solar system where the Sun's warmth melts away their outer layer, freeing pieces of debris--mostly tiny pieces of rock, dust and ice--that then litter the comet's orbital path. Of the thousands that enter the inner solar system, a few happen to cross and leave debris in Earth's orbital path. As we pass through a given comet's debris-littered path each year, we have a meteor shower. The Perseids come from Comet Swift-Tuttle.

When Earth, traveling around the Sun at 67,000 mph, zips through a comet's path, friction causes the debris to burn up in our atmosphere, producing those brief but often breath-taking streaks of fire we see as meteors. Most are tiny--as small as a grain of sand--and burn up 40-70 miles above Earth's surface. So when you gather with friends, lay back and enjoy a Perseid party, remember that those meteors are closer than they look.

  • Next Two Weeks. Average sunrise: 6:56 a.m.; average sunset: 8:09 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * The Moon is new tomorrow (Aug. 12).
    * Friday evening (Aug. 17) the crescent Moon is below Virgo's Spica in the southwest.
    * Beginning the morning of Aug. 19, Mars spends a week passing to the left of Taurus' Aldebaran high in the east; both are reddish and with Mars only slightly brighter so you can check the adage that "stars twinkle, planets don't."
    * The Moon is at 1st quarter Aug. 20.
    * The evening of Aug. 21 the Moon is below Scorpius' Antares with Jupiter above them.

  • Naked-eye Planets. (The Sun, Moon and planets rise in the east and set in the west due to Earth's west-to-east rotation.) Bright Jupiter is in the south in the evening while Mars is high in the east in the morning. Mercury, Venus and Saturn are now too near the Sun for viewing, however by month's end, Mercury moves into the evening sky and Venus becomes the "morning star."

  • Observatory Open House. The Central Texas Astronomical Society will host an open house for its new Meyer Observatory at the Turner Research Station near Clifton Saturday, Aug. 18, from 4-10 p.m. For a map and directions see or MAPS & DIRECTIONS elsewhere in this website.

July 28, 2007
Stargazer #458

The Mars Hoax Is Back

It's back--the Mars hoax, that is. Once again the report is circulating on the Internet that Mars, appearing as large as the full Moon, is coming closer than it's ever been--a once-in-a-lifetime event not to be missed.

This is the same report that's come around every summer since August 2003 when Mars did come historically close to Earth and did appear larger and brighter than usual. When viewed through a telescope, Mars can look as large as naked-eye views of the Moon, but to naked eyes Mars never appears anywhere near as large as the Moon, nor even as large and bright as Venus for that matter.

Mars is coming close again in late December, but not nearly as close as 2003. It will be at its brightest, and in the sky all night around Christmas, undoubtedly making some think of the Star of Bethlehem. We'll talk more about Mars then.

For now, let's talk about what we read on our computer screens. Without a doubt the Internet is transforming information access, leading some to suggest the Internet will soon make books and libraries obsolete. What's available on-line is truly amazing, but I doubt books and libraries are on the verge of extinction.

When receiving information from any source--books, magazines, newspapers, radio, tv, or the next door neighbor--the wise person always notes the source and views the data with a healthy dose of skepticism, especially sensational-sounding data. When dealing with the Internet, on which literally anyone can post anything, this posture is all the more important.

While no knowledge source is infallible nor should any be accepted unquestioningly, I've found a couple of sites that are helpful in assessing the validity of things read on the Internet.

When checking out general information--like reports of computer viruses that will erase everything on your hard drive, or the poor soul in Nigeria who needs your help in securing millions of dollars--I like to see what the Urban Legends Reference Pages ( has to say.

Relating to astronomy, I have come to have confidence in Phil Platt's Bad Astronomy website ( Platt, who has a Ph.D. in astronomy, seems to have no ax to grind beyond setting the record straight on inaccurate astronomy reports.

For fun, you might see what each has to say about the Mars hoax.

  • Next Two Weeks. Average sunrise: 6:47 a.m.; average sunset: 8:22 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * Tomorrow night's full Moon (July 29) is called Thunder Moon and Hay Moon.
    * Aug. 1 is Lammas, a cross-quarter day celebrating the middle of summer.
    * The Moon is at 3rd quarter Aug. 5.
    * The morning of Aug. 7 the crescent Moon is to the right of Mars and below the Pleiades star cluster low in the west.

  • Naked-eye Planets. (The Sun, Moon and planets rise in the east and set in the west due to Earth's west-to-east rotation.)
    Evening: Brilliant Venus and fainter Saturn, low in the west as dusk, are falling into the setting Sun while Jupiter is high and bright in the south.
    Morning: Mercury is near the eastern horizon at dawn with Mars high in the east.

  • Public Star Party. The Central Texas Astronomical Society hosts its monthly star party Aug. 4 at the Waco Wetlands beginning at 8 p.m. Activities include an indoor program, a laser-pointer guided tour of the night sky and telescope viewing. For a map and directions see MAPS & DIRECTIONS elsewhere in this website.

July 14, 2007
Stargazer #457

July 16 Early Evening Rendezvous

The excessive rain these past months has been a mixed blessing. The spring wildflowers were as abundant as they were beautiful, the flora as lush and green as it's been in years, and crops are abounding. Yet the flooding and wet fields have taken their toll.

And for stargazing, enough is enough. I'm ready for some clear skies, especially the evening of July 16 when the crescent Moon, two planets and a bright star rendezvous low in the west.

July 16 Evening Grouping
The dazzlingly bright Venus has been reigning in the evening western sky since mid winter. Saturn, not as bright as Venus but still brighter than most stars, has been in the evening sky since late last year. Hopefully you saw Venus approach and then pass Saturn in the recent breathtaking planetary conjunction.

Regulus, the brightest star in Leo the Lion, is the 21st most luminous star yet pales in comparison to the brighter planets.

July 14 the Moon passes between the Earth and Sun, producing a new Moon. Two evenings later it will be a thin crescent low in the west, joining the two planets and star.

An hour after sunset, the assemblage is 10 degrees above the western horizon--the width of your fist held at arm's length. Indeed, all four objects will be so closely bunched that your fist can cover them all.

The next evening Venus, Saturn and Regulus will be in virtually the same place but the Moon will have moved to their upper left. By noting the Moon's position July 16 and again July 17, you'll observe a "moonstride"--the nightly movement of the Moon against the background stars.

A moonstride (13 degrees) is easily approximated by making a "hook 'em horns" sign. Held at arm's length, the distance between the tips of your index and little fingers is one moonstride. (I know this is difficult for Bears, Aggies and other non-Longhorns, but under dark skies no one will see you.)

  • Next Two Weeks. Average sunrise: 6:37 a.m.; average sunset: 8:32 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * The Moon is new tonight.
    * July 21 the Moon is to the left of Virgo's brightest star, Spica, in the southwest.
    * The Moon is at 1st quarter July 22.
    * July 24 the gibbous Moon is to the right of Scorpius' brightest star, Antares, and the next evening to its left, with bright Jupiter above them.

  • Naked-eye Planets. (The Sun, Moon and planets rise in the east and set in the west due to Earth's west-to-east rotation.)
    Evening: Saturn and Venus are low in the west with Jupiter higher in the south.
    Morning: Mercury is very low in the east northeast with reddish Mars higher in the east.

  • Astro Milestones. July 20 is the 38th anniversary of Apollo 11's 1969 moon landing, when Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the Moon.

June 30, 2007
Stargazer #456

Names of Some Prominent Stars of Spring and Summer

BULLETIN: Don't forget -- this weekend watch as brilliant Venus passes beneath Saturn in the west. They will be at their closest Saturday and Sunday evenings when they are less than two moonwidths apart. They set 2 1/2 hours after sunset so don't wait too late to look for them. (See the previous column below for more information.)

Last December we looked at the names of some stars of fall and winter, and now it's time to do the same for spring and summer stars. (Previous columns are archived on my website.)

A few thousand stars are visible to naked eyes, yet only a few hundred have been given names. While some star names refer to animals, persons or gods, many relate to the constellation of which they are a part. Some date back to the ancient Greeks and Babylonians, whereas many came from the Arabs of the Middle Ages. Here are some of my favorites, most of which are among the brighter stars of spring and summer.

The two brightest stars of Leo the Lion are Regulus, the lion's heart, and Denebola, his tail. Nearby Spica is the ear of wheat held in the hand of Virgo the Virgin.

Cor Caroli, the brightest star in Canes Venatici the Hunting Dogs, got its name in the 18th century when English astronomer Edmond Halley wanted to honor of England's King Charles II.

Arcturus in Bootes the Herdsman means herdsman, driver or wagoner, referring to what is now the entire constellation.

The brightest star in Corona Borealis the Northern Crown is Gemma. The name suggests a gem in the crown, but means bud from an earlier time when Corona was seen as a wreath.

Antares is the head or heart of Scorpius the Scorpion, yet its name means similar to or rival of Mars. Both Antares and Mars are bright and reddish, and being on the ecliptic, Antares is regularly passed by Mars, bringing them into close comparison. At the other end of Scorpius is Shaula, the scorpion's stinger.

The two brightest stars of Libra the Scales are a mouthful--Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali, meaning southern and northern claws. Having nothing to do with scales, these names come from the time when this area was considered part of the scorpion.

The two brightest stars in Cygnus the Swan are Deneb, the swan's tail, and Albireo, its beak.

And since it's in the sky year-around, the northern hemisphere's best-known and, to the Greeks, "the most practically useful star in the heavens," is Polaris, the pole star, also called the North Star.

  • Next Two Weeks. Average sunrise: 6:30 a.m.; average sunset: 8:37 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * Tonight (Saturday) and tomorrow night brilliant Venus passes within two moonwidths of Saturn low in the west at dusk.
    * This evening (Saturday) is the year's latest sunset at our latitude although for all practical purposes the Sun sets at the same time within one minute for a week on either side of this date.
    * Tonight's full Moon is called Rose Moon, Flower Moon and Strawberry Moon.
    * Monday (July 2) at noon--technically at 1 p.m. thanks to that annoying Daylight Time--is the midpoint of 2007.
    * Thursday (July 5) Earth is at aphelion, the farthest from the Sun in its annual elliptical orbit.
    * The evenings of July 6 & 7 Venus is half way between Saturn (to the lower right) and Regulus (to the upper left).
    * The Moon is at 3rd quarter July 7.
    * The morning of July 9 the crescent Moon is to the upper left of Mars in the east before dawn, then the next morning to the upper right of the Pleiades star cluster.
    * The evening of July 12 Venus passes four moonwidths below Regulus.

  • Star Party. The Central Texas Astronomical Society will host public star parties at the Waco Wetlands July 7 and Reynolds Creek Park July 13, both beginning at 8:30 p.m.

June 16, 2007
Stargazer #455

Venus Closes in on Saturn

Hopefully you've been noticing Venus, the brilliant "evening star" dominating the western sky the past several months. Even from light-polluted urban areas it's hard to miss.

Less obvious is nearby Saturn to its upper left. Although ten times larger than Venus, it is much further away and not nearly as bright, yet it still outshines most stars.

It will be especially fun watching these two planets over the next couple of weeks as they pull closer each night until the evenings of June 30 and July 1 when Venus passes less than one degree (two moonwidths) below the ringed planet. When at their closest the sight should be dazzling, and even more impressive in binoculars and absolutely awesome in a wide-angle telescope.

But there's even more to the show. Tomorrow evening the crescent Moon is five moonwidths to the lower right of the Beehive cluster with Venus further to the upper left. (Being between Venus and the Moon, seeing the fainter cluster will probably require binoculars.) The Moon is then between the planets Monday evening, and within one moonwidth from Leo's brightest star Regulus Tuesday evening.

When Venus passes Saturn they will appear to be nearly touching each other, yet looks are deceiving. In fact, Venus is much closer to us with Saturn 18 times further from Venus than we are.

Planets which make no light are seen only because they reflect sunlight. Venus' nearness to us, along with its proximity to the Sun and its greater reflectivity, makes it appear much brighter than the larger, but far more distant planets--Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

The show doesn't end July 1. As Venus pulls away from Saturn, it will approach and then July 10-14 pass four moonwidths below Regulus. By then, however, it will be sinking into the setting sun, and after passing between the Sun and Earth, will start its stint as the "morning star" in early September.

In the religion of the ancient Greeks and Romans, Aphrodite (Venus) was the goddess of love and beauty. Cronus (Saturn) was the father of Zeus (Jupiter), god of the heavens and earth. According to one story, Jupiter was the father of Venus, making Saturn her grandfather. Thus with Jupiter now in the southeastern evening sky, we have a three-generation family reunion.

  • Next Two Weeks. Average sunrise: 6:25 a.m.; average sunset: 8:37 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * Thursday is the Northern hemisphere's summer solstice--the beginning of summer, and the year's longest day and shortest night.
    * The Moon is at 1st quarter Friday.
    * The evening of June 28 a bright gibbous Moon leads Scorpius' brightest star, Antares, across the sky all night, pulling within two moonwidths just before they set around 4 a.m. Jupiter is looking down on them from above.

  • Naked-eye Planets. (The Sun, Moon and planets rise in the east and set in the west due to Earth's west-to-east rotation.) Evening: Saturn and Venus are in the west with Jupiter the brightest object in the southeast. Morning: Mars is well up in the east as Jupiter sets in the west.

  • Public Star Party Tonight. The Central Texas Astronomical Society hosts a public program and star party tonight at Reynolds Creek Park amphitheater beginning at 8:30 p.m., weather permitting. Call me if the weather is questionable. (CANCELED as rain is predicted!)

June 2, 2007
Stargazer #454

MESSENGER to Mercury

Of the eight major planets, one of the least explored is one of the nearest--Mercury. But that should change when NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft reaches the planet in 2011. Launched in 2004, the MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) probe will go into orbit around and spent at least a year studying the innermost planet.

Since the Space Age began in 1957, Mercury has been visited by just one other spacecraft--Mariner 10 in the mid-1970s. Three flybys showed Mercury to be a Sun-baked, heavily-cratered world only slightly larger than our Moon. Having no atmosphere Mercury's Sun-facing surface broils at over 800 degrees while its night side drops to a frigid -300 degrees. There is even evidence that Mercury may have ice in its polar-region craters that the Sun's hot rays never reach.

Getting a spacecraft to orbit Mercury is trickier than it seems. Distance isn't the problem--it's much nearer than the outer planets we've already explored. The problem is its nearness to the Sun whose enormous mass exerts tremendous gravitational pull, so that spacecraft launched in its direction are essentially falling toward the Sun, and picking up speed as they fall.

At its fastest MESSENGER will reach an incredible 141,000 mph--far faster than any previous spacecraft. The trick comes in slowing it enough that Mercury's gravity, much weaker than the Sun's, can pull the craft into orbit around the small planet.

For that task NASA will employ "gravity assist," a procedure usually used to increase the speed of spacecraft. Gravity assist involves flying past a planet very closely, and using the planet's gravity and motion to boost to the craft's speed. But the same procedure can also be used to reduce a craft's speed if a planet is approached from a different direction.

On June 5 MESSENGER will pass 200 miles from Venus in a course-correcting maneuver to direct the craft toward Mercury. Then in 2008 and 2009 the craft will make three flybys of Mercury, using the planet's own gravity and gravity assist to slow it enough to settle into orbit on March 18, 2011.

As with Venus, Mercury is a planet we won't ever likely visit in person, but that doesn't mean we'll never establish a presence there. Should it prove to contain valuable resources, we'll probably send robots to "colonize" the planet and do our bidding for us. Indeed, Mariner 10 and MESSENGER--robotic versions of human explorers like Columbus and Magellan--might well be the first of many more to come.

  • Next Two Weeks.Ave. sunrise: 6:23 a.m.; ave. sunset: 8:33 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * The morning of June 10 the crescent Moon is above Mars.
    * The morning of June 13 an even thinner crescent Moon is just above the Pleiades star cluster near the eastern horizon before dawn breaks.
    * The evenings of June 12 and 13 Venus passes the Beehive cluster--binoculars will help see the cluster.
    * The evening of June 15 a thin crescent Moon is seen to the right of Mercury just above the western horizon 45 minutes after sunset.

  • Naked-eye Planets. Evening: Four of the five naked-eye planets are visible. Mercury is just above the western horizon at dark with brilliant Venus 20 degrees to its upper left and Saturn another 20 degrees to the upper left. (The width of your fist held at arm's length is 10 degrees.) Bright Jupiter is rising in the east. Morning: Reddish Mars is the brightest object rising in the east with Jupiter setting in the west.

  • Moon. June 8 - 3rd quarter; June 14 - new.

  • Observatory Dedication. The Central Texas Astronomical Society will dedicate its new observatory June 9 with a dinner and program at the Bosque Conservatory in Clifton followed by a star party at the observatory. Both events are free and open to public but advance registration is required. For more information or to register go to or call me.

May 19, 2007
Stargazer #453

Venus -- A Heaven or Hell?

Many folks have been asking about the brilliant "evening star" in the west. Brilliant it is, but a star it's not. That beauty is our neighboring planet Venus which will remain in our evening sky through late July before becoming the "morning star" in early September.

There was a time when many wondered if Venus was home to human-like beings. Some science fiction writers, many of whom have been uncanny in their predictions about the future, envisioned Venus as a garden of Eden type home to gentle beings, and Mars inhabited by hostile and warring creatures.

But in this prediction the science fiction writers couldn't have been more wrong. The most hostile thing about Mars is its cold, barren, oxygen-less environment--not unlike that of our Moon on which human's have walked and explored. Yet Mars is nothing compared to the harshness of Venus. Human's will surely some day visit and even colonize Mars, but not Venus.

Astronauts' spaceships and spacesuits provide oxygen and protect them from the extreme cold of places like Mars and the Moon. But Venus' surface is very hot--about 850 degrees which is hot enough to melt lead. Even though Venus is further from the Sun than Mercury, it's hotter owing to the "greenhouse effect" of its mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere which holds in the heat like a blanket. (Please take note my fellow humans.)

And if Venus' stifling heat isn't sufficiently inhospitable to deter human visitation, the atmospheric pressure certainly would. Venus' air pressure, a crushing 90 times that of Earth's, is comparable to ocean pressures far deeper than submarines go.

Between 1961-1972 the Russian space agency sent eight robotic spaceships (named Venera) to study Venus. Veneras 1-3 failed. Veneras 4-8 dropped probes into Venus' atmosphere to measure temperature, pressure and composition. After returning some atmospheric data, Veneras 4-6 were crushed by the pressure before reaching the surface. Stronger Veneras 7-8 managed to land intact and return some surface data before succumbing to the pressure in less than an hour.

Subsequent Veneras 9-16, launched 1975-1983, returned more data including the first color panoramas of Venus' landscape. The data and photos revealed Venus to be far more like a mythical hell than a paradise.

So while Venus is indeed a beauty to behold in our sky, its beauty--like that of some people--is best appreciated at a respectable distance.

  • Next Two Weeks. Average sunrise: 6:26 a.m.; average sunset: 8:25 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * Tonight (May 19) the crescent Moon is just to the upper right of Venus -- a beautiful sight.
    * Tuesday (May 22) evening the Moon is to the upper left of Saturn.
    * The Moon is at 1st quarter Wednesday (May 23).
    * The evening of May 29 Venus is to the lower left of Gemini's brightest star Pollux.
    * The May 31 full Moon, called a Blue Moon being the second full Moon of the month, is below Scorpius' brightest star Antares, and to Jupiter's right.

  • Naked-eye Planets. (The Sun, Moon and planets rise in the east and set in the west due to Earth's west-to-east rotation.) Evening: Mercury is very low in the west with Venus higher to its upper left, and Saturn higher yet to Venus' upper left. Jupiter rises an hour after sunset. Morning: Mars rises more than 2 hours before sunrise with Jupiter in the southwest.

May 5, 2007
Stargazer #452

Omega Centauri -- a Southern Jewel

By living in the northern hemisphere's middle latitudes, we never see some areas of the sky. No matter the time of year, parts of the sky are too far south to rise above our horizon.

Thus some jewels are always hidden from us such as our nearest neighboring galaxies, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Other things we miss have intriguing names like the Jewel Box, the Coal Sack, the Tarantula Nebula and the Southern Pleiades.

Sure, there are far-northerly objects we see that are never visible to southern stargazers like the Big Dipper and the magnificent Andromeda Galaxy, but the "grass is greener" effect is strong. I want to see more. My one trip below the equator (New Zealand in 2001) simply whetted my appetite.

Still I can't complain too much. Living in the southern U.S., we Texans see more than most U.S. stargazers. In the winter we can see Canopus, the night sky's second brightest star. In south Texas our nearest neighboring star, Alpha Centauri, and the top of the famed Southern Cross are barely visible.

But the best of the southern jewels we can see is a globular cluster named Omega Centauri now visible from all of Texas in the late evening. Unlike open star clusters, of which our Milky Way galaxy has thousands, globulars are far fewer with our galaxy having less than 200.

Somewhat like mini-galaxies, globular clusters are huge. While most open clusters, like the Pleiades, contain hundreds of stars, globulars contain hundreds of thousands. Omega Centauri, the largest known, has more than a million.

The Texas Star Party, held each spring in far west Texas near Ft. Davis and McDonald Observatory, draws 600-700 stargazers, many northerners who drive hundreds, even thousands, of miles. While they come to enjoy west Texas' wonderfully dark skies, many also want to see southerly objects they can't see back home. And for many Omega Centauri is at the top of their viewing list.

Here's how you can see it. Around 11 p.m. away from city lights, face south and look 10 degrees above the horizon--the width of your fist held at arm's length. Naked eyes see a subtle moon-sized fuzzy patch; binoculars give an even better view. Telescopes begin to show an incredibly rich swarm of stars.

  • Next Two Weeks. Average sunrise: 6:34 a.m.; average sunset: 8:15 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * The Moon is at 3rd quarter Wednesday.
    * The morning of May 12 a crescent Moon is to the upper right Mars, and the next morning to the red planet's lower left.
    * The Moon is new May 16.
    * The evening of May 17 an hour after sunset a thin crescent Moon is to the upper right of Mercury low in the west.
    * In the early evenings of May, the Milky Way seems to disappear as it lies flat around the horizon--something most folks never notice because increasing urban light pollution prevents their ever seeing the Milky Way, even when it's high over head.

  • Naked-eye Planets.
    Evening: "Evening star" Venus blazes in the west with Saturn high in the southwest. Mercury emerges low in the west at dusk at midmonth.
    Morning: Mars rises in the east 2 hours before sunrise. Jupiter outshines everything in the southwest.

  • Star Party: The Central Texas Astronomical Society hosts its free monthly star party tonight at the Waco Wetlands starting at 8 p.m. After the indoor program will be a laser-pointer guided tour of the night sky and telescope viewing. For directions see

April 21, 2007
Stargazer #451

Ancient Astronomers

When conducting programs in schools I marvel as I realize how many elementary-aged youngsters know more about the workings of our cosmos than the most learned of our not-too-ancient ancestors. Even today's typical amateur stargazer could tell brilliant Galileo things that would leave him dumbfounded.

Given this realization combined with the sophistication of modern life and our vast stores of accumulated knowledge, it's easy to dismiss the knowledge and reasoning powers of the ancients. Yet a brief look at astronomical history, regarded as the oldest science, quickly puts to rest the notion that they were lacking in intelligence.

One can't help but be struck by how much they knew long ago. Yes, they were way off on some things. As recently as 500 years ago most of our predecessors still thought of the world as a flat, immovable place at the center of the universe.

But as quaint as that view seems now, they arrived at it from their observations and experiences--the Earth doesn't feel like it's moving; it's curvature isn't apparent; and it looks like the Sun, Moon, planets and stars move around us.

Based on the information they had their conclusion was logical--just wrong, as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and others helped us realize in the 16th and 17th centuries. But long before the Copernican revolution started setting the record straight, there were others who put forth some remarkably accurate views of the solar system and cosmos.

Over 6,000 years ago Egyptians, observing the Sun, determined a year to be 360 days, and observing the Moon, arrived at twelve 30-day months. Later they even corrected the year to 365 days.

The Greeks were prominent in early astronomy. About 500 BCE Anaximander, realizing that the Moon shines by reflected sunlight, came up with the correct explanation for eclipses. About 350 BCE Aristotle postulated that Earth is a sphere.

About 275 BCE Aristarchus of Samos, using only logic, concluded that the Sun, not the Earth, is at the center of the universe. His model is closer to our current view, yet it was rejected by his contemporaries because he lacked observational evidence. Eratosthenes of Syrene and others made some remarkably good estimates of Earth's circumference, the relative sizes of Earth, Moon and Sun and the distances between them using little more than crude instruments and geometry.

So let's show some respect for our ancestors' contributions. Imagine what some of those bright guys (and gals had they been given equal opportunities) might have accomplished if they'd had telescopes, laptop computers and the Internet.

  • Next Two Weeks. Average sunrise: 6:46 a.m.; average sunset: 8:06 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * The Lyrid meteor shower peaks tomorrow morning with no Moon interference.
    * Tuesday evening the 1st quarter Moon is to the upper right of Saturn, and the next evening between Saturn and Leo's bright star Regulus.
    * May 1 is May Day and Beltane, a cross-quarter day celebrating the middle of spring.
    * The May 2 full Moon is the Planting Moon and Milk Moon.
    * The morning of May 4 the Moon is to the lower right of Scorpius' bright reddish star Antares.

  • Naked-eye Planets. Evening: Venus dominates the west with creamy Saturn high in the south. Morning: Reddish Mars is low in the east with Jupiter the brightest object in the south.

April 7, 2007
Stargazer #450

Long-range Anticipations

Having been born rather patience-deficient, stargazing has done wonders for this aspect of my character development. In 1954 when I was 14, my long-ago mentor, Margaret Willits, told me about seeing Halley's Comet in 1910. Her story fascinated me, and when she said it would return in 1986, I just couldn't wait. But as much as I wanted to see the famous comet right then, I had 31 years to learn that nature unfolds at its own pace.

When I finally did see the comet it was an awesome experience, but it also gave me some unexpected gifts. Had I magically been able to view the comet in 1954, I likely would have looked at it, marveled a bit, and then filed it away with all my other childhood fascinations and memories.

But during those 31 years of waiting, I would periodically look skyward in anticipation, and, of course, notice all the other marvels of the night sky. So by making me wait, Halley's Comet (and Margaret Willits) helped me develop, not just my love for stargazing, but patience and an appreciation for what I call long-range anticipations.

Now, I actually like having things to look forward to, even if they're years away. While not even stargazing matches the joy of watching my grandchildren grow up, anticipating astronomical events helps provide additional incentive to live well so I can experience as many of my long-range anticipations as possible.

Here are some things I'm especially looking forward to.

2011: The spacecraft MESSENGER, launched in 2004, will go into orbit around Mercury. We've done remarkably little study of the tiny planet, so I wonder what surprises it holds.

2012: Venus will transit--pass in front of--the Sun, something that happens only twice every century.

2015: The New Horizons spacecraft will fly by Pluto, the only traditionally recognized planet we've yet to visit. What mysteries will it reveal about this remote solar system body?

2017: A total eclipse of the Sun passes over the central latitudes of the U.S. from Oregon to South Carolina.

2023: An annular eclipse of the Sun--a special kind of partial eclipse--passes over parts of Texas.

2024: The one I'm most anticipating--on April 8, 2024, a mere 17 years from now, a total eclipse of the Sun passes through the heart of Texas.

So what are some of your long-range anticipations?

  • Next Two Weeks. Average sunrise: 7:01 a.m.; average sunset: 7:57 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * Tomorrow morning the Moon is below Jupiter high in the south.
    * The Moon is at 3rd quarter Tues.
    * Wed. evening Venus is to the left of the Pleiades cluster in the west after dark.
    * Fri. morning the crescent Moon is to the upper right of Mars, and the next morning to the planet's lower left.
    * The Moon is new Apr. 17.
    * The evening of Apr. 19 the crescent Moon is above the Pleiades with Venus to the upper left.

  • Naked-eye Planets. Evening: "Evening star" Venus is brilliant in the west with Saturn high in the south. Morning: Mars is low in the east southeast with Jupiter high in the south.

  • Star Party. The Central Texas Astronomical Society hosts its free monthly star party tonight at the Waco Wetlands beginning at 8 p.m. After an indoor program there will be a laser-pointer guided tour of the night sky and telescope viewing. For directions see

March 24, 2007
Stargazer #449

Farewell to Orion and the Winter Arc

It's the beginning of spring and time to bid ado to Orion and the Great Winter Arc, now nearing the western horizon in the early evening.

Winter Arc in Spring
Orion the Hunter, along with his adversary, Taurus the Bull, dominates the early evening sky from December through February, and together are the centerpiece of the Great Winter Arc region. Because of the abundance of bright stars, this region outshines all other regions.

Of the 21 brightest stars -- called 1st-magnitude stars -- only 16 are ever visible from our mid-northern latitude, and seven are in the Great Winter Arc region.

Orion has two -- red giant Betelgeuse (top) and white Rigel (bottom). Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus, is also a red giant.

Red giants are geriatric stars in the latter stage of their life. As stars begin depleting their fuel, they swell into enormous cooler, redder giant stars before collapsing into stellar death. Check back in a million years or so and stars like Betelgeuse, Aldebaran and Scorpius' Antares may well have died.

The winter arc, like a dome covering the hunter and the bull, contains the region's remaining four 1st-magnitude stars. At the left (east) end the arc starts with Sirius, the night sky's brightest star, then proceeds to Procyon to the upper right. High at the top of the arc is Pollux, and its almost-1st-magnitude mate, Castor, the heads of the Gemini twins. To the lower right, the arc ends at Capella, a yellowish star much like our Sun.

So this evening, while they're still hanging around, go out and tell our winter companions adios until next winter. And while you're at it, say hello to Venus below Taurus' Pleiades cluster.

  • Next Two Weeks. Ave. sunrise: 7:19 a.m.; ave. sunset: 7:47 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * The Moon is at 1st quarter tomorrow.
    * Wednesday evening it passes just above Saturn high in the south, and the next evening is just above Leo's brightest star Regulus.
    * The April 2 full Moon is called Grass Moon and Egg Moon.

  • Naked-eye Planets. (The Sun, Moon and planets rise in the east and set in the west due to Earth's west-to-east rotation.)
    Evening: Venus, the dazzling "evening star," is hard to miss in the west while creamy-colored Saturn is high in the south.
    Morning: An hour before sunrise Mercury is barely above the eastern horizon with Mars a hand span to its upper right. Jupiter outshines everything else mid way up in the south.

March 10, 2007
Stargazer #448

The Stargazer and UFOs?

So what's with the Stargazer and UFOs? That's what some folks were wondering after my last column, offered as a sci fi mini-short story. It seemed to amuse some, confuse others and maybe even bother some. (See last column below.)

It certainly wasn't intended to confuse or worry. Entertain and amuse? Sure. But I hoped to stimulate thinking, and maybe I did.

Some wondered if I'd really been abducted and examined by aliens, or thought I had. A couple of friends suggested it would have been good for April Fool's Day, and it would have had it been scheduled to appear Apr. 1.

So, as some asked, do I or don't I believe in UFOs? The answer is a definite yes...and a pretty definite no. So how can that be?

We have yet to find one shred of evidence, still I think it's just a matter of time--maybe soon, maybe a long time--until we discover we're far from alone. I suspect the cosmos, and even our Milky Way galaxy, is teeming with life, some far more advanced than we are. So, yes, I definitely believe "they are out there."

But, as much as I want to believe it, I seriously doubt Earth has been visited by aliens. Back when Apollo astronauts were walking on the Moon, Erich von Daniken wrote "Chariots of the Gods?" offering what he considered evidence that Earth has been visited by ancient astronauts. As one long fascinated with space travel, starting with the movie "Rocketship X-M" and then "Star Trek" and "Star Wars," I fervently hoped he was on to something. But as scientific-appearing as his arguments appear on the surface, they just don't hold up to more critical scrutiny.

Sure, it's possible aliens have visited Earth, and maybe they're monitoring us right now. But it's just so utterly unlikely considering the vast distances between stars within galaxies, and the inconceivable immenseness of space between galaxies. With our current understandings of the laws of nature, especially the seemingly insurmountable speed of light, travel and even communication between cosmic civilizations seem next to impossible.

But then to our cave-dwelling ancestors, humans walking on the Moon must have seemed equally preposterous. So, who knows?

In the meantime, I would hope things like my "what if" science fiction piece might further our thinking about how we can--and better--start taking more responsibility for our own future, utilizing our abilities to think, anticipate consequences, plan and exercise considerable control over our own species' destiny.

  • Next Two Weeks. Average sunrise: 7:36 a.m.; average sunset: 7:38 p.m. (Daylight Times) [for Waco, TX]
    * Tonight, Mar. 10, before retiring set your clocks up one hour ("spring forward") to Daylight Time--yes, it starts earlier now.
    * Tomorrow morning's 3rd quarter Moon is to the lower left of Antares in the south with bright Jupiter to their left.
    * Thursday morning the crescent Moon is to the upper right of Mars low in east, then the next morning below it.
    * The Mar. 18 new Moon produces a partial solar eclipse that won't be visible in the U.S.
    * Mar. 20 is the first day of spring.
    * The evening of Mar. 22 the crescent Moon is below the Pleiades star cluster in the west after dark.

  • Naked-eye Planets. EVENING: "Evening star" Venus is in the west with Saturn midway up in the east. MORNING: Mercury is just above the eastern horizon at dawn with Mars a handspan to its upper right and Jupiter the brightest object in the south.

  • Star Party. The Central Texas Astronomical Society's monthly public star party at the Waco Wetlands is tonight, Saturday, Mar. 10, beginning at 7 p.m. An indoor program is followed by outdoor viewing. For directions see

February 24, 2007
Stargazer #447

Earth Report

Not being a believer in UFOs, the other night I was stunned to find myself in a totally inexplicable situation. While under the stars with my telescope I was momentarily blinded by a flash of light, and then discovered myself to be in an utterly alien place, surrounded by beings who looked like nothing I'd ever seen or imagined. I can't even describe them – they were just there.

As I stood in disbelief, wondering if I was dreaming, they passed a strange scanning device over me several times. They made no audible sounds, yet clearly were communicating with each other, maybe telepathically or at a frequency beyond my hearing. I felt no discomfort – in fact I felt nothing – strangely enough, not even fear or anxiety.

After a few minutes they began speaking to me in a voice that sounded just like my own. I say spoke, but they had no mouth and nothing moved, yet I clearly heard and understood them, and they heard and understood me.

The visitors said they were part of an intergalactic exploratory team on a survey mission, and were currently updating their records on Earth. Their commission monitors several million sites in our sector of the cosmos, including thousands in our own Milky Way galaxy, where life exists, focusing most closely on places where intelligent civilization has or is evolving.

You can imagine my shock when they matter-of-factly said Earth is not yet on the “Civilized” list. They've been monitoring our planet from afar for millions of Earth-years, and only some 100,000 years ago were we moved from the “Primitive” to the “Evolving Civilization” list. They were encouraged with the rate at which our intelligence was evolving, but were concerned about the development of our “collective maturity,” something, they said, over which we have control. Their surveys have shown that species need both in order to survive long enough to become part of the intergalactic community.

I must have looked puzzled so they elaborated as best they could within the limits of our language, citing things like accrued wisdom, rational ethics, compassion, justice, altruistic self-interest, and they even pointed to our “golden rule” and Kant’s “categorical imperative” as encouraging starting points. Intelligent civilizations, it seems, emerge when a critical mass of the dominant species develops the capacity for being, on the one hand, dreamers, idealists and visionaries, and, on the other, realists who recognize the pitfalls of irrational, superstitious and magical thinking.

Before long the visitors sensed that my mind was becoming overloaded, and as quickly as they appeared, they vanished, leaving me alone with my telescope.

My memory is so sketchy – if only I could have recorded what they said, or even taken notes. So, dear readers and fellow-Earthlings, help me remember – what else might the visitors have told me?

  • Next Two Weeks. Average sunrise: 6:53 a.m.; average sunset: 6:28 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * The Moon is at 1st quarter today.
    * Friday evening the Moon is to the left of Saturn.
    * The Mar. 3 full Moon, called Sap Moon, Crow Moon, Lenten Moon, is below Regulus; there will also be a total lunar eclipse, but it is mostly over when the Moon rises over Texas around 6:30 p.m.

  • Naked-eye Planets. Evening: Brilliant Venus is in the west with creamy-colored Saturn in the east. Morning: Reddish Mars is low in the east with bright Jupiter higher in the south and Saturn low in the west.

February 10, 2007
Stargazer #446

New Horizons and Gravity Assist

It was just a year ago, on Jan. 19, 2006, that NASA launched New Horizons on its 9-year journey to Pluto and beyond. Already the speedy spacecraft is nearing Jupiter, over 400 million miles from Earth.

Never has anything human-made traveled so fast, and its speed is increasing--but more about that in a moment. By comparison, the Galileo craft, launched in 1989 to study Jupiter, took over 6 years to reach the planet. New Horizons will take just over 13 months, passing our largest planet on Feb. 28.

Traveling at the incredible speed of 43,000 miles per hour, it covers more than a million miles a day--like two daily round-trips to the Moon. But even at that speed it would take 12 years to reach Pluto. The Jupiter fly-by will increase the spacecraft's speed to 52,000 mph, getting it there 3 years earlier.

The 20-percent increase in speed will result from a maneuver called "gravity assist," taking advantage of huge Jupiter's enormous gravitation pull. Even now as the craft is approaching the planet, its speed is increasing so that it will reach Jupiter traveling 47,000 mph. It's as if it is falling toward the planet, picking up speed as it falls. Its path will take it near, but not let it fall into, the planet.

Now you might be thinking ahead and wondering: after it passes Jupiter, won't the planet's gravitational pull then work to decrease the spacecraft's speed as it pulls away? Indeed it would, if not for the fact that Jupiter itself is traveling 29,000 mph as it orbits the Sun. The direction from which New Horizons approaches Jupiter takes advantage of the planet's speed and let's Jupiter "sling" it away at an even faster pace.

An analogy might help. Throw a tennis ball against a wall and it bounces back at about the same speed it was thrown. But throw it against the front of an on-coming train and it will bounce back much faster than it was thrown, picking up additional speed from the motion of the train.

So thanks to gravity assist from Jupiter, New Horizons will reach Pluto in 2015, and I can't wait.

  • Next Two Weeks. Average sunrise: 7:08 a.m.; average sunset: 6:17 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * Tonight the Moon is at 3rd quarter and Saturn is at opposition, rising at sunset and staying up all night.
    * Monday morning the Moon, Antares and Jupiter form a triangle with bright Jupiter to the upper left and the star to the upper right.
    * Monday evening an hour after sunset look for brilliant Venus low in the west with Mercury to its lower right just above the horizon.
    * Wednesday morning a thin crescent Moon is to the right of Mars near the eastern horizon an hour before sunrise.
    * The Moon is new Feb. 17.
    * The evening of Feb. 19 will feature a beautiful sight when a crescent Moon is above Venus low in the west at dusk.

  • Naked-eye Planets. The evening sky hosts Venus and Mercury in the west and Saturn in the east. Morning stargazers see Mars low in the southeast, much brighter Jupiter to its upper right, and Saturn low in the west.

  • Star Party. The Central Texas Astronomical Society's free monthly Waco Wetlands star party is tonight beginning at 7 p.m. There will be an indoor program if it's cloudy. For directions, see

  • Astro Milestones.
    * Feb. 15 is the 443rd birthday of Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642).
    * Feb. 18 is the 77th anniversary of Clyde Tombaugh’s 1930 discovery of Pluto from Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ.
    * Feb. 19 is the 534th birthday of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543).

January 27, 2007
Stargazer #445

Using Venus to Find Uranus

Have you ever seen the planet Uranus – not just a picture, but the real thing? Probably not, but you can change that the evening of Feb. 7 using the easy-to-find Venus as your tour guide. And while you’re at it you can spot Mercury, another elusive planet most people have never seen.

With a diameter four times that of Earth, Uranus is huge, but it’s also distant, making it difficult to see. It’s nearly 2 billion miles from the Sun, twice the distance of Saturn.

Being a gas planet, no astronaut will ever stand on Uranus, yet someday one will surely stand upon one of its moons. And when that astronaut looks back toward our Sun, she or he will see only an unusually bright star -- not the blindingly bright small disk we see from Earth.

Planets don't make light -- they only reflect sunlight. At Uranus’ vast distance not much sunlight reaches it, thus it shines so faintly it is generally not visible to naked eyes as seen from Earth.

So break out your binoculars, or borrow a pair from a friend, and get ready for a new experience. Once you've seen Uranus, you'll join the tiny fraction of humans who have ever viewed our distant solar system neighbor which wasn't discovered until 1781.

Feb. 7, an hour after sunset, face west where the Sun went down. Venus easily outshines everything else at about 10 degrees above the horizon – the width of your fist held at arm’s length. Most binoculars have a field of view of about 7-degrees, so place Venus near the top of the field. Uranus, looking like a faint, possibly bluish tinted star, will be just to Venus’ right. Below Uranus will be a star, Lambda Aquarii, a bit brighter and perhaps appearing slightly reddish.

Further to the lower right, near the bottom of the field, look for Mercury, appearing brighter than Uranus and the star but not nearly as bright as Venus. Situated about half way between Venus and the horizon, Mercury might be visible without binoculars. Tiny Mercury is not much larger than our Moon yet it far outshines the much larger Uranus because, as the innermost planet, it is nearer the Sun and nearer to us.

Once you've spotted Uranus and Mercury, you can check them on your stargazing life list, but don't wait too late as they set 2 hours after sundown.

  • Next Two Weeks. Average sunrise: 7:20 a.m.; average sunset: 6:05 p.m. (for Waco, TX)
    * Friday (Feb. 2) is Groundhog Day, also known as Candlemas, a cross-quarter day celebrating the middle of winter.
    * Friday evening January’s full Moon, called Wolf Moon, Snow Moon, and Hunger Moon, is below Saturn as they rise just after sunset.
    * The Moon is at 3rd quarter Feb. 9.

  • Naked-eye Planets. (The Sun, Moon and planets rise in the east and set in the west due to Earth's west-to-east rotation.) The early evening features Venus, the brilliant “evening star” in the west with Mercury below it; each evening Mercury climbs a bit closer to Venus, but never quite reaches it, coming closest Feb. 4. Saturn rises soon after sunset. Morning stargazers see Saturn setting in the west with Mars rising in the east southeast with brighter Jupiter higher in the southeast.

  • Astro Milestones. Feb. 4 is the 101st anniversary of the birth of American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997), discoverer of Pluto.

January 13, 2007
Stargazer #444

Night Sky Highlights for 2007

Once more it’s time to preview the coming year’s night sky highlights.

Prominent Planets: Venus is the “evening star” through summer and becomes the “morning star” in early fall. Jupiter, now seen in the morning, will dominate the evening sky spring through late fall.

Saturn, in the evening sky through June, moves into the morning in early fall. Mars spends most of the year in the morning sky, moving into the evening by fall and reaching opposition (closest and brightest for this appearance) in latter December. views coming in July and early November.

Meteor Showers: This best meteor showers should be the Perseid in August and Geminid in December. Other showers of interest could be the Lyrid (April), Draconid and Orionid (October), Taurid and Leonid (November).

Eclipses: There will be a total lunar eclipse in March and in August, the latter being better positioned for viewing from Texas. Two partial solar eclipses won’t be visible from the U.S.

Other: The crescent Moon and Venus frequently pair up to provide spectacular beauty as will occur the early evening of Jan. 20 and several more times throughout the year. And there will be other pairings, groupings and “close encounters” involving the Moon, the naked-eye planets, dazzling star clusters and some bright stars.

The morning of Nov. 3 the Moon occults (passes in front of) the star Regulus, hiding it for about an hour.

Things to Do: Consider joining the Central Texas Astronomical Society and meet other stargazers. Beginners, with or without scopes, are welcome as are experienced observers. Even if you don’t wish to join, you’re welcome to attend CTAS’s free, public star parties held each month at the Waco Wetlands in cooperation with the City of Waco. See CTAS’s website ( for membership information and star party dates.

If you don't live in Waco or Central Texas, many areas have regular or periodic free, public star parties sponsored by local astronomy clubs. To find a club in your area see (Community – Clubs & Organizations). Then contact the club for a schedule of their events.

The Texas Star Party, the premier amateur astronomy event in the southwest, is May 13-20 in Ft. Davis, TX, a few miles from McDonald Observatory. See

  • Next Two Weeks. Average sunrise: 7:27 a.m.; sunset: 5:52 p.m. (exact for for Waco, TX)
    * Monday morning (Jan. 15) just before dawn the crescent Moon passes less than two moonwidths to the right of Antares low in the southeast with bright Jupiter to their upper left.
    * The next morning, a thinner crescent Moon is just above the horizon with Mars rising to its lower left and Jupiter higher above.
    * The Moon is new Thursday, Jan. 18.
    * The evening of Jan. 20 a thin crescent Moon is above Venus low in the southwest at dark.
    * The Moon is at 3rd quarter Jan. 25.

  • Naked-eye Planets. (The Sun, Moon and planets rise in the east and set in the west due to Earth's west-to-east rotation.) Evening stargazers can’t miss “evening star” Venus climbing higher each night. Saturn rises a little after Venus sets, and by month’s end Mercury is visible low in the west at dusk. Morning stargazers see Mars low in the southeast at dawn, well below much brighter Jupiter, and Saturn high in the west.

  • Stargazer Anniversary. Stargazer begins its 18th year. Your continued readership is appreciated, as are your emails and calls.

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