Kickstarting the Joy of Astronomy


You’re probably familiar with Sidewalk Astronomy – where amateur astronomers set up telescopes on street corners or other public places to share free views through a telescope with those who might not otherwise have the chance. These are great opportunities for public education about astronomy and the Universe in which we live. We just got a note from a long-time sidewalk astronomer, Jay Horowitz, who has a plan to set up telescopes on A LOT of street corners. He wants to share telescope views of the skies with people all over the US. But he needs a little help to make his plan come to fruition.

“ I want to give thousands of people the opportunity to see firsthand the universe in which we live, turning young minds on to the power of science and sparking curiosity and awe in adults,” Jay wrote us in an email. And so, he has set up a Kickstarter page – and you might be familiar with this new “crowd sourcing” way to fund creative projects.

Kickstarter projects are efforts by people to do something they love, something fun, or at least something of worthwhile and of note. But they might not have the funds to do it. Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing funding method where projects must be fully-funded or no money changes hands.

Check out Jay’s Astronomy On The Road Kickstarter project, where his goal is to take science around the country in 2011 and 2012. He’s looking to raise money for a Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, a solar telescope, and fuel for transporting the telescopes between locations. He and his group will provide free views of the skies in schools, libraries, and on city streets all over the United States.

“The telescopes will always be used for public education and will never be for private use, even down the road,” Jay said.

There are also some notable prizes for those who donate, including lunch with some of the big names in astronomy.

Jay’s Sidewalk Astronomy resume is impressive: he founded a successful sidewalk astronomy group in New York City and also volunteered as a telescope operator and educator at an observatory, and taught astronomy in the Dominican Republic.

Consider donating to this great project. You can also follow the project on Twitter.

Spectacular Galaxies Dancing Towards Destruction


More than just another pretty picture? I’ll say! This beautiful image of the galaxy pair NGC 6872 and IC 4970 was part of a competition for high school students in Australia to obtain scientifically useful (and aesthetically pleasing) images using the Gemini Observatory. The winners were students from the Sydney Girls High School Astronomy Club in central Sydney, who proposed that Gemini investigate these two galaxies that are embraced in a graceful galactic dance that, — as the team described in the essay to support their entry — “…will also serve to illustrate the situation faced by the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy in millions of years.”

We can only hope we look this pretty millions of years from now!

This image shows what happens when galaxies interact, and how the gravitational forces distort and tear away at their original structure. Spiral galaxies can have their arms elongate out to enormous distances: in NGC 6872, the arms have been stretched out to span hundreds of thousands of light-years—many times further than the spiral arms of our own Milky Way galaxy. Over hundreds of millions of years, NGC 6872’s arms will fall back toward the central part of the galaxy, and the companion galaxy (IC 4970) will eventually be merged into NGC 6872.

But that will be another pretty picture, as galaxy mergers often leads to a burst of new star formation. Already, the blue light of recently created star clusters dot the outer reaches of NGC 6872’s elongated arms. Dark fingers of dust and gas along the arms soak up the visible light. That dust and gas is the raw material out of which future generations of stars could be born.

Members of the SGHS Astronomy Club Executive Council receiving the Gemini image on behalf of the entire club. Photo credit: Australian Gemini Office.

Learn more about the contest and the winning team at this article on the Gemini website. Also, a new contest is underway for Australian students in 2011, and more details can be found at this link.

Source: Gemini Observatory

How Are You Celebrating the Year of the Solar System?

There are a lot of solar system space missions coming up, plus – as always – a plethora of astronomical events taking place, so NASA has decided to declare the “Year of the Solar System” (YSS). But this year is so big, it won’t fit into an Earth year — however, a Martian year just about covers it, so from now until August, 2012 we’re celebrating.

“During YSS, we’ll see triple the usual number of launches, flybys and orbital insertions,” said Jim Green, the director of Planetary Science at NASA headquarters. “There hasn’t been anything quite like it in the history of the Space Age. History will remember the period Oct. 2010 through Aug. 2012 as a golden age of planetary exploration.”

Below you’ll see a list of mission activities that will take place, but also, the YSS organizers will have special events – both online and at various venues – to help us all celebrate.

One project near and dear to my heart is the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast, which will be continuing at least through 2011. Universe Today readers, you’d help me out A LOT (I’m the 365 Days project manager) by signing up to do a podcast. Podcasting is an easy and wonderful way to share your knowledge, experiences and love of astronomy or space. We give you lots of info about what you need to do to created a podcast. Check out the website, the calendar for available dates in 2011, and you can contact me directly to sign up for a date!

For other things associated with the YSS, there are also activities and materials available for classrooms and teachers, afterschool programs, astronomy clubs and more.

Right now, during December and January, the activities focus on investigations of our planetary family tree. Conduct the Explore the Celestial Neighborhood … in Your Neighborhood! activity and others fun projects that examine what a planet is and how we investigate planets.

There is also information on how to observe the total lunar eclipse on December 21, or activities to simply note the change in lunar phases over the course of a month.

You can also submit photographs, artwork, music, or words of your YSS experiences at the Share Your Stories page.

This artist's illustration shows how the Sun would have looked from Carl Sagan Memorial Station at a specific time each month on Mars over the course of a Martian year. (Credit: Dennis Mammana)

As far as the solar system missions going on we’ve already enjoyed the flyby of Comet Hartley 2 by the Deep impact/EPOXI spacecraft, and the NASA O/OREOS (“Organism/ORganic Exposure to Orbital Stresses,”) spacecraft was launched in November 2010, to study “the durability of life in space.” It is a nanosatellite (a cubesat), only 5.5 kilograms in mass, and we’ll certainly be hearing more about that spacecraft soon.

NASA NanoSail-D was also launched by the same rocket, and it has been ejected from the spacecraft but hasn’t yet unfurled its sails. We’ll post something as soon as any news on that emerges.
Here are more upcoming mission highlights as part of the YSS:

Stardust NExT encounters comet Tempel on February 14.

MESSENGER enters an orbit around the planet Mercury on March 18.

Dawn begins its approach to the asteroid Vesta in May, for a mission between 2011 and 2012. It will also visit the dwarf planet Ceres in 2015.

The Juno spacecraft will launch to Jupiter in August 2011. It will study the planet’s composition, gravity field, magnetic field, and polar magnetosphere.

GRAIL, or the NASA Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft will launch for a mapping mission to the Moon in September 2011.

Curiosity, or the Mars Science Lab will launch in November 2011. This is a big, car-sized rover that will look for potential habitable places, and more, on Mars. Curiosity is slated to land in August, 2012.

Awesome: Father & Son DIY Satellite Captures HD Video from 100,000 ft.

This is a great: amateur rocketeers Luke Geissbuhler and his son Max launched their own DIY satellite via a weather balloon from New York, and using an HD video camera captured some amazing video of the contraption’s rise to near the edge of space (closer than a lot of us will ever get, anyway….) and its plummeting fall. You gotta love their enthusiasm and their “flight tests” at the beginning of the video. It might help that the Dad is a photographer that works in Hollywood films, but then again, I think Max’s countdown and lollipop were the real impetus behind the successful mission. They were able to track the device with GPS, and recover the camera. Lucky for us!

Best Class Project Ever: 7th Graders Find a Cave on Mars


Tip number one on “How to impress your classmates:” Find a mysterious cave on Mars. A group of 16 seventh-graders at Evergreen Middle School in Cottonwood, California, USA found a dark pit that appears to be an opening to a cave on Mars. Dennis Mitchell’s science class were examining Martian lava tubes as their project in the Mars Student Imaging Program offered by NASA and Arizona State University, which takes advantage of the huge database of images taken by the Mars Odyssey spacecraft. The students found the skylight pit on the slope of an equatorial volcano named Pavonis Mons, and it appears to be an entrance to an underground lava tube. Similar ‘cave skylight’ features have been found elsewhere on Mars, but this is the first seen on this volcano.

“The students developed a research project focused on finding the most common locations of lava tubes on Mars,” Mitchell said. “Do they occur most often near the summit of a volcano, on its flanks or the plains surrounding it?”

Mitchell said he and his students have been surprised how much interest there has been nation-wide in their discovery. “They were kind of shocked about the interest, and I think that they are just now starting to realize that they made a pretty neat discovery.”

The imaging program allows students in upper elementary grades through to college to participate in Mars research by having them develop a geological question to answer, and then directing the teams for the Mars-orbiting camera to take an image to answer their question. Since MSIP began in 2004, more than 50,000 students have participated.

Now, because of this find, the HiRISE high resolution camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will take follow-up images of the pit to provide a better look at the object. HiRISE can image the surface at about 30 centimeters (12 inches) per pixel, which may allow a look inside the hole in the ground. This is part of the HiWISH program, where the public can submit suggestions to the science team for locations on Mars to the camera to image.

“It gives the students a good understanding of the way research is conducted and how that research can be important for the scientific community. This has been a wonderful experience,” Mitchell said.”

“Yeah it was a lot of fun because it wasn’t like any other science that we did, because we actually got to interact with real scientists instead of just people out of the book and stuff,” said 13-year-old Kody Rulofson, one of the students in Mitchell’s class.

Kody’s mother, Doni Rulofson said Kody and his twin brother Chase, also in the class, are inspired by the experience they had finding the cave. “They’re excited. They’re just beyond belief, they’re like, ‘we knew it was something really cool but we had no idea it was this much of an interest to NASA.'”

Odyssey has been orbiting the Red Planet since 2001, returning data and images of the Martian surface and providing relay communications service for Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Find out more about Odyssey here.

MRO has been in orbit since 2006, and has also amassed a huge database of images, which can be seen here.

Source: NASA

Astronomy for Kids: Gemini – Twins Everywhere!

Now that we’ve hunted down Orion and been bull ridin’ with Taurus, it’s time for us to discover a pair of celestial brothers – the Gemini twins. Gemini is one of the members of the zodiac which means the imaginary path the Sun, Moon and planets follow across the sky passes through the stars of this constellation. But what happens when you don’t have these solar systems objects to point the way to the pair? Then look over the top of Orion’s left shoulder and you’ll see two bright stars that live about a thumb’s length apart from each other – Castor and Pollux. For many of us, Gemini will be almost directly overhead at sky dark.

The slightly fainter star to the northwest is named Castor, and his almost identical brother star angled away to the southeast is Pollux. If you live where skies are dark, give your eyes plenty of time to adjust and you will begin to see the fainter stars that make up the stick figures of their bodies. Their “feet” will always point towards Orion. Once you understand the positions of the stars, it isn’t hard to see how ancient civilizations connected these two stars as twins! The ancient Romans saw the brothers Romulus and Remus, the two heroes that founded Rome. The Greek astronomers saw the twins Castor and Pollux, sons of the god Zeus. Oddly enough, both cultures believed the brothers were raised by the half-man, half-bull centaur called Chiron. Perhaps because of the nearby constellation of Taurus? It was Chiron who sent them to help Jason and the Argonauts in their quest to find the golden fleece. Legend has it that the twins rescued Jason’s ship from a killer storm and thus earned their place in the sky. Other stories say the twins were born of different fathers, making one mortal and one immortal. Pollux, who would live forever, was an excellent boxer. Castor, who would age normally, was an excellent horseman. When both were called upon to fight in the Trojan war, Castor was killed. Pollux love for his brother was so strong that he could not bear to be parted from him, so he begged Zeus to place them both in the sky as stars. The Arabs also saw this pair of stars as twins, while the Chinese referred to them as Yin and Yang!

But there’s a lot more “twins” here than can just be seen with your eyes alone. Two million year old Castor is also a very special type of “twin” star called a visual binary. This means it has another star that can be seen with a telescope very close to it. The two stars aren’t physically connected to each other, but its twin star is also a twin star! Pollux is also very special, too. Why? Because on on June 16, 2006 it was announced that there is planet just about twice the size of Jupiter orbiting it! The planet’s name is Polydeuces – another derivation of the word twin. In real life, this pair of stars couldn’t be more different than each other if they tried. Castor is a hot, blue/white A-type star – a multiple system located almost 50 light years away from Earth. Pollux is a cooler, singular star – a 35 light year distant orange giant that’s not only more massive than our Sun, but probably younger, too.

If you have binoculars or a telescope, be sure to take a look right around Castor’s big toe on a dark night. Here you will see colorful and bright galactic star cluster known as Messier Object 35. A large telescope will also reveal another nearby star cluster, NGC 2158, too. Another “twin”! There is also a planetary nebula called the “Eskimo” (NGC 2392) near the “arm” of the twin on the left. There are many other clusters and nebulae which are part of the constellation of Gemini, but most are too faint to seen without a large telescope.

Have fun with all your new knowledge of Gemini – the twins!

Gemini Map courtesy of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), Mythological Figures courtesy of Stellarium, Constellation photography courtesy of Till Credner, M35 and NGC 2158 courtesy of N.A.Sharp/NOAO/AURA/NSF. Thank you so much!

Astronomy For Kids: Bull Ridin’ Taurus

Now that we’ve discovered the easy constellation of Orion “The Hunter”, it’s time to take a look at what else is around! Instead of chasing down game with a bow and magic sword, this time we’ll be cowboys and rope the heavenly steer – Taurus – and take him for a ride! There won’t be any rodeo clowns to keep us safe. Just you and me and a starry night. Your mission? Locate Orion again. Now connect the three stars that make up his “belt” from left to right and keep drawing the line until you reach the next bright star. What we’re looking for is hiding just above Orion’s right shoulder…

Throughout history, almost every culture has seen this grouping of stars as a Bull. It is believed that there are cave paintings that depict Taurus and its many myths include it being everything from a giant white bull set out to capture a princess to one of the labors of Hercules. Maybe it was even one of the animals that Orion was hunting! Right now, one of the best times to find Taurus is about an hour after the Sun sets. If you live in the northern hemisphere, Taurus will be high to the south/southwest. For those near the equator, you’ll see this constellation well overhead and slightly to the west. For those who view from the southern hemisphere, Taurus will appear low to the northwest. But, no matter where you live, if your skies are bright from light pollution, you will have difficulty seeing the many faint stars that belong to the constellation of Taurus. So how do you find it? It’s easy! Look for the bright orange alpha star – Aldebaran. Now you’re looking the “Bull” right in the eye…

Giant star Aldebaran is one of the brightest of all the stars in the night sky and is about 65 light years away from Earth. At about 44 times the size of our Sun, it’s no wonder we can see it easily! If you were to look at Aldebaran with a telescope, you’d discover it is not alone – there are five other faint stars nearby, making it a multiple star system. As your eyes begin to adjust to the dark, you’ll slowly notice that Alpha Tauri is part of a V-shaped pattern of stars called an “asterism”. This marks the head of the bull and you’ve roped your first deep sky object with just your eyes!

This group of stars called the “Hyades” and ancient stories say these stars are the five daughters of Atlas. When their brother Hyas died, Atlas placed the girls in the sky to mourn. Although you cannot see all of them with just your eyes alone, there are many more stars which belong to this group… up to 400! Here on the ground, Aldebaran looks like it might be part of this open star cluster, but the true members are about 150 light years away, about two and half times further than our bright orange friend. If you look at the Hyades with binoculars, you’ll discover that many of the stars form angular pairs, like a giant domino game in the sky! But there is more than one set of “sisters” to find here…

Perhaps by now you’ve noticed a “fuzzy spot” to the northwest of Aldebaran? Now that you’ve roped the Bull and are ready to ride, let’s take a trip 440 light years away to visit with the “Pleiades”. Mankind has also seen and recognized this group of stars for about as long as… well… as long as mankind has been looking at the stars! The Oriental culture refers to them as “Suburu” and the Russians call them “Baba Yaga” – the witch with the fiery broom. They are mentioned in the Bible and the Greeks knew them as the “Seven Sisters”. In India, they are the “Stars of Fire” and native American Indians saw them as seven sisters hiding from the bears. Some cultures refer to the Pleiades as the “Little Eyes” and others associated them with fish caught in a net. Even the ancient Druids got in on the act, because they celebrated All Hallow’s Eve on the date this blue group of stars reached their highest point in the sky at midnight! If you take a look at them with binoculars or a telescope, you might notice a faint whisper of light around these stars that’s called nebulosity. They are passing through a region of dust in outer space and lighting up the cloud. Not bad for a group of stars that’s over 100 million years old!

Now the whistle has blown and it’s time to jump down off the Bull and run to safety, for Taurus is also home to one of the scariest things that can happen in space… A supernova! Now, in our times, we need a telescope to see what is left of an exploding star – but 900 years ago it was so bright that it could be seen during the day! Now all that’s left is a neutron star – a pulsar that sends off radio signals just like a heartbeat… and the “smoking” leftovers of the star’s mass shooting out into space at a speed of 1,500 kilometers per second. But don’t worry… the “Crab Nebula” is about 6,500 light-years from our solar system.

If you don’t find Taurus right away, don’t worry… But keep watching in the days ahead as the Moon gets closer and closer each night. Why? Because you’re in for a very special treat. Be sure to take a look at the constellation of Taurus on the night of February 21, 2010. For many of you, the Moon will cover up (occult) some of the stars of the Pleiades! For others, the Moon may just slide right by the edge… But no matter where you live, the Moon and the Seven Sisters will keep each other company all night long.

Image Credits: Taurus Chart courtesy of University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), Taurus Mythological courtesy of Starry Nights Software, Aldebaran and Hyades illustration courtesy of Wikipedia, the Pleiades and Crab Nebula courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope and occultation chart courtesy of Your Sky.

Astronomy For Kids: Orion – The Star Hunter

If you’ve been peeking out the windows at night, or maybe looked up while walking the dog before bedtime or taking out the trash after dinner, perhaps you’ve seen three fairly bright stars in a row. Depending on how early or late you look, you may see them lined up side-by-side above the horizon, or they may be one on top the other when they are setting to the west. If you’ve noticed them, you wouldn’t be the first… Humankind has been telling stories about this set of stars for centuries!

The three stars are the most notable feature in the ancient constellation of Orion and it’s best to look for them just after the Sun sets and the skies get dark. If you live in the northern half of the world, you’ll find them to the south. If you llive near the equator, they will be overhead. If you live in the southern hemisphere, you’ll spy the trio north. But no matter where you live, the Star Hunter is visible to everyone! Once you see it, hold your left hand out at arm’s length and spread your fingers wide – covering the three stars with your palm. If you look just above your little finger, you will see an orange looking star. It’s name is Betelgeuse and it’s the brightest of all the stars in the constellation. Just below your thumb you’ll see another bright star. This blue/white giant is named Rigel and it’s the second brightest star. Now, take your hand away and look at the pattern. Do you see a connect-the-dots hourglass shape? Congratulations! If your skies are dark enough, you’ll see a patch of stars to the north that represents the head of the hunter. To the west you may see a curved line of stars that represents his bow or shield. But the most special place of all is just below those three stars…

The ancient Greeks gave us a lot of great stories – many of them very different from each other. One might say that Orion was a great hunter who was banished to the sky for bragging on how many animals he could kill and the two bright stars which follow him represent his hunting dogs. Another says Orion fell in love with a goddess and was killed by an arrow when the goddess’ brother was tricked into shooting him. Still another says he was killed by a sting from Scorpio, the Scorpion. No matter which tale you may care to listen to, the fact remains that cultures all over the world have recognized this constellation for centuries on end and all see Orion as a human figure. But why would they notice this constellation more than any other? Maybe it’s the magic that’s just below those three stars!

If you live where the skies are dark, you’ll see another line of stars just below the trio. In myth, this represents Orion’s “sword”, but it’s a magic one. Take a close look and you’ll see a ghostly glow just about in the center of the sword. If you don’t spot it with your eyes alone, try using a pair of binoculars. It will look like a glowing cloud for a very good reason. It’s a cloud where stars are being born! This glowing gas cloud is called the Great Orion Nebula and the light you see now left on its journey to your eyes around 500 A.D. That’s about the time that King Arthur was around! Inside are hundreds of stars being born and their energy lights up the gas, just like a neon tube. While you won’t see the pretty colors with your eyes the way the camera does, you can still enjoy the magic and share what you’ve learned with your friends. All you need to do is just find three stars in a row…

Image Credits: Orion Chart courtesy of University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), Orion Sky Shot courtesy of Mouser Williams, Stellarium represenation of Orion and Orion Nebula courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Santa Spied at Lunar North Pole…

Only one more day left until Christmas Eve, and astronomers have just discovered a unique feature on the lunar surface. Although accepted for many years to be a natural feature of selenography, modern astrophotography coupled with today’s high-powered telescopes have discovered an area near the lunar North Pole that’s apparently being used as a runway by a man in a red suit piloting an unusual spacecraft…

Be sure to spark the imaginations in your young viewers (or simply enjoy the holiday smile) as you show them the Alpine Valley!

Tonight’s outstanding feature will be the lunar Vallis Alpes. Located near the terminator in the lunar “North Pole”, this wonderful gash in the landscape very conspicuously cuts across the lunar Alps just west of crater Aristotle. As you view this 180 km long and (at points) less than 1 km wide feature, ask yourself how it was formed. While it looks very artificial with limited aperture and possibly like it could have been formed by a glancing blow from a small asteroid, it’s actually a volcanic/tectonic feature called a sinuous rille.


If Santa were to look up along the southeast side of the Alpine Valley, he’d see a very tall linear cliff that’s slightly concave – like an amphitheater. To the northwest would be a small series of hills leading up the the grand lunar Alps. To the south would be another curved mountain ring about 16 or 17 miles in length, and from 3 to 4 miles in width. This forms the gorge, bordered on the east by sheer vertical cliffs, towering thousands of feet above the bottom of the valley. The valley floor is a flat, lava-flooded surface that is divided by a slender, cleft-like rille. Chances are this “little runway” was once a graben that which was flooded with magma.

But tonight? It’s the most special place not on Earth!

Many thanks to Wes Higgins for the holiday smiles and to Dietmar Hager for his equally splendid lunar photography.

Kid’s Astronomy: Celestial Birds Migrate West?

Hello, Cosmic Kids! As the seasons change, not only do the Earthly birds migrate, but so do the celestial ones. In the Northern Hemisphere, it’s not unusual to see large flocks of our feathered friends moving on to warmer climes, but did you know that there are bird constellations that are migrating, too? Instead of flying south for the Winter, these ancient avians are headed west…

aquila_figOver the next few days just after sunset, the slender crescent Moon will glide silently between two constellations that represent birds and help you to locate them with ease. While you’re out, listen to the voices on the wind… “Look to the southwest for Aquila the Eagle. Perhaps you recognize it as is one of the three constellations from which we learned the stars of the Summer Triangle? Aquila was known to the Romans as Vultur volans the ‘Flying Vulture’. Now instead of flying high in the sky, it is headed west. Look for a straight line of three stars almost level with the horizon. The center and brightest of these three stars is Altair and they represent the Eagle’s wings. The head of the Eagle – Lambda – is a much dimmer star which stretches off to the southwest to stars from Altair. Its proper name is Al Thalimain, which means the two ostriches! But there’s still more… If you look again at Altair, whose Arabic name means ‘the bird’, you’ll see another fairly bright star to the south. That’s Beta, or better known as Alshain. In Arabic, it means falcon!”

210px-Aquilaurania“To the ancient Greeks, Aquila was thought of as the feathered servant of Zeus. It was the Eagle who was in charge of holding the god’s thunderbolts and doing his chores. Aquila was also considered by some cultures to be the great eagle who ate Prometheus’ liver for giving fire to humans! To the Indians, the line of three stars which includes Altair is thought to be the footprints of the god Vishnu. Some Asian traditions see the bright star Vega as the Weaving-Princess who married Altair, the shepherd. In the Chinese love story of Qi Xi, Niu Lang (Altair) and his two children (Beta and Gamma Aquilae) are separated forever from their wife and mother Zhi Nu (Vega) who is on the far side of the river, the Milky Way.”

m11_nasa“If your skies are dark early enough and you have an open western horizon, you can use your binoculars to look for a flight of ‘Wild Ducks’ headed west, too. You will find it just a little north and west of the head of the Eagle, Lambda. This compact, open star cluster is also known as Messier Object 11 or NGC 6705. While you may only see a few stars in this 220 million years old gathering of suns, the cluster proper contains almost 2900 stars. Full of yellow and red giant stars these ‘ducks’ aren’t just migrating, they’re speeding away from us at 22 kilometers per second!”

cygnus_figNow, let’s go a bit higher and take a look at big bird – Cygnus the Swan. Sometimes folks refer to this constellation as the Northern Cross because of its shape. Do you recognize it as also being a member of the Summer Triangle? The tail of the Swan is bright star Deneb, Arabic for ‘tail’. Deneb is a very young, bright blue supergiant star and you’ll see three stars in a row below it – Gamma in the center, Delta to the north and Epsilon to the south. Two stars west of Gamma is Beta – Albireo – the beak of the Swan. If you have a telescope or higher power binoculars, take a look! Albireo is really two stars. This is what is known as a binary star, and you’ll find the pair has a very noticeable orange and blue color contrast.”

PelicanNebula1_shahar_f720“Is that all the birds in Cygnus? Not hardly. Although it is very hard to see optically, there is another feathered friend very close to Deneb… the Pelican Nebula! This neon night bird is filled with stars being born and clouds of gas evolving. The young stars inside the cloud are very active and their energy is turning the cold gas into hot gas, causing it to glow and spread outward. The ridge of cold gas being pushed away from the 2,000 light-year year distant warm gas cloud is called an ionization front. Dark dust clouds are what shapes Pelican’s eye and long bill, while the ionization front make up the curved shape of the head and neck.”

Cygnusfigurestellarium“So where did the Swan come from? There are many legends. To the ancient Greeks, Cygnus is Zeus in disguise, flying his way across the sky to win the heart of Leda, the mother of Helen of Troy and the Gemini twins. Perhaps Cygnus is Orpheus, who was placed in the sky along with his harp (Lyra) after he was murdered. In one myth, Cygnus is a friend of Phaethon, the son of Sun god Apollo, who crashed the sky chariot while driving along the Milky Way. It is said that Zeus turned Cygnus into a swan for his heroic attempts to save Phaethon from the starry river. Perhaps Cygnus is the son of Neptune – saved by his father who turned him into a swan before he was defeated by Achilles. But according to Chinese mythology, Cygnus is the magpie bridge. And you know what magpies are, don’t you? That’s right… Birds!”

If you don’t find the Aquila constellation and Cygnus tonight, keep trying. Over the next few days you’ll find the crescent Moon will help guide the way! And keep looking up…

Many thanks to these image resources: Mythical Figures (Credit: Uranometria Archives), Constellation Maps (Credit: Windows to the Universe, UCAR), Aquila and Cygnus Illustrations (Credit: SEDS and Stellarium), Wild Duck Cluster (Credit: NASA image gallery) and Pelican Nebula (Credit: Digitized Sky Survey/Charles Shahar).