The Constellation Boötes

The northern constellation of Bootes, one of the 88 modern constellations recognized by the IAU. Credit:

Welcome back to Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of our dear friend and contributor, Tammy Plotner, we examine the Bootes constellation. Enjoy!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of the then-known 48 constellations. Until the development of modern astronomy, his treatise (known as the Almagest) would serve as the authoritative source of astronomy. This list has since come to be expanded to include the 88 constellation that are recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) today.

The constellation Boötes (pronounced Bu-Oh-Tays) is one of these constellations, and was also among those listed in the Almagest. It is frequently called the “Watcher of the Bear”, guarding over the northern constellations of both Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (the Greater and Lesser Bears). It is bordered by Canes Venatici, Coma Berenices, Corona Borealis, Draco, Hercules, Serpens Caput, Virgo and Ursa Major.

Name and Meaning:

According to myth, Boötes is credited for inventing the plough, which prompted the goddess Ceres – a goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility and motherly love – to place him in the heavens. There are also versions where Bootes represents a form of Atlas, holding up the weight of the world as it turns on its axis (yet another of Hercules’ labors).

Most commonly, Boötes is taken to represent Arcas, the son of Zeus and Callisto. In this source, Arcas was brought up by Callisto father, the Arcadian king Lycaon. One day, Lycaon decided to test Zeus by serving him his own son for a meal. Zeus saw through Lycaon’s intentions and transformed the king into a wolf, killed his sons, and brought Arcas back to life.

Boötes as depicted in Urania's Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c.1825. In his left hand he holds his hunting dogs, Canes Venatici. Below them is the constellation Coma Berenices. Above the head of Boötes is Quadrans Muralis, now obsolete, but which lives on as the name of the early January Quadrantid meteor shower. Mons Mænalus can be seen at his feet. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Sidney Hall
Boötes as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c.1825. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Sidney

Having heard of her husband’s infidelity, Zeus’ wife Hera transformed Callisto into a bear. For years, she roamed the woods until she met her son, who was now grown up. Arcas didn’t recognize his mother and began to chase her. To avoid a tragic end, Zeus intervened by placing them both in the sky, where Callisto became Ursa Major (aka. The Big Dipper, or “Great Bear”) and Arcas became Boötes.

In another story, Boötes is taken to represent Icarius, a grape grower who was given the secret of wine-making by Dionysus. Icarius used this to create a wonderful wine that he shared with all his neighbors. After overindulging, they woke up the next day with terrible hangovers and believed Icarius had tried to poison them. They killed him in his sleep, and a saddened Dionysus placed his friend among the stars.

Notable Features:

Bootes contains the third brightest star in the night sky – Arcturus (aka. alpha Boötis) – whose Greek name “Arktos” also means “bear”, and is associated with all things northern (including the aurora). Arcturus is quite important, being a type K1.5 IIIpe red giant star. The letters “pe” stand for “peculiar emission,” which indicates the spectrum of the star is unusual and full of emission lines. This is not uncommon in red giants, but Arcturus is particularly strong.

The Bootes contellation. Credit: IAU/Sky and Telescope
The location of the Bootes contellation. Credit: IAU/Sky and Telescope

Arcturus is about 110 times more luminous than our nearest star, but the total power output is about 180 times that of the Sun (when infrared radiation is considered). Arcturus is also notable for its high proper motion, larger than any first magnitude star in the stellar neighborhood other than Alpha Centauri. It is now almost at its closest and is moving rapidly (122 km/s) relative to the Solar System.

Arcturus is also thought to be an old disk star, and appears to be moving with a group of 52 others of its type. Its mass is hard to determine exactly, but it may have the same mass as Sol, or perhaps 1.5 times as much. Arcturus may also be older than the Sun, and much like what the Sun will be in its Red Giant Phase.

Arcturus achieved fame when its light was used to open the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. The star was chosen because it was thought that light from the star had started its journey at about the same time of the previous Chicago World’s Fair (1893). Technically the star is 36.7 light years away, so the light would have started its journey in 1896. Arcturus’ light was still focused onto a cell that powered the switch for the lights that eventually shined so bright that Arcturus was no longer visible.

Arcturus, along with its neighboring stars, also form the curious “Colonial Viper” formation, a triangular asterism invented by dedicated SkyWatcher, Ed Murray. It is so-named because it resembles a Colonial Viper being launched from a tube on the TV series Battlestar Galactica. The “Launch Tube” is formed by the intersection of Arcturus, Alphekka (Alpha Corona Borealis) and Gamma Bootis, while Izar (Epsilon Bootes) is the Viper.

A Colonial Viper leaving the Launch Tube aboard the Battlestar Galactica. Credit:
A Colonial Viper leaving the Launch Tube aboard the Battlestar Galactica. Credit:

Other notable stars include Nekkar (Beta Boötis), a yellow G-type giant that is 219 light years from Earth. It is a flare star, which is a type of variable star that shows dramatic increases in luminosity for a few minutes. The name Nekkar derives from the Arabic word for “cattle driver”. Then there’s Seginus (Gamma Boötis), a Delta-Scuti type variable star that is approximately 85 light years from Earth. It shows variations in its brightness due to both radial and non-radial pulsations on its surface.

Izar (Epislon Boötis) is a binary star located approximately 300 light years away which consists of a bright orange giant and a smaller and fainter main sequence star. Epsilon Boötis is also sometimes knows as Pulcherrima, which means “the lovieliest” in Latin. The name Izar comes from the Arabic word for “veil.” The star’s other traditional names are Mirak (“the loins” in Arabic) and Mizar.

Muphrid (Eta Boötis) is a spectroscopic binary star that is 37 light years from Earth and close to Arcturus in the sky. The star’s traditional name is Muphrid, derived from the Arabic phrase for “the single one of the lancer.” It belongs to the spectral class G0 IV and has a significant excess of elements heavier than hydrogen.

Boötes is also home to many Deep Sky Objects. This includes the Boötes void (aka. the Great Void, the Supervoid). This sphere-shaped region of the sky is almost 250 million light years in diameter and contains 60 galaxies. The void was originally discovered by Robert P. Kirshner – a Harvard College Professor of Astronomy – in 1981, as part of a survey of galactic redshifts.

The very loose globular cluster NGC 5466, Credit: NASA, ESA
The very loose globular cluster NGC 5466 located in the Boots consetllation, Credit: NASA, ESA/Wikisky

Then there is the Boötes Dwarf Galaxy (Boötes I), a dwarf spheroidal galaxy located approximately 197,000 light years from Earth that measures about 720 light years across. It was only discovered in 2006, owing to the fact that it is one of the faintest galaxies known (with an absolute magnitude of -5.8 and apparent magnitude of 13.1). Boötes I orbits the Milky Way and is believed to be tidally disrupted by its gravity, as evidenced by its shape.

And there’s also NGC 5466, a globular cluster approximately 51,800 light years from Earth and 52,800 light years from the Galactic center. The cluster was first discovered by the German-born British astronomer William Herschel in 1784. It is believed that this cluster is the source of a star stream called the 45 Degree Tidal Stream, which was discovered in 2006.

History of Observation:

The earliest recorded mentions of the stars associated with Boötes come from ancient Babylonia, where it was listed as SHU.PA. These stars were apparently depicted as the god Enlil, who was the leader of the Babylonian pantheon and special patron of farmers. It is likely that this is the source of mythological representations of Bootes as “the ploughman” in Greco-Roman astronomy.

The name Boötes was first used by Homer in The Odyssey as a celestial reference point for navigation. The name literally means “ox-driver” or “herdsman”, and the ancient Greeks saw the asterism now called the “Big Dipper” or “Plough” as a cart with oxen. His dogs, Chara and Asterion, were represented by the constellation of Canes Venatici (the Hunting Dogs) who drove the oxen on and kept the wheels of the sky turning.

The Big Dipper, the asterism that neighbors the Bootes constellation. Credit: Jerry Lodriguss

In traditional Chinese astronomy, many of the stars in Boötes were associated with different Chinese constellations. Arcturus was one of the most prominent, variously designated as the celestial king’s throne (Tian Wang) or the Blue Dragon’s horn (Daijiao). Arcturus was also very important in Chinese celestial mythology because it is the brightest star in the northern sky, and marked the beginning of the lunar calendar.

Flanking Daijiao were the constellations of Yousheti on the right and Zuosheti on the left, which represented the companions that orchestrated the seasons. Dixi, the Emperor’s ceremonial banquet mat, was north of Arcturus. Another northern constellation was Qigong, the Seven Dukes, which was mostly across the Boötes-Hercules border.

The other Chinese constellations made up of the stars of Boötes existed in the modern constellation’s north. These are all representations of weapons –  Tianqiang, the spear; Genghe, variously representing a lance or shield; Xuange, the halberd; and Zhaoyao, either the sword or the spear.

Finding Bootes:

Bootes can be found south of Ursa Major, just off the handle of the Big Dipper. Because the Big Dipper is easy for most observers to find, the handle is used to point to other important stars. Bootes’ brightest star, Arcturus, is also part of a mnemonic device used to orient people, which goes: “Arc to Arcturus, speed on to Spica.” This means you follow the curve in the Dipper’s handle away from Ursa Major until you run into Arcturus. The other star – Spica – is part of the neighboring Virgo constellation.

Arcturus, the brightest star in the Boötes constellation. Credit:
Arcturus, the brightest star in the Boötes constellation. Credit:

For those using binoculars, check out Tau Bootis, a yellow-white dwarf approximately 51 light-years from Earth. It is a binary star system, with the secondary star being a red dwarf. In 1999, an extrasolar planet was confirmed to be orbiting the primary star by a team of astronomers led by Geoff Marcy and R. Paul Butler. Maybe you’d like to look at long term variable star R Boötis? It ranges from 6.2 to 13.1 every 223.4 days.

For those using telescopes, there are plenty of excellent binary star systems to be seen. Pi Boötis is located approximately 317 light years from our solar system and the primary component, P¹ Boötis, is a blue-white B-type main sequence dwarf with an apparent magnitude of +4.49. It’s companion, P² Boötis, is a white A-type main sequence dwarf with an apparent magnitude of +5.88.

Now try looking at Xi Boötis, a binary star system which lies 21.8 light years away. The primary star, Xi Boötis A, is a BY Draconis variable, yellow G-type main sequence dwarf with an apparent magnitude that varies from +4.52 to +4.67. with a period just over 10 days long. Small velocity changes in the orbit of the companion star, Xi Boötis B – an orange K-type main sequence dwarf – indicate the presence of a small companion with less than nine times the mass of Jupiter.

The AB binary can be resolved even through smaller telescopes. The primary star (A) has been identified as a candidate for possessing a Kuiper-like belt, based on infrared observations. The estimated minimum mass of this dust disk is 2.4 times the mass of the Earth’s Moon.

The location of Mu Bootis (Alkalurops) in the Bootes constllation. Credit:
The location of Mu Bootis (Alkalurops) in the Bootes constellation. Credit:

Then there’s the triple system, Mu Boötis. The primary component, Mu¹ Boötis, is a yellow-white F-type sub giant with an apparent magnitude of +4.31. Separated from the primary by 108 arc seconds is the binary star Mu² Boötis, which has a combined spectral type of G1V and a combined brightness of +6.51 magnitudes. The components of Mu² Boötis have apparent magnitudes of +7.2 and +7.8 and are separated by 2.2 arc seconds.

They complete one orbit about their common center of mass every 260 years. How about colorful yellow and blue Kappa Boötis? Kappa2 Boötis is classified as a Delta Scuti type variable star and its brightness varies from magnitude +4.50 to +4.58 with a period of 1.83 hours. The companion star, Kappa¹ Boötis, has magnitude +6.58 and spectral class F1V.

For deep sky observers with large telescopes, try checking out the globular cluster NGC 5466, which is about a fist’s width north of Arcturus. This class XII, 9th magnitude globular was discovered in 1784 by Sir William Herschel and presents an nice challenge for experienced stargazers and amateur astronomers.

Or try compact spiral galaxy NGC 5248. It’s about a fist width south of Arcturus and about a finger width southwest. It’s part of the Virgo cluster of galaxies and could be as far as 50 million light years away. It’s another great grand design spiral which shows spiral galaxy structure when viewed in long exposure photographs. You can mark it on your list as Caldwell 45.

The NGC 5248 spiral galaxy, as imaged with a 32-inch telescope. Credit and Copyright: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona
The NGC 5248 spiral galaxy, as imaged with a 32-inch telescope. Credit and Copyright: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

But if you’d just like to have some fun, then why not try picking out the aforementioned “Colonial Viper and Launch Tube” asterism. If you’re a longstanding Battlestar Galactica fan, then you’ll recognize this ultra-cool spaceship as it sits in its triangular shaped launch tube. To find it, just draw a line between Arcturus, Alphekka (Alpha Corona Borealis) and Gamma Bootis which make up the “Launch Tube”, while Izar (Epsilon Bootes) is the Viper.

We have written many interesting articles about the constellation here at Universe Today. Here is What Are The Constellations?What Is The Zodiac?, and Zodiac Signs And Their Dates.

Be sure to check out The Messier Catalog while you’re at it!

For more information, check out the IAUs list of Constellations, and the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space page on Bootes and Constellation Families.

Which Star Will Explode Next?

Which Star Will Explode Next?

Come on Betelguese, explode already. Or maybe it’ll be Eta Carinae. Which of the billions of stars in the galaxy can we count on to explode next, and when?

When a new supernova is discovered, we can take that as a reminder that we live in a terribly hostile Universe. Sometimes stars just explode, and devastate a corner of a galaxy. On average, a supernova goes off twice a century in a galaxy the size of the Milky Way. Since there are potentially hundreds of billions of galaxies out there, dozens of supernovae are detonating every second in the observable Universe.

The last bright supernova was SN 1987A, located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, about 168,000 light years away. Even though it was far, it exploded with so much energy it was visible to the unaided eye. That one wasn’t even in our galaxy.

The Milky Way’s most recent supernova that we know of was G1.9+0.3, recently confirmed by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. It would have been visible from Earth about 100 years ago, but it was located in the dusty regions of the Milky Way and obscured from our view.

The last bright supernova was discovered in 1604 by the astronomer Johannes Kepler. This was a naked-eye supernova, in fact, at its peak, it was brighter than any other star in the night sky and for a few weeks it was even visible during the day.

So, which star is likely to explode next? Can we even know that?

Artist’s impression of the supergiant star Betelgeuse as it was revealed with ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO/L.Calçada
Artist’s impression of the supergiant star Betelgeuse as it was revealed with ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO/L.Calçada

We can, and there are even likely candidates. There’s Betelgeuse, the red supergiant star located in the constellation of Orion, only 640 light-years from Earth. Betelgeuse is massive, and it’s only been around for 10 million years. It will likely explode within a million years. Which, in astronomical time, is just before lunch.

Another candidate is Eta Carinae, located about 8,000 light years from us. This blue supergiant has roughly 120 times the mass of the Sun, and it’s ready to explode in the next few hundred thousand years. Which, from the Universe’s perspective is any moment now.

The closest star that could go supernova is most likely Spica, a short 240 light-years from Earth.
Spica has several times the mass of the Sun, it shouldn’t go off for a few million years yet. According to Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, another candidate is the star IK Pegasus A at just 150 light-years away.

Bright Star Spica - Brightest Star  in Virgo 16" F4.5   2 minute exposure , 400 ISO
Bright Star Spica – Brightest Star in Virgo by John Chumack

If any of these supernovae do go off, they’ll be incredibly bright. Supernova Betelgeuse would be visible during the day, it might even brighter than the full Moon. It would shine in the sky for weeks, possibly months before fading away.

These explosions are destructive, releasing a torrent of gamma radiation and high energy particles. Fortunately for us, we’re safe. You’d need to be within about 75 light years to really receive a lethal dose. Which means that even the closest supernova candidate is still too far to cause us any real harm.

Which star is set to explode next? Well, in the last second, 30 supernovae just went off, somewhere in the Universe. Here in our galaxy, there should be a supernova in the next 50 years or so, but we still might not be able to see it.
And if we’re really really lucky, Betelgeuse or Eta Carinae will detonate, and we’ll witness one of the most awe inspiring events in the cosmos from the safety of the front porch of our galactic suburban home. Any time now.

Which star would you like to see go supernova? Tell us in the comments below!

Will The Sun Explode?

Will The Sun Explode?

All stars die, some more violently than others.

Once our own Sun has consumed all the hydrogen fuel in its core, it too will reach the end of its life. Astronomers estimate this to be a short 7 billion years from now. For a few million years, it will expand into a red giant, puffing away its outer layers. Then it’ll collapse down into a white dwarf and slowly cool down to the background temperature of the Universe.

I’m sure you know that some other stars explode when they die. They also run out of fuel in their core, but instead of becoming a red giant, they detonate in a fraction of a second as a supernova.

So, what’s the big difference between stars like our Sun and the stars that can explode as supernovae?

Mass. That’s it.

Supernova progenitors – these stars capable of becoming supernovae – are extremely massive, at least 8 to 12 times the mass of our Sun. When a star this big runs out of fuel, its core collapses. In a fraction of a second, material falls inward to creating an extremely dense neutron star or even a black hole. This process releases an enormous amount of energy, which we see as a supernova.

If a star has even more mass, beyond 140 times the mass of the Sun, it explodes completely and nothing remains at all. If these other stars can detonate like this, is it possible for our Sun to explode?

Could there be some chain reaction we could set off, some exotic element a rare comet could introduce on impact, or a science fiction doomsday ray we could fire up to make the Sun explode?

Nope, quite simply, it just doesn’t have enough mass. The only way this could ever happen is if it was much, much more massive, bringing it to that lower supernovae limit.

In other words, you would need to crash an equally massive star into our Sun. And then do it again, and again.. and again… another half dozen more times. Then, and only then would you have an object massive enough to detonate as a supernova.

We don't have to worry about our sun exploding into a supernova.
We don’t have to worry about our sun exploding into a supernova.

Now, I’m sure you’re all resting easy knowing that solar detonation is near the bottom of the planetary annihilation list. I’ve got even better news. Not only will this never happen to the Sun, but there are no large stars close enough to cause us any damage if they did explode.
A supernova would need to go off within a distance of 100 light-years to irradiate our planet.

According to Dr. Phil Plait from Bad Astronomy, the closest star that could detonate as a supernova is the 10 solar mass Spica, at a distance of 260 light-years. No where near close enough to cause us any danger.

So don’t worry about our Sun exploding or another nearby star going supernova and wiping us out. You can put your feet up and relax, as it’s just not going to happen.

See Venus and the Moon Together in the Sky on September 8

A close conjunction of Venus and the crescent Moon as seen on February 27th, 2009. (Photo by author).

Sky watchers worldwide are in for a treat Sunday evening September 8, 2013 as the waxing crescent Moon passes near the dazzling planet Venus. And for a select few, the Moon will actually pass in front of Venus, in what is known as an occultation.

The action has already started this week, as the Moon reached New phase earlier today at 7:36 AM EDT/11:36 UT. The appearance of the slim crescent Moon nearest to the September equinox marks the start of the Jewish New Year with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, which this year began as early as it possibly can at sundown on September 4th. As per tradition, Rosh Hashanah formally begins when the sky is dark enough for three stars to be seen.  The convention established by Hillel II in 363 A.D. uses the mean motion of the Moon to fix the start dates of the Jewish luni-solar calendar, which means that occasionally Rosh Hashanah can start a day early. This also occurred in 2002.

The New Moon has also been historically an opportune time for nighttime military operations to commence —Desert Storm in 1991 and the raid against Bin Laden in 2011 were both conducted under the darkness afforded by the absence of moonlight around a New Moon. It’s yet to be seen if planners looking to conduct airstrikes on Syria are planning on taking advantage of the same conditions to begin operations soon.

Tonight, you can see the +1st magnitude star Spica less than two degrees away from -4th magnitude Venus. This places Venus at 100 times brighter than Spica and visible before sunset if you know exactly where to look for it.

The brightest star in the constellation Virgo, Spica is 260 light years distant and on the short list of nearby stars that will eventually go supernova. Fortunately for us, Spica is well outside of the ~100 light year radius “kill zone”.

You might just be able to spy the Moon and the -1st magnitude planet Mercury low to the west at dusk for the first time for this lunation tonight or (more likely) Friday night. This is also a great time to check out LADEE’s future home as it departs for lunar orbit from Wallops Island in Virginia on Friday night.

Hey, LADEE sitting on the pad atop its Minotaur V rocket with the slim crescent Moon in the background at dusk Friday night would be a great money shot, I’m just sayin’…

This weekend will see the Moon increase in illumination and elevation above the western horizon each evening until Spica, Venus, and the waxing crescent Moon fit within a four degree circle on Sunday night. The Moon will be 12% illuminated, while Venus is currently at a gibbous phase and 72% lit.

Looking west from latitude 30 north Sunday night from the US east coast... note that Mercury and Saturn are in the picture as well! (Created by the author in Stellarium).
Looking west from latitude 30 north Sunday night from the US east coast… note that Mercury and Saturn are in the picture as well! (Created by the author in Stellarium).

This will also present a good chance to see Venus during the daytime, using the nearby crescent Moon as a guide. This is a fun thing to try, and no gear is required! Though Venus may seem tough to find against the bright daytime sky, appearances are deceptive. With an albedo of 67% versus the Moon’s average of 14% Venus is actually brighter than the Moon per square arc second of size!

The Moon will also occult Spica on the evening of September 8th for observers in the Middle East and Europe right around sunset. Spica is one of four bright stars that the Moon can occult in the current epoch, along with Antares, Aldebaran, and Regulus. This is also part of a series of fine occultations of Spica by the Moon ongoing from 2012 to 2014.

Sundown on September 8th offers a special treat, as the 3-day old Moon passes less than a degree from Venus worldwide. The pair will fit easily into the field of view of binoculars or a telescope at low power and present an outstanding photo op.

And for observers based in Argentina and Chile, the Moon will actually occult Venus. Occultations are grand events, a split-second astronomical event in a universe that seems to usually move at a glacial pace. This particular occultation occurs for South American observers just before & after sunset.

The occultation of Venus by the Moon; the footprint over South America. (Credit: Occult
The occultation of Venus by the Moon; the footprint over South America. (Credit: Occult

We witnessed and recorded a similar pairing of Venus and the daytime Moon from the shores of our camp on Saint Froid Lake in northern Maine back in 2007:

Also, keep an eye out for a ghostly phenomenon known as the ashen light on the dark limb of the Moon. Also known as Earthshine, what you’re seeing is the reflection of sunlight off of the Earth illuminating the (cue Pink Floyd) dark side of the Moon. When the Moon is a crescent as seen from the Earth, the Earth is at gibbous phase as seen from the nearside of the Moon. Remember, the lunar farside and darkside are two different things! Earthshine can vary in brightness, based on the amount of cloud and snow cover present or absent on the Earth’s moonward side. My Farmer’s Almanac-consulting grandpappy would call ashen light the “Old Moon in the New Moon’s arms,” and reckon rain was a comin’…

Be sure to check out these astronomical goings on this weekend, and send those pics in to Universe Today!

Lunar and Planetary Conjunction on August 21, 2012

Last night — if you were in a good location — the Moon, Spica, Mars, Saturn all came together in a lunar/planetary/stellar conjunction. My attempts to see it and capture it failed because of trees (the conjunction took place low on the horizon), but thank goodness for our astrophotographer friends! John Chumack caught the event from his observatory in Ohio (his specs: Canon Rebel Xsi 85mm Lens at F5.6, ISO 400, 1 second exposure) and Ian Musgrave captured the view in Australia, below.

The line-up of the Moon, Mars (top middle), Saturn (right) and the star Spica (left) imaged on 22 August 2012 at 6:45 pm ACST from Adelaide, Australia. Image taken with a Canon IXUS at ASA 400, 15 second exposure. Credit: Ian Musgrave

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group, post in our Forum or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

See the “Martian Triangle” in the Sky Tonight!

If — like me — you’ve been focusing on all the great images and news coming from the Mars Science Laboratory, perhaps you’ve missed the great view of the “Martian Triangle,” now visible in the night sky at twilight! Astrophotographer John Chumack hasn’t missed the view. This image is from August 6, 2012 from his observatory in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

The Martian Triangle show starts at twilight, and you can find it by looking low in the southwestern sky. The star at the top is actually the planet Saturn, the star on the bottom left is Spica, and the bright spot on bottom right is the planet Mars. And remember, somewhere in your field of view, there’s a few spacecraft on and around Mars and another orbiting Saturn.

John took this image with a modified Canon Rebel Xsi DSLR and a 47mm Lens, at F5.6, ISO 800, 10 second exposure. See more of John’s wonderful astrophotos at his Flickr page or at his website, Galactic Images.

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: April 23-29, 2012

Mars In Leo - Credit: John Chumack


Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! What a great week to just enjoy some great unaided eye astronomy observations. Who can resist the beautiful appearance of Mars in Leo? Also this week, you’ll enjoy not one – but two – meteor showers as the Mu Virginids come to town mid-week and the Bootids light up the weekend. Get ready to enjoy bright stars, find planets, explore lunar features, learn some astronomy history and much more! When ever you’re ready, meet me in the back yard…

Monday, April 23 – Pioneer quantum physicist Max Planck was born on this day in 1858. In 1900, Max developed the Planck equation to explain the shape of blackbody spectra (a function of temperature and wavelength of emission). A “blackbody” is any object that absorbs all incident radiation – regardless of wavelength. For example, heated metal has blackbody properties because the energy it radiates is thermal. The blackbody spectrum’s shape remains constant, and the peak and height of an emitter can be measured against it – be it cosmic background radiation – or our own bodies.

Now, let’s put this knowledge into action. Stars themselves approximate blackbody radiators, because their temperature directly controls the color we see. A prime example of a “hot” star is Alpha Virginis, better known as Spica. Compare its color to the cooler Arcturus… What colors do you see? There are other astronomical delights that radiate like blackbodies over some or all parts of the spectrum as well. You can observe a prime example in a nebula such as M42, in Orion. By examining the radio portion of the spectrum, we find the temperature properly matches that of electrons involved in the process of fluorescence. Much like a common household fixture, this process is what produces the visible light we can see.

Tuesday, April 24 – Today in 1970, China launched its first satellite. Named Shi Jian 1, it was a successful technological and research craft. This achievement made China the fifth country to send a vessel into space.

Tonight see if you can spot the tender beginnings of the Moon after sunset. Observers take pleasure in sweeping the sky with small scopes and binoculars in hopes of finding the thinnest possible lunar crescent. And speaking of crescents, did you spot Venus close to the Moon? Why not take out your telescope and see what phase Venus is now in. If you don’t have a filter to cut its bright glare, try wearing sunglasses!

No telescope? No problem. You can still do some very awesome astronomy with just your eyes! Begin with locating the northern constellation of Ursa Major – most commonly known as the “Big Dipper”. Take note of the curve of the Dipper’s “handle” and trace it from the bottom of the cup and continue on the “Arc to Arcturus”. Keep moving, because now you’re going to “Speed on to Spica”! Once you’ve located this bright, blue/white star, simply look to its east/southeast (or upper left) for a yellow appearing “star”. That’s no star… That’s Saturn!

Now let’s have a look at 140 light-year distant Epsilon Hydrae – the northernmost star in the small circlet east of Procyon. While it and Rho will make a beautiful visual double for binoculars, Epsilon itself is a multiple system. Its A and B components are a tough split for any scope, but the 8th magnitude C star is easier. The D component is a dwarf star.

Wednesday, April 25 – Today marks the 15th anniversary of the deployment of Hubble Space Telescope. While everyone in the astronomical community is well aware of what this magnificent telescope “sees,” did you know that you can see it with just your eyes? The HST is a satellite that can be tracked and observed. Visit and enter your location. This page will provide you with a list of visible passes for your area. Although you can’t see details of the scope itself, it’s great fun to track with binoculars or see the Sun glinting off its surface in a scope.

Tonight our first voyage is to the Moon’s surface. Look along the terminator in the southern quadrant and revisit ancient old crater Furnerius. Named for French Jesuit mathematician George Furner, this crater spans approximately 125 kilometers and is a lunar club challenge. Power up and look for two interior craters. The smaller is crater A and it spans a little less than 15 kilometers and drops to a depth of over 1000 meters. The larger crater C is about 20 kilometers in diameter, but goes far deeper, to more than 1400 meters. That’s about as deep as a coral will grow under the Earth’s oceans!

Keep a watch on the skies while you’re out as the Mu Virginid meteor shower reaches its peak at 7 to 10 per hour. With dark skies tonight, you still might catch one of these medium speed meteors radiating from a point near the constellation of Libra.

Thursday, April 26 – On this date in 1920, the Shapely-Curtis debate raged in Washington on the nature of and distance to spiral nebulae. Shapely claimed they were part of one huge galaxy to which we all belonged, while Curtis maintained they were distant galaxies of their own. Thirteen years later on the same date, Arno Penzias was born. He went on to become a Nobel Prize winner for his part in the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation, through searching for the source of the “noise” coming from a simple horn antenna. His discovery helped further our understanding of cosmology in ways that Shapely and Curtis could have never dreamed of.

Perhaps they dreamed of Moon? We’ve got Moon! No matter, what we really want to do is revisit and study a changeable, sometimes transient, and eventually bright feature on the lunar surface – crater Proclus. At around 28 kilometers in diameter and 2400 meters deep, Proclus will appear on the terminator on the west mountainous border of Mare Crisium. For many viewers tonight, it will seem to be about 2/3 black, but 1/3 of the exposed crater will be exceptionally brilliant – and with good reason. Proclus has an albedo, or surface reflectivity, of about 16%, which is an unusually high value for a lunar feature. Watch this area over the next few nights as two rays from the crater will widen and lengthen, extending approximately 322 kilometers to both the north and south. Congratulations on another lunar club challenge!

Friday, April 27 – Tonight we’re heading towards the lunar surface to view a very fine old crater on the northwest shore of Mare Nectaris – Theophilus. Slightly south of mid-point on the terminator, this crater contains an unusually large multiple-peaked central mountain which can be spotted in binoculars. Theophilus is an odd crater, one that is a parabola – with no area on the floor being flat. It stretches across a distance of 100 kilometers and dives down 440 meters below the surface. Tonight it will appear dark, shadowed by its massive west wall, but look for sunrise on its 1400 meter summit!

Now, let’s try picking up a globular cluster in Hydra that is located about 3 fingerwidths southeast of Beta Corvus and just a breath northeast of double star A8612 – M68 (Right Ascension:12 : 39.5 – Declination: -26 : 45). This class X globular was discovered in 1780 by Charles Messier and first resolved into individual stars by William Herschel in 1786. At a distance of approximately 33,000 light-years, it contains at least 2000 stars, including 250 giants and 42 variables. It will show as a faint, round glow in binoculars, and small telescopes will perceive individual members. Large telescopes will fully resolve this small globular to the core!

While you’re out, have a look at 27 Hydrae about a fingerwidth southwest of Alpha. It’s an easy double for any equipment with its slightly yellow 5th magnitude primary and distant, white, 7th magnitude secondary. Although it is wide, the pair is a true binary system.

Saturday, April 28 – Today was a very busy day in astronomy history. Newton published his Principia in 1686 on April 28. In 1774, Francis Baily was born. He went on to revise star catalogs and explain the phenomenon at the beginning and ending of a total solar eclipse which we know as “Baily’s Beads.” 1900 saw the birth of Jan Hendrick Oort, who quantified the Milky Way’s rotation characteristics and envisioned the vast, spherical area of comets outside our solar system that we now call the Oort Cloud. Last, but not least, was the birth of Bart Jan Bok in 1906 who studied the structure and dynamics of the Milky Way.

Tonight’s outstanding lunar feature will be crater Maurolycus just southwest of the three rings of Theophilus, Cyrillus and Catharina. This lunar club challenge spans 114 kilometers and goes below the lunar surface by 4730 meters. Be sure to look for Gemma Frisius just to its north.

Now let’s check out a dandy little group of stars that are about a fistwidth southeast of Procyon and just slightly more than a fingerwidth northeast of M48. Called C Hydrae, this group isn’t truly gravitationally bound, but is a real pleasure to large binoculars and telescopes of all sizes. While they share similar spectral types, this mixed magnitude collection will be sure to delight you!

For SkyWatchers, no equipment is necessary to enjoy the Alpha Bootid meteor shower – despite the Moon. Pull up a comfortable seat and face orange Arcturus as it climbs the sky in the east. These slow meteors have a fall rate of 6 to 10 per hour and leave very fine trails, making an evening of quiet contemplation most enjoyable.

Sunday, April 29 – Before we explore space, let’s have a look at the Moon and the close apparition of Regulus and Mars! The three make a wonderful “line up” the night sky! Now, let’s start our lunar observations tonight as challenge craters Cassini and Cassini A come into view just south of the black slash of the Alpine Valley. The major crater spans 57 kilometers and reaches a floor depth of 1240 meters. The challenge is to also spot the central crater A, which is only 17 kilometers wide, yet drops down another 2830 meters below the surface.

While we’re out, have a look at R Hydrae about a fingerwidth east of Gamma – which is a little more than fistwidth south of Spica. R is a beautiful, red, long-term variable first observed by Hevelius in 1662. Located about 325 light-years from us, it’s approaching – but not that fast. Be sure to look for a visual companion star as well!

Until next week? Dreams really do come true when you keep on reaching for the stars!

Many thanks to John Chumack of Galactic Images for his outstanding photo of “Leo In Mars”!