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Northern Sky

East Bay Moon Crescent/Photo by Stephan Hoglund

Deane Morrison is a science writer at the University of Minnesota. She authors the Minnesota Starwatch column, and contributes to WTIP bi-weekly on the Monday North Shore Morning program through "Northern Sky," where she shares what's happening with stars, planets and more.

 


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Northern Sky: Feb 17 - Mar 2 2018

“Northern Sky” by Deane Morrison  Feb. 17-March 2 2018

In the second half of February, Venus starts to peek out from the sun's afterglow and slowly climb into the evening sky. On Saturday, February 17, there's a thin young crescent moon in the west-southwest, and if you look half an hour after sunset you may spot Venus way below and a little to the right of the moon. In the coming days, the moon will move on to the east, but keep looking in the same spot for Venus, although it will be a little higher each night.
 
As the moon makes its way eastward, it waxes. Between the evenings of the 22nd and 23rd, it passes the bright star Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, the bull. The evening of the 24th, it travels the night sky above Orion.
 
The moon finally becomes full on Thursday, March 1st, at 6:51 p.m. It'll be big and bright because it'll be just a couple of days past its closest approach to Earth in this lunar cycle. And, since moonrise over Grand Marais comes at 5:32 p.m.--barely more than an hour before perfect fullness--it'll be one of the roundest moons. Also, this gorgeous moon rises against a pale sky opposite a setting sun. It crosses the night sky below the belly of Leo, the lion, a spring constellation.
 
The latter half of February is a good time to watch the predawn show because there’s little interference from the moon. Three planets are all well up by an hour before sunrise, and they form an almost perfectly straight line. Starting low in the southeast and moving diagonally up and to the right, they are Saturn, Mars and Jupiter. Off to the right of Mars is Antares, the bright heart of Scorpius. Antares' name means rival of Mars, and as Mars brightens over the coming months it'll really outshine Antares and even begin to rival Jupiter.
 
Unlike Mars, Jupiter and Saturn don't change much in brightness because they're always very far from Earth no matter where Earth is in its orbit. Therefore, their distance from us can only change by a relatively small amount. But the orbits of Mars and Earth are much closer, and like runners in adjacent lanes on a track, our two planets vary widely in relative distance. As Earth gains on Mars and gets ready to lap it in the race around the sun, we get a lot closer. Mars’s mid-February distance is about 143 million miles; that shrinks to only 36 million miles when we lap it in July.
 
Mars also differs from Saturn and Jupiter in another way that we don’t need a telescope to see. If you watch the planets’ positions with respect to the stars, it looks as though Saturn and Jupiter are barely budging. And why not? Earth’s orbital motion pushes both stars and planets westward. But Mars is budging quite a bit compared to the background of stars, because its orbital motion, eastward, is so much faster than the other outer planets'. Sure, Earth’s motion also pushes Mars westward, but not nearly as fast as it does the background stars, or Jupiter or Saturn. From morning to morning you can watch Mars plowing its way eastward, away from Jupiter and Antares and toward Saturn. In the first week of April, Mars passes Saturn.
 
Also in the predawn sky, the Big Dipper is now hanging high in the west. If you follow the curve of its handle, that brings you to Arcturus, whose name means follower or guardian of the bear. Arcturus is a brilliant star, high to the upper right of Jupiter. Also try finding the crown of Scorpius, which is three stars that now look like a shield protecting Antares from Jupiter.
 

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Northern Sky: Feb 3 - 16, 2018

Northern Sky  by  Deane Morrison 
Feb. 3-16 2018
 
As we approach the middle of February, the moon spends more and more time in the morning sky, and that's good for everybody who would rather see stars in the evening.
 
This is the best time of year to enjoy all the bright winter constellations I've been talking about. If you go out an hour after sunset, you'll see them in the southeast to south. Sirius is the brightest star of all, and it's also the lowest of the bright winter stars. Sirius is called the Dog Star because it dominates Canis Major, the larger of Orion's hunting dogs. In ancient times, people thought that during the summer, when Sirius appears nearer the sun in the sky, its heat combined with the sun's heat to produce the hottest days of the year, which were dubbed the dog days. Of course, Sirius has nothing to do with it, but when looking at it against a dark winter sky, it's easy to see how people could think that.
 
Sirius is also part of two well-known geometric arrangements of stars. One is the Winter Triangle. Besides Sirius, the stars in the triangle are Procyon, which is above and a little east of Sirius, and reddish Betelgeuse, which is a little west of Procyon. Then there's the Winter Hexagon. Again starting with Sirius, move around clockwise to Procyon, which is in Canis Minor, the little dog; then Pollux, the brighter Gemini twin; Capella, in Bootes the herdsman--this is the highest star in the hexagon; then Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, the bull; and finally Rigel, in Orion.
 
In the morning sky, the planet show continues. The planets and neighboring stars are moving out of the southeast and into the south now. All three morning planets are rather low, but the highest, brightest and most western one is Jupiter. Moving to the left, or east, the constellation Scorpius has Mars, and below Mars is the gigantic red star Antares, the heart of the scorpion. The bright light to the lower left of Mars and Antares is Saturn. At this point, Mars isn’t especially bright, because it’s about 143 million miles away. But when Earth catches up to it this summer, it’ll be almost four times closer—just 36 million miles away. And pretty darn bright.
 
The moon wanes away to the new phase on February 15th, and on its way it visits the morning planets. Between the 7th and 8th it sweeps by Jupiter. Between the 8th and 9th, it passes Mars. On the 9th, the moon, Mars and Antares will make a nice trio of objects. On the 11th, the moon will be right above Saturn, and Saturn will be right above the lid of the Teapot of Sagittarius. On the 12th, the crescent moon will be sitting in the curved line of stars known as the Teaspoon, which hangs above the handle of the Teapot. On the 13th, the moon will be a lovely thin crescent. On the 16th, a young moon of the next cycle appears in the west, in the sun's afterglow. You'll have to look about half an hour after sunset to see it, and you may catch Venus to the lower right of the moon. This month, Venus is just starting a climb into the evening sky.
 
Also in the evening, look for the pale and elusive zodiacal light in the west as soon as the sky gets dark. The zodiacal light appears as a broad finger, or cone, of light extending up along the sun's path. It's caused by sunlight reflecting off dust in the plane of the solar system. You need dark skies to see it, and if you do, count yourself among the fortunate few.
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Supermoon by Alex Galicia

Northern Sky: Jan 20 - Feb 2, 2018

Northern Sky by Deane Morrison  for January 20 through February 2, 2018.

Deane Morrison is a science writer at the University of Minnesota.
 She authors the Minnesota Starwatch column, and in this feature
she shares what there is to see in the night sky in our region.

Deane Morrison’s column “Minnesota Starwatch” can be found on the
University of Minnesota website at     astro.umn.edu.

 

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Northern Sky January 6-19

Northern Sky - Early January 2018  by Deane Morrison

Deane Morrison is a science writer at the University of Minnesota.
 
She authors the "Minnesota Starwatch" column, and in this feature
she shares what there is to see in the night sky in our region.
 
Her column “Minnesota Starwatch” can be found on the University
of Minnesota website at  astro.umn.edu. 
 

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SuperMoon.jpg

Northern Sky: Dec 23 - Jan 5

Northern Sky - December 23 to January 5 - by Deane Morrison.

Deane Morrison is a science writer at the University of Minnesota.
 
She authors the Minnesota Starwatch column, and in this feature
she shares what there is to see in the night sky in our region.

Her column “Minnesota Starwatch” can be
found on the University of Minnesota website at
 astro.umn.edu 
 

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Northern Sky: Oct 14 - 28

Northern Sky:  Oct 14-28 2017

Deane  Morrison is a science writer at the University  of Minnesota.
 
She authors the Minnesota Starwatch column, and in this feature
she shares what there is to see in the night sky in our region.

Deane Morrison’s column “Minnesota Starwatch” can be
found on the University of Minnesota website at   astro dot umn.edu.
          

 

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Night Sky by Nikolay Mihaylov via Flickr

Northern Sky: Sept 30 - Oct 13

Deane Morrison is a science writer at the University of Minnesota. She authors the Minnesota Starwatch column, and contributes to WTIP bi-weekly with "Northern Sky," where she shares what's happening with stars, planets and more.

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Northern Sky: September 16 - 29

Deane Morrison is a science writer at the University of Minnesota. She authors the Minnesota Starwatch column, and contributes to WTIP bi-weekly with "Northern Sky," where she shares what's happening with stars, planets and more.

Photo courtesy of NASA

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Cassini gazes across the icy rings of Saturn toward the icy moon Tethys

Northern Sky: September 2 - 15

Deane Morrison is a science writer at the University of Minnesota. She authors the Minnesota Starwatch column, and contributes to WTIP bi-weekly with "Northern Sky," where she shares what's happening with stars, planets and more.

Photo courtesy of NASA

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