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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.

 


What's On:
Sky Map June 2021

Northern Sky: June 19 - July 2

Northern Sky by Deane Morrison
June 19 – July 2, 2021

Summer is officially settling in. The summer solstice arrives at 10:52 p.m. on Sunday, June 20. At that moment the sun reaches a point over the Tropic of Cancer, and ends its annual journey north. Then it reverses and starts heading south again. Slowly. When the sun is near a solstice, it moves at glacial speed. It seems as though the sun is at its maximum height, and the days are about as long as they get, for two months centered on the summer solstice. In fact, the word “solstice” comes from the Latin for “sun standing still.” On that day the Earth will be lighted from the Antarctic Circle up to the North Pole and beyond to the Arctic Circle on the night side of Earth.

On June 24th, we get the last of this year’s three supermoons. This moon rises at 9:33 p.m., about eight hours after the moment of fullness. It may not look perfectly round, but it’ll be close to Earth and quite bright. It travels the night sky in Sagittarius, sitting right at the juncture of the lid and the handle of the Teapot of Sagittarius. 
 
On July 2nd, Earth reaches aphelion, its farthest distance from the sun. Earth orbits more slowly when it’s farther from the sun, which means that as I speak, we’re slowing down.  

This time of year, the stars and planets get barely six hours to strut their stuff. Venus gets much less; it shines through the sun’s afterglow, very low in the west-northwest, for barely an hour before setting. In the east, Saturn, and then Jupiter, rise around midnight. Saturn is in Capricornus, the sea goat, and Jupiter has moved into Aquarius, the water bearer.  
At nightfall, you’ll see a brilliant star high in the south to southwest. This is Arcturus, the brightest star in the kite-shaped constellation Bootes, the herdsman. Below Arcturus we have Spica, the only reasonably bright star in Virgo, the maiden. Low in the south is the S-shaped body of Scorpius. Its most salient feature is Antares, a gigantic red star at the scorpion’s heart. Just east of Scorpius is the Teapot of Sagittarius. 

Finally, a recent article in Astronomy magazine reminded me of a story I heard a long time ago. A reporter was covering a meeting of astronomers—where, I don’t recall—but there was, as usual, a room where lots of graduate students were standing by poster displays of their research. The reporter saw one who had a small table by him, and on it was a jar of dill pickles. So the reporter asked, what have dill pickles got to do with astronomy? And the grad student explained that the vinegar in the pickle brine was based on acetic acid, and his group had detected acetic acid in space. Well, now lots of organic molecules have been detected in space, including amino acids, the building blocks of protein, and precursors of DNA. And Astronomy magazine just reported that scientists have found another one. 

Ethanolamine, an essential component of the membranes that enclose our cells, has been found in a cloud of gas and dust just 390 light-years from the center of the Milky Way.

This gets at the question of how life arose on Earth and perhaps elsewhere. Was life seeded from space? Seeded in the form of essential molecules that were synthesized in space, including ones like ethanolamine, which could have assembled themselves into membranes that encapsulated and protected the other essential molecules by forming little protocells? I’m going to stick my neck out and say this question won’t be resolved any time soon.

-----------------------------------------     

The University of Minnesota’s public viewings of the night sky at its Duluth and Twin Cities campuses have been curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For more information, see:

Duluth, Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium: www.d.umn.edu/planet

Twin Cities, Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics: www.astro.umn.edu/outreach/pubnight

Check out astronomy programs, free telescope events, and planetarium shows at the

University of Minnesota's Bell Museum: www.bellmuseum.umn.edu/astronomy

Find U of M astronomers and links to the world of astronomy at: http://www.astro.umn.edu

Listen: 

 
Sky Map June 2021

Northern Sky: May 22 - June 4

Northern Sky by Deane Morrison
May 22 – June 4, 2021
 
June has three big events in store for us: the summer solstice, the last of 2021’s three supermoons, and a partial eclipse of the sun.
     
First up is the solar eclipse, which will be in progress at sunrise on the 10th. Here are the times when the eclipse will be at its maximum in towns in the four corners of Minnesota, along with the percent of the sun’s face that will be covered at that moment: Pipestone, 5:45 a.m., 1.1%; Hallock, 5:31 a.m., 28.5%; Grand Marais, 5:07 a.m., 63%; and Winona, 5:31 a.m., 13.4%. To see it, make sure you have a clear view of the eastern horizon, and even though the sun will be very low, watch it only with proper eye protection.
     
Second, the summer solstice arrives at 10:32 p.m. on the 20th, when the Northern Hemisphere tilts most sharply toward the sun. At that moment a space traveler would see Earth lighted from the Antarctic Circle to the North Pole and beyond to the Arctic Circle on the dark side of our planet. 
     
Last comes June’s full moon, which qualifies as a supermoon by virtue of its closeness. It rises the evening of the 24th, near the juncture of the lid and handle of the Teapot of Sagittarius.
     
Because June’s full moon is unusually close, its new moon, being at the opposite point in the same lunar orbit, is unusually far away. As seen from some far northern regions of the globe, that new moon lines up so well with the sun on the 10th that if it were closer, it would produce a total eclipse. Instead, those areas see a rare annular eclipse, where the dark moon is encircled by a ring of bright sun.
     
Jupiter and Saturn begin rising before midnight in mid- to late June, and they’re well up in the southeast to south before dawn all month long. Between the 27th and 29th, watch the waning moon pass below the planets in the morning sky. In the evening sky, Venus hovers near the west-northwestern horizon, in the sun’s afterglow.
 

Listen: 

 
Star Map May 2021

Northern Sky: May 8-21

“Northern Sky”  -  Deane Morrison
May 8 – 21, 2021
 
As the winter constellations head into the sunset, Mars struggles to avoid the same fate. 
     
May Day finds the red planet on course to glide between the bright stars Procyon, in Canis Minor, to the east and Capella, in Auriga, the charioteer, to the west. At the end of the month, Mars will be close to Pollux, the brighter Gemini twin. All the while, the planet is steadily dimming and, despite its relatively fast orbital motion eastward, sinking toward its inevitable exit from the evening sky this summer.
   
 In the southeast to south, Spica, Virgo’s only bright star, is outshone by brilliant Arcturus, high above it in Bootes, the herdsman. To Spica’s lower right is a misshapen rectangle of stars marking Corvus, the crow. 
     
To the north, the Big Dipper—part of Ursa Major, the great bear—begins the month upside down, “spilling its water” on Polaris (the North Star) and Ursa Minor, the little bear. To identify Polaris, follow the “pointer stars” at the end of the Big Dipper’s bowl. Bracketing Polaris are two brilliant stars: Capella, in the northwest, and comparably bright Vega, in Lyra, the lyre, in the northeast. During the course of a night, or from night to night, this arrangement changes as the sky rotates counterclockwise around Polaris.
     
In the predawn sky, look for Jupiter and dimmer Saturn low in the southeast. Thanks to the resurgent sun, we have to get out earlier each morning to see them against a dark sky.
   
 The night of the 25th-26th, May’s full “supermoon” will be large and luminous as it slips through the Crown of Scorpius, a line of three stars near Antares, the scorpion’s red heart. The moon undergoes a total lunar eclipse on the morning of the 26th, but sets before the moment of perfect fullness and also before the eclipse reaches totality. 
   
 This will be the year’s closest full moon. It reaches perigee, the moon’s closest approach to Earth in a lunar cycle, only about nine and a half hours before reaching fullness. It edges out the runner-up, April’s supermoon, by a razor-thin margin. According to NASA, May’s full moon will be closer than April’s “by about 98 miles, or about 0.04 percent of the distance from the Earth to the Moon at perigee.”
 
 

Listen: 

 
Star Map May 2021

Northern Sky: April 24 - May 7

"Northern Sky" by Deane Morrison
April 24 - May 7, 2021

 As the winter constellations head into the sunset, Mars struggles to avoid the same fate. 
     
May Day finds the red planet on course to glide between the bright stars Procyon, in Canis Minor, to the east and Capella, in Auriga, the charioteer, to the west. At the end of the month, Mars will be close to Pollux, the brighter Gemini twin. All the while, the planet is steadily dimming and, despite its relatively fast orbital motion eastward, sinking toward its inevitable exit from the evening sky this summer.
   
In the southeast to south, Spica, Virgo’s only bright star, is outshone by brilliant Arcturus, high above it in Bootes, the herdsman. To Spica’s lower right is a misshapen rectangle of stars marking Corvus, the crow. 
     
To the north, the Big Dipper—part of Ursa Major, the great bear—begins the month upside down, “spilling its water” on Polaris (the North Star) and Ursa Minor, the little bear. To identify Polaris, follow the “pointer stars” at the end of the Big Dipper’s bowl. Bracketing Polaris are two brilliant stars: Capella, in the northwest, and comparably bright Vega, in Lyra, the lyre, in the northeast. During the course of a night, or from night to night, this arrangement changes as the sky rotates counterclockwise around Polaris.
     
In the predawn sky, look for Jupiter and dimmer Saturn low in the southeast. Thanks to the resurgent sun, we have to get out earlier each morning to see them against a dark sky.
     
The night of the 25th-26th, May’s full “supermoon” will be large and luminous as it slips through the Crown of Scorpius, a line of three stars near Antares, the scorpion’s red heart. The moon undergoes a total lunar eclipse on the morning of the 26th, but sets before the moment of perfect fullness and also before the eclipse reaches totality. 
     
This will be the year’s closest full moon. It reaches perigee, the moon’s closest approach to Earth in a lunar cycle, only about nine and a half hours before reaching fullness. It edges out the runner-up, April’s supermoon, by a razor-thin margin. According to NASA, May’s full moon will be closer than April’s “by about 98 miles, or about 0.04 percent of the distance from the Earth to the Moon at perigee.”

-----------------------------------------     
The University of Minnesota’s public viewings of the night sky at its Duluth and Twin Cities campuses have been curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For more information, see:
Duluth, Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium: www.d.umn.edu/planet
Twin Cities, Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics: www.astro.umn.edu/outreach/pubnight
Check out astronomy programs, free telescope events, and planetarium shows at the
University of Minnesota's Bell Museum: www.bellmuseum.umn.edu/astronomy
Find U of M astronomers and links to the world of astronomy at: http://www.astro.umn.edu
 

Listen: 

 
StarMap_Feb2021

Northern Sky: February 13-26

Dean Morrison is a science writer at the University of Minnesota where she authors the Minnesota Starwatch column.
In WTIP’s “Northern Sky”, Deane shares what there is to see in the night sky in our region.
February 13 - 26, 2021
 

Listen: 

 
StarMap_Feb2021

Northern Sky; Jan 30 - Feb 12

Deane Morrison is a science writer at the University of Minnesota where she authors the Minnesota Starwatch column.
In WTIP’s “Northern Sky”, Deane shares what there is to see in the night sky in our region.
 

Listen: 

 
Star Map Aug 2020

Northern Sky August 15-28

Northern Sky – Deane Morrison​

August 15-28, 2020

Now that we’re in the middle of August, it’s two months since the June solstice, and summer is
noticeably fading. But the good news is, the night sky is expanding, meaning the stars come out
earlier and fade away later.

In the predawn sky, Venus shines in the east as a brilliant morning star. A waning crescent moon
rose just above Venus the morning of August 15. On the 16th, the moon comes up next to Pollux,
the brighter of the Gemini twins. On the 17th the moon rises beneath the twins. That morning,
the bright star that rises off to the right of the moon and a little bit lower is Procyon, in Canis
Minor, the little dog. After the 17th, the moon disappears into the sun’s glare.

This month Venus has been pretty much holding its ground as the stars of Gemini and other
winter constellations stream past it. Also in the predawn sky is Mars, the lone bright light high in
the south. At the end of August, Mars’s opposition will be barely six weeks away. When Mars is
at opposition, Earth sweeps between the sun and the red planet, causing it to appear opposite the
sun in the sky. As that day approaches, Mars is brightening. It’s already brighter than Sirius, the
brightest star in the night sky, and its candlepower is still waxing. If you can’t wait to compare
Mars and Sirius, go outside close to dawn near the end of the month, when Sirius will be rising
in the southeast.

A new moon arrives on the 18th. At that moment the moon passes into the evening sky, but we’ll
have a few days before it gets bright enough to seriously interfere with watching stars and
planets. At nightfall in the southeast to south we have our old friends Jupiter and, off to the left,
Saturn. If you want to see them in the evening, remember that while Jupiter comes out around
sunset, Saturn doesn’t show up very well until the sky gets good and dark. These planets have
been moving away from each other and reach a maximum separation, 8.3 degrees, on August 28;
after that date, they start to draw closer. The distance between them will be steadily shrinking
until the winter solstice, when they make a very close pass. Also on August 28, a fat waxing
moon appears just below Jupiter.

In the neighborhood of these planets we have, low in the south to southwest, Scorpius, with
Antares, the bright red star at the scorpion’s heart. Immediately east is the Teapot of Sagittarius,
and then Jupiter. Above Jupiter is a curved line of stars known as the Teaspoon. It sits above the
giant planet like a hat. If you go outside around 11 o’clock, Mars will be low in the east, Jupiter
and Saturn in the south, and you can see three planets at once.

But back to nightfall. Look to the west for the brilliant star Arcturus, which anchors the kite-
shaped constellation Bootes, the herdsman. This time of year, the kite stands upright above the
horizon as Arcturus seems to drag it down like a stone.

Above and east of Jupiter and Saturn is the big Summer Triangle of bright stars. Just a few words
about the star at the Triangle’s southern vertex. This is Altair, sandwiched between two dimmer
stars in the constellation Aquila, the eagle. Altair is close; only about 17 light-years away. It’s
famous for rotating very fast—once every 10 hours, or more than twice as fast as Earth. This has
flattened Altair into a shape not unlike that of a pumpkin.

Listen: 

 
Star Map Aug 2020

Northern Sky August 15-28

Northern Sky – Deane Morrison​

August 15-28, 2020

Now that we’re in the middle of August, it’s two months since the June solstice, and summer is
noticeably fading. But the good news is, the night sky is expanding, meaning the stars come out
earlier and fade away later.

In the predawn sky, Venus shines in the east as a brilliant morning star. A waning crescent moon
rose just above Venus the morning of August 15. On the 16th, the moon comes up next to Pollux,
the brighter of the Gemini twins. On the 17th the moon rises beneath the twins. That morning,
the bright star that rises off to the right of the moon and a little bit lower is Procyon, in Canis
Minor, the little dog. After the 17th, the moon disappears into the sun’s glare.

This month Venus has been pretty much holding its ground as the stars of Gemini and other
winter constellations stream past it. Also in the predawn sky is Mars, the lone bright light high in
the south. At the end of August, Mars’s opposition will be barely six weeks away. When Mars is
at opposition, Earth sweeps between the sun and the red planet, causing it to appear opposite the
sun in the sky. As that day approaches, Mars is brightening. It’s already brighter than Sirius, the
brightest star in the night sky, and its candlepower is still waxing. If you can’t wait to compare
Mars and Sirius, go outside close to dawn near the end of the month, when Sirius will be rising
in the southeast.

A new moon arrives on the 18th. At that moment the moon passes into the evening sky, but we’ll
have a few days before it gets bright enough to seriously interfere with watching stars and
planets. At nightfall in the southeast to south we have our old friends Jupiter and, off to the left,
Saturn. If you want to see them in the evening, remember that while Jupiter comes out around
sunset, Saturn doesn’t show up very well until the sky gets good and dark. These planets have
been moving away from each other and reach a maximum separation, 8.3 degrees, on August 28;
after that date, they start to draw closer. The distance between them will be steadily shrinking
until the winter solstice, when they make a very close pass. Also on August 28, a fat waxing
moon appears just below Jupiter.

In the neighborhood of these planets we have, low in the south to southwest, Scorpius, with
Antares, the bright red star at the scorpion’s heart. Immediately east is the Teapot of Sagittarius,
and then Jupiter. Above Jupiter is a curved line of stars known as the Teaspoon. It sits above the
giant planet like a hat. If you go outside around 11 o’clock, Mars will be low in the east, Jupiter
and Saturn in the south, and you can see three planets at once.

But back to nightfall. Look to the west for the brilliant star Arcturus, which anchors the kite-
shaped constellation Bootes, the herdsman. This time of year, the kite stands upright above the
horizon as Arcturus seems to drag it down like a stone.

Above and east of Jupiter and Saturn is the big Summer Triangle of bright stars. Just a few words
about the star at the Triangle’s southern vertex. This is Altair, sandwiched between two dimmer
stars in the constellation Aquila, the eagle. Altair is close; only about 17 light-years away. It’s
famous for rotating very fast—once every 10 hours, or more than twice as fast as Earth. This has
flattened Altair into a shape not unlike that of a pumpkin.

Listen: 

 
Star Map Aug 2020

Northern Sky August 1-14

"Northern Sky" by Deane Morrison for August 1 - 14, 2020.

Deane is a science writer at the University of Minnesota and authors the Minnesota Starwatch column.
 

Listen: 

 
Sky Map June 2020

Northern Sky: June 20

Northern Sky - 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.
 

Listen: