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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:
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.
 

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Sky Map June 2020.jpg

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: 

 
StarMapJune2020.jpg

Northern Sky: May 23 - June 5

NORTHERN SKY
By Deane Morrison

Venus has just left the evening sky, and now Jupiter and Saturn are moving in. By mid-month both will be up in the southeast before midnight. Jupiter, by far the brighter planet, shines west of Saturn and leads the ringed planet across the night sky. 
     
Mars doesn’t quite make it into the evening sky. But it rises earlier each day, approaching midnight from the morning side. By dawn Mars will be a fairly bright dot in the southeast. As for Venus, it reappears in the morning sky this month, but doesn’t climb out of the sun’s foreglow until late June or early July.
     
If you’re out at nightfall, the brilliant star Arcturus dominates the southern sky. Arcturus, the jewel of kite-shaped Bootes, the herdsman, is the brightest star in the northern hemisphere of sky. However, it’s barely brighter than Vega—the beacon to the east of Arcturus—so they can be considered co-holders of that title.
     
Between the 28th and 29th, a waxing moon glides between Arcturus and Spica, the brightest star in Virgo, the maiden, which shines about 30 degrees below Arcturus. Whenever Spica is up, you can find it by following the curve of the Big Dipper's handle —always somewhere to the north—to locate Arcturus, then keeping going to find Spica. In other words, “arc to Arcturus, speed on to Spica.” 
     
June’s full moon arrives at 2:12 p.m. on the 5th. It follows Scorpius and Antares, the scorpion’s bright red heart, across the night sky. Jupiter and Saturn follow the moon that night; between Jupiter and the moon is the Teapot of Sagittarius. 
     
If you like challenges, look for a very old crescent moon to the lower left of Venus, right above the east-northeastern horizon about half an hour before sunrise on June 19. Then look for an extremely young and thin crescent moon getting ready to set over the western horizon at nightfall on the 23rd. Use binoculars, and see if you can find the Beehive star cluster right below the moon. 
   
 Summer begins with the solstice, at 4:44 p.m. on the 20th. At that moment the sun reaches a point over the Tropic of Cancer, and an observer from space would see Earth lighted from the Antarctic Circle up to the North Pole and beyond to the Arctic Circle on the night side of the planet.

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
 

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Star Map - May 2020

Northern Sky: April 25 - May 8

NORTHERN SKI – Deane Morrison
April 25-May 8 2020

In late April and early May, we get to watch Venus sink into the sun’s afterglow. To see our sister planet at its best and brightest, we have to wait for a dark sky, and this time of year the sun is going down later each night. And the longer we wait, the lower Venus gets. 

On Saturday, April 25, a waxing crescent moon appears below Venus and next to Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, the bull. The next night, Sunday, April 26, a fatter moon appears at about the same level as Venus. Both these solar system objects will be between Betelgeuse, the gigantic red star in Orion, to the lower left, and Capella, the brightest star in Auriga, the charioteer, to the upper right. On the 27th and 28th, the moon moves through the stars of Gemini. On May 1st, the moon is just past first quarter, and it appears above Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, the lion. The moon will also be part of the backward question mark of stars known as the Sickle, which outlines Leo’s head. The moon may wash out the stars of the Sickle, but they’ll be easier to find in several days, after the moon has moved on. Between the 4th and 5th of May, the moon passes over Spica, the brightest star in Virgo, the maiden. 

May’s full moon arrives at 5:45 a.m. on the 7th. It’ll be big and bright, another supermoon. You might want to look for it the night before or the night after, even though it’ll be somewhere around half a day before or past full. If you go out the morning of the 7th to see it at its roundest, be advised that from Grand Marais the moon sets, in the west, at 5:59 a.m. 

The morning sky continues to brighten earlier and earlier, turning into some kind of insomniac’s wonderland. These days you really have to get out by 5 a.m. to see Jupiter, that’s the big bright light in the southeast, and especially Saturn and Mars, before sunlight starts extinguishing them. If you haven’t been following them, Saturn is not far to the left, that is, east, of Jupiter, and Mars is even farther away to the east, and lower. You may notice Mars getting higher from day to day, but the more noticeable change is Saturn and Jupiter moving westward. As the month progresses, the gap between Mars and Saturn gets really wide. 

The Summer Triangle of bright stars is also up in the predawn sky. Above Jupiter and Saturn is Altair, in Aquila, the eagle. Moving up from Altair, we have the brightest star in the Triangle, Vega, in the constellation Lyra, the lyre of Orpheus. And moving down from Vega and a bit east, there’s Deneb, in Cygnus the swan. Also, the Milky Way forms a ribbon stretching from south to northeast. 

The end of April and beginning of May have some good dates for spotting the International Space Station in the morning sky. The sightings run from April 26 to May 1. The most spectacular will probably be the last one, on May 1, when the ISS makes its appearance at 4:32 a.m.,18 degrees above the southwest horizon. It’ll be bright and visible for four minutes, and it gets as high as 60 degrees, or two-thirds of the way to overhead. For a list of the exact dates and times near Grand Marais, search for “spot the station,” click on “sighting opportunities,” go to the map of Minnesota and click on the Grand Portage National Monument icon. 

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StarMap_Mar2020.jpg

Northern Sky: March 14 - 27

Northern Sky – Deane Morrison
March 14-27, 2020

The outer planets have all arrived on stage, and in middle and late March they perform the first act of their big morning show. On Sunday, the 15th, look to the southeast for brilliant Jupiter, then just to the west for a little reddish dot. That, of course, is Mars. East of Jupiter and lower in the sky is Saturn, which is following Jupiter as it approaches Mars. On Wednesday, the 18th, Jupiter will have moved noticeably closer to Mars and a waning, but hefty, crescent moon will be hanging right below them. The next morning, Thursday, the 19th, Jupiter and Mars are even closer and a slightly thinner moon joins all three planets when it rises at 5:26 a.m. On the 20th, Jupiter passes a mere 0.7 degrees—slightly more than a moon width—above Mars. And the moon rises at 6 a.m.
 
So if you’re up, consider going outside by 6 a.m. on any of those days—the 18th through the 20th. You’ll see three planets, two of them in the process of passing each other, and maybe a moonrise, too. All in a dark sky. That doesn’t happen every day.
 
As we near the end of the month, Saturn closes in on Mars. On the morning of Saturday, the 28th, the ringed planet will be at about the same height as the red planet, getting ready for the second planetary pass in less than two weeks. By then, Jupiter will have removed itself a respectful distance to the west.
 
In the evening sky, another approach is in progress. The Pleiades star cluster and Venus are moving closer together as Earth’s orbital motion drops the Pleiades down toward the sunset horizon and Venus’ orbit carries it higher. Venus is unmistakably bright. The Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, are a slightly blurry bunch a little west of and lower than the bright star Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, the bull. On Saturday, March 14th, the Pleiades will be high above Venus. On the 27th, the star cluster will be closer to Venus than to Aldebaran. Make sure your binoculars are in good working order as Venus and the Pleiades get ready to meet in the first few days of April. And also, just enjoy Venus. From now until well into April, it’s visible for a good three and a half hours after sunset.
 
East of Aldebaran, the hourglass form of Orion is tilting to the west as it begins its annual exit from the evening sky. We’re also getting into the last few weeks when Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, is high enough for us to enjoy its full radiance; look for it low in the south-southwest at nightfall.
 
High in the southeast, Leo, the lion, is prancing into view. Leo is a two-part constellation. Its western section is the Sickle, a backward question mark of stars whose point is the bright star Regulus, the lion’s heart. East of the Sickle is a triangle of stars marking the lion’s hindquarters and tail. Leo follows the winter constellations across the sky and makes a very recognizable harbinger of spring.
 
And speaking of spring, it arrives on the 19th, at 10:50 p.m. At that moment the sun crosses the equator and enters the northern sky, and an observer in space would see Earth lighted from pole to pole. Also, since the fall equinox it’s been the case that as you traveled northward, the days got shorter. At the spring equinox that reverses, and the days get longer as you head north, all the way to the North Pole, which now has, officially, 24-hour daylight for the next six months.
 

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StarMap2020Mar.jpg

Northern Sky: February 29 - March 13

NORTHERN SKY – Deane Morrison
February 29 – March 13, 2020
 
In March, the action in the predawn sky really picks up. The month opens with Mars, Jupiter and Saturn forming a straight line, in that order from right to left, above the southeastern horizon. On the 4th, the three planets are spaced almost evenly apart.
    
But that neat arrangement soon gives way as the planets switch positions. Jupiter and Saturn are about to leapfrog past Mars, and all because Mars, being the closest to the sun, orbits the fastest. 
     
What’s happening is that Earth’s orbit is carrying us eastward and thus toward all these planets, making them move higher and westward. But Mars’s own orbit carries it much more rapidly eastward against the background of stars than the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn carry those planets.
     
As a result, Mars resists the westward movement imposed by Earth’s orbit and appears to sail eastward toward—and past—the two giant planets. Actually, though, Mars is mostly holding its own as Jupiter and Saturn sail past it on their westward journey. 
     
Have a look on the 18th, when Jupiter and Mars make a close pair while a crescent moon hangs right below them. The next morning, Jupiter and Mars will be closer yet and the moon will now appear below Saturn. On the 20th, Jupiter passes a mere 0.7 degrees—slightly more than a moon width—above Mars. On the 31st, the ringed planet passes about a degree above the red planet. In April the new lineup will be, from right to left, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, with the gap between Mars and the other two planets rapidly widening.
     
In the evening sky, a young moon comes out below Venus on the 26th and 27th. And don’t miss the show as the brilliant planet and the Pleiades star cluster approach each other in the last week of March. Mark your calendars for April 2nd and 3rd, when Venus glides, spectacularly, in front of the Pleiades. Be sure to have binoculars handy.
     
March’s full moon shines the night of the 9th. It will be big and bright, though more than six hours past full when it rises that evening.
     
Spring arrives with the vernal equinox at 10:50 p.m. on the 19th. At that moment the sun crosses the equator into the northern sky and Earth will be lighted from pole to pole.

The University of Minnesota offers public viewings of the night sky at its Duluth and Twin Cities campuses. For more information and viewing schedules, 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: 

 
Sumitted by Deane Morrison

Northern Sky: February 15-28, 2020

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

Northern Sky by Deane Morrison for February 15-28, 2020.

In the second half of February, it doesn’t matter if you’re looking at the post-sunset or the predawn sky; you’re going to see upwardly mobile planets.
 
In the evening, Venus is still blazing away as a gorgeous evening star. If you look to the west, you won’t have any trouble finding it. As it climbs farther above the horizon, it sets later. Venus is currently up and bright for more than three hours after sunset.
 
No bright stars are near Venus, but a young crescent moon stops by on the 25th, 26th, and 27th. The moon is way below Venus at first, but on 27th, it’ll have moved to about the same level as Venus. The bright winter stars are in the south after nightfall, so if the night is clear and moonless, don’t miss the chance to see them if you haven’t already. But even Sirius, the brightest of all, can’t match the candlepower of our sister planet. As they say, location is everything.
 
The three bright outer planets are now assembling in the predawn sky. They’re all fairly low in the southeast, with Mars leading the way—that is, it’s the highest and farthest to the west. Next comes brilliant Jupiter, and finally Saturn. Late in the month, when Saturn is high enough to be easily visible, the three planets form a straight line with Mars at the upper right end, Jupiter in the middle, and Saturn at the lower left end. This assembly sets the stage for some of the closest approaches between these three planets that we’ll ever see, as both Jupiter and Saturn pass Mars.
 
What’s happening is, Earth’s orbital motion is carrying us closer to all three planets; this pushes them higher and farther west each day. But they don’t move west at the same speed. As they orbit the sun, all the planets move eastward against the background of stars. Because Mars orbits eastward at great speed, it resists Earth’s westward push. But Jupiter and Saturn orbit sluggishly, and so Earth’s motion is pushing them westward, toward Mars, rather fast. In just a few weeks we’ll see first Jupiter, then Saturn, catch up to Mars and pass it.
 
Also, since Jupiter’s orbital motion eastward is faster than Saturn’s, it’s slowly closing in on the ringed planet. We can watch this slow approach until December, when Jupiter and Saturn pass each other in the evening sky.
 
In the days leading up to the new moon on the 23rd, a waning the moon plunges through the morning sky, toward the rising sun. On the 18th, the moon passes right in front of Mars. The red planet disappears behind the moon’s bright leading edge, which is to say, behind the lighted crescent. Mars reappears behind the moon’s dark edge, but not until after daylight. If you want to see Mars disappear, get out by 6 a.m. and bring binoculars. This won’t be the most spectacular lunar occultation, as these eclipse-like events are called, because Mars is still pretty far away and small, so don’t feel bad if you miss it.
 
The next morning, the 19th, a thinner crescent moon will be staring right at Jupiter, and on the 20th an even thinner moon rises below Saturn. Try to catch those two about an hour before sunrise, before Saturn gets washed out.
 
Also, between the 24th and 25th, Mars glides right above the star that marks the lid of the Teapot of Sagittarius. Meanwhile, Jupiter pretty much stays put below the softly curving Teaspoon of stars. If you’ve never seen these features of Sagittarius, these planets can be your guide.
 

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Starwatch November 19

Northern Sky: November 23 - December 6

Northern Sky by Deane Morrison

November 23 to December 6, 2019

As we move into the final month of the year, the planets are at play in both the morning and evening skies.
 
In the predawn hour, Mars and Mercury are both in the east-southeast until the end of November and into December. So is Spica, the brightest star in Virgo, the maiden. These three objects form a diagonal line above the horizon with Spica highest, Mercury lowest, and Mars, of course, in the middle. You might want to look on Sunday, November 24, when a thin crescent moon hovers to the left of Mars.  On the 25th, the moon will be thinner and just above the horizon, below Mercury.
 
As the days go by, Mars’s two companions abandon it. Spica keeps climbing higher, thanks to Earth’s orbital motion. But Earth's motion has a relatively weak influence on Mercury's comings and goings because it's an inner planet and much speedier than Earth. When it pops into the morning sky, it’s coming out from a trip between Earth and the sun. The transit of Mercury across the face of the sun on November 11 was also a transit, officially, out of the evening sky and into the morning. But it soon drops down again, as it starts its next trip around the far side of the sun. So as Spica climbs away and Mercury drops away, Mars gets doubly deserted. 
 
In the evening sky, Jupiter and much brighter Venus pass each other in the southwest on the weekend before Thanksgiving, November 23 and 24. The two planets come as close as 1.5 degrees, or about three moon widths. Try to catch them about 40 minutes after sunset. On Thanksgiving evening, a thin crescent moon of the next cycle will be right above Venus, and Jupiter will be below it to the right. This threesome will be impressive if you can catch it before Jupiter sets. If not, that’s okay; Venus and the moon always make a nice pair. 
 
On Friday, November 29, the moon hangs below and left of Saturn. Saturn hasn’t been especially bright this year, so if you haven’t found it, this moon will guide you. Like Jupiter, Saturn is falling toward the sunset as Earth leaves it behind in the orbital race. The ringed planet also gets a visit from Venus, in the second week of December. It'll be fun to watch these two planets approaching each other.
 
If you’re out at nightfall, look to the north to see the Big Dipper sitting right above the horizon. When it’s low like this, you can observe the double star at the bend of the dipper’s handle through binoculars without straining your neck too much. Also, find the pointer stars at the far end of the bowl, that is, away from the handle; these point to Polaris, the North Star. Then see if you can spot a lazy triangle of stars to the upper right of the pointer stars; these mark the head, and rather pointed nose, of the Big Dipper’s home constellation: Ursa Major, the great bear.  
 
Bracketing Polaris are two bright stars, both at about the same distance from Polaris. To the left, in the northwest, is Vega, in the Summer Triangle of stars, and to the right, in the northeast, is Capella, in the winter constellation Auriga, the Charioteer. Hanging from Polaris is the Little Dipper. Its midsection is dim, and it’s about all there is to see in the constellation Ursa Minor, the little bear. But since the Latin name Ursa Major is feminine, and Ursa Minor is so close by, Ursa Minor could well be regarded not just as a little bear, but as a bear cub.

 

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