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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: April 27 - May 10, 2019

NORTHERN SKY  by Deane Morrison
April 27-May 10 2019

Here we are again, moving from April into May, and the winter stars are disappearing in the west. But they’re not all gone yet. Case in point, a little while ago, a friend asked me about a couple of bright stars he had seen in the west around nine thirty the night before. Both were about the same distance above the horizon. So I took a good guess, and went out that night, and sure enough, what had caught his eye was the winter stars Procyon, in Canis Minor, the little dog, and Capella, in Auriga, the charioteer. Right now these two stars are getting ready to set for the season. If you haven’t seen them but you’d like to, go outside as soon as the sky gets dark, and you should see two bright stars not far above the western horizon. Procyon is on the left, Capella on the right. Above and between them are the Gemini twins, Pollux, that’s the brighter twin, and Castor.

This winter I’ve talked about all these stars except Capella. It’s a beautiful star, and when it’s low in the sky, Earth’s atmosphere often acts like a prism and makes it twinkle red and green. From the latitude of Grand Marais, it’s a circumpolar star. That is, it travels in a circle around the Pole Star, Polaris, and never sets, although in summer it gets a little too low to see very well. The stars of the Big and Little Dippers are also circumpolar. If you could follow a circumpolar star all day long, you’d see it complete one circle around Polaris every day. And if you noted its position at the same time every night for a year, you’d see it circle Polaris then, too.

Capella is also a multistar system. It has a close pair of big yellow stars, both a lot brighter than the sun and with about 2.5 times its mass. It also has a pair of little red dwarf stars orbiting the big yellow stars at a distance of about 10,000 times the distance of Earth to the sun.
The name Capella refers to the “little female goat” that the charioteer is carrying. Below Capella you may be able to make out three fainter stars that form a narrow triangle. These are called the Kids.

On May 7, Capella will be part of a string of objects lined up diagonally from lower left to upper right at nightfall, but not much longer afterward. Starting at the lower left end, we have Betelgeuse, in Orion; then a young crescent moon; then Mars, and finally Capella. On the evening of May 9, a heftier crescent moon will be between Procyon and Pollux.

And speaking of evenings, sundown on April 30 marks the beginning of the astronomically based Celtic holiday called Beltane. It was one of four cross-quarter days falling midway between an equinox and a solstice. Beltane marked the end of the dark half of the old Celtic year. The dark half began at Halloween, when all the evil spirits were set loose upon the world to vex humankind for the next six months. And that made sense; winter is the time when hunger, cold and diseases like flu run rampant. But when the end of April rolled around, things changed. At sundown on April 30, the nasty spirits came out for a last fling. Then, at sunrise on May 1, the party was over, and the spirits were again banished until sundown on October 31. The night of April 30 is also called Walpurgis night, but only because May 1 is associated with St. Walpurga, who had nothing whatsoever to do with any of this.


April Star Map - MN Starwatch

Northern Sky: April 13 - 26, 2019

April 13-26 2019
Well, what a difference a day makes. On Wednesday, April 10, a colossal astronomy story broke. Scientists working from radio telescopes all over the world released the first direct image of a black hole. Apologies if you’ve already heard all about this, but here goes.
Black holes are typically found at the centers of galaxies. They concentrate matter so densely, and generate such strong gravity, that nothing that gets too close can escape, including light. The boundary beyond which escape is impossible is called the Event Horizon, and that’s the name of the team that produced the image.
This black hole shows up as a dark round area inside a fuzzy, lopsided doughnut of light. It lies at the heart of a monster galaxy called Messier 87, which is one of the most massive galaxies in a cluster of galaxies in the constellation Virgo. The Virgo Cluster is in the general neighborhood of our Milky Way galaxy, and both the Milky Way and Messier 87 are powered by supermassive black holes.
But there’s no comparison. The mass of the Milky Way’s black hole is equal to 4 million suns, while Messier 87’s black hole has the mass of 6.5 billion suns; that’s 1,600 times more. The researchers calculated the diameter of the black hole to be 40 billion kilometers, or 25 billion miles. That makes it more than four times the diameter of Neptune’s orbit and nearly the size of our entire solar system. The Messier 87 galaxy is about 55 million light-years away. It’s visible through a small telescope, and May is a good month to observe it.
If you want to see where in the sky this galaxy is, and maybe point out its location to children or friends, you can use stars to navigate. Start by facing south after nightfall, at 9:30 or so. You’ll see the constellation Leo, the lion, fairly high in the south. Its brightest star,  Regulus, is the point in a backward question mark of stars that outline the lion’s head. Just east of the lion’s head is a triangle of stars marking the tail and hindquarters. The brightest and most eastern of these stars is Denebola. Okay, remember Denebola. Moving eastward again, you’ll see brilliant Arcturus, not quite as high as Denebola. Much lower, between Denebola and Arcturus, is Spica, the brightest star in Virgo.
Put another way, we have brilliant Arcturus well up in the east, Spica far to the lower right of Arcturus, and relatively dim Denebola to the upper right of both. These three stars form a nearly equilateral triangle. In fact, they are often called the Spring Triangle.
If you look from Arcturus about three quarters of the way to Denebola, and then down a little, that’s where M87 and its black hole, its heart of darkness, are. On April 17 the moon visits; if you point to a spot directly west of Arcturus and above the moon, you won’t be far off.
In the morning sky, Jupiter and Saturn, along with the star group known as the Teapot of Sagittarius, are slowly making their way westward, like a convoy. Jupiter is kind of low but brilliant, Saturn is the next bright object to the east, and the Teapot is between them. The moon visits Jupiter on the 23rd; on the 24th it sits right above the lid of the Teapot, and on the 25th it visits Saturn.
April’s full moon arrives on Friday, the 19th at 6:12 a.m. That’s shortly after sunrise and before moonset in Grand Marais. With clear views to east and west, you’ll see a rising sun and a very round, setting moon facing each other from opposite horizons.


Deane Morrison - photo via LinkedIn

Northern Sky: March 30 - April 12, 2019

Northern Sky by Deane Morrison
March 30 - April 12, 2019

Deane Morrison is a Science and Research Editor at the University of Minnesota.


Star map March 2019 submitted by D.Morrison

Northern Sky: March 16-29, 2019

NORTHERN SKY – By Deane Morrison  

March 16-29 2019

We’re now deep into spring equinox time, when the sun climbs fastest through the northern sky. The equinox happens at 4:58 p.m. on March 20, and Grand Marais gains three minutes and 28 seconds of daylight per day for two weeks around that date. But Anchorage, Alaska gains five minutes and 44 seconds, while in Trondheim, Norway, they’re gaining six minutes and 19 seconds. Trondheim gets more than an hour of extra daylight just during the 10 days straddling the equinox.
These ultra-rapid changes shouldn’t be too surprising. For example, in Trondheim, the day length goes from about four and a half hours in December to about twenty and a half in June. When the day length has to increase that much in just six months, it’s going to change pretty fast. And it’s fastest in March because that’s when the sun moves northward most rapidly.
At the equinox, neither pole is pointing toward the sun, and the day length is the same, theoretically, all over the planet. We actually get slightly more than 12 hours of daylight on the equinoxes because Earth’s atmosphere is a gigantic lens that allows us to see the sun for a few minutes before it rises and after it sets.
The equinoxes are also times of switchover. During the winter, the farther north you go, the shorter the day length. After the spring equinox, it’s the other way around, and as you go north, the day length increases.
All this is due to Earth orbiting around the sun while being tilted on its axis. That tilt doesn’t change during the course of a year. The North Pole always points to the same spot in the sky, near the North Star, and it’s our orbital motion that makes it point toward or away from the sun, or neither, depending on Earth’s position.
If that’s hard to visualize, get an apple and face a wall. Tilt the apple a little so that the stem—the apple’s north pole—points somewhat upward and toward the wall. Then, without spinning or pivoting the apple in any way, move it counterclockwise in a circle and imagine the sun in the center. Move your arm horizontally, as if stirring a pot, keeping the apple pointed toward that same wall. When it’s closest to you, the apple tilts toward the sun, like Earth at the northern summer solstice. When it’s farthest from you, it tilts away from the sun. That’s the winter solstice. At the midway points it tilts neither toward nor away from the sun, and those are the equinoxes.
Okay. In the sky. Jupiter is well up in the south in the predawn hour, Saturn is much dimmer and off to the lower left of Jupiter, and Venus makes it over the eastern horizon just as the sun’s rays start to wash everything out. 
In the evening, Mars is still up in the west after nightfall. It’s been kind of lonely, but some visitors are on the way. The Pleiades star cluster and the bright star Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, the bull, are moving closer to Mars every night. Best viewing starts the 22nd of March, at about 8:30 or 9 o’clock, when the sky will be dark but the moon won’t be up yet.
March’s full moon comes right after the equinox, at 8:43 p.m. on the 20th. The moon will be just a day past perigee, its closest approach to Earth in a lunar cycle, and that means we get our third supermoon in a row. This one rises over Grand Marais at 6:52 p.m., less than two hours before fullness, so it’ll come up very round as well as very big.


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Northern Sky: February 16, 2019

NORTHERN SKY – Deane Morrison
February 16 – March 1, 2019

In the second half of February, most of the astronomical action is still in the morning sky.
Venus is heading toward the sunrise while Saturn is climbing up away from it. Between the 17th and the 19th, the two planets pass each other. They come closest on the 18th, when Saturn will be one degree, or two moon widths, below Venus, which is by far the brighter planet. For the rest of the month, the distance between them widens, and by March 1 they’ll be 10 degrees apart.
Saturn is following Jupiter, and now these two outer planets are rising earlier every day as they sail westward across the morning sky. Jupiter is brighter than Saturn, but in case you’re not sure which object is which, a fat crescent moon will be right above Jupiter on February 27th. A thinner crescent will be near Saturn on March 1, and Venus on March 2.
What makes the outer planets move westward across the sky—and the stars, too—is Earth’s orbital motion. But the outer planets’ own orbital motion makes them drift eastward with respect to the background of stars. Jupiter drifts eastward faster than Saturn, and now, that motion is carrying it toward Saturn. Late next year, Jupiter will pass Saturn—and very closely, which will be a lot of fun to watch. 
In the evening sky, Mars is still in the west after nightfall. It’s the vlodrdy of the outer planets, and moves the most rapidly eastward against the stars. It is dropping westward, but so slowly that it seems to be holding its own as the stars rush past it. Right now, that’s what the group of bright winter constellations is getting ready to do.
One of those constellations is Gemini, the twins. Its two brightest stars are Castor and Pollux, the heads of the twins. Gemini’s other stars are dimmer, but still, this constellation looks like what it’s supposed to be: two human figures. Pollux is lower and slightly brighter than Castor. Pollux is a large star with at least one large exoplanet, but Castor, not to be outdone, is a system of six stars. It has two main stars that orbit each other.
Each is a little bigger than the sun, and each has a small companion called a red dwarf star. And associated with this system is a pair of red dwarf stars that orbit each other and also appear to orbit the two main stars, albeit very slowly. Multistar systems are common, and needless to say, they can get complicated.
On the 16th, a bright waxing moon will be near the Gemini twins. Two nights later it’ll be near the backward question mark of stars that outlines the head of Leo, the lion. Early the next morning, at 3:03 a.m. on February 19th, the moon reaches perigee, its closest approach to Earth in this lunar cycle. Not quite seven hours later, it becomes full. Because it will be so close to us, this full moon qualifies as another supermoon, so it’ll be especially large and bright.
There’s just one little fly in the ointment, a common one when full moons come in the morning. On that day, the 19th, the moon sets over Grand Marais at 7:18 a.m.—a couple of hours before fullness. So if you want to see a supermoon at its biggest, roundest and brightest, go outside at least half an hour before moonset, which would mean by 6:45 a.m. And you’ll need a clear view of the western horizon. Or, if you’d rather watch a super moonrise, try the one right after full moon, on the evening of the 19th. It will still be pretty big and beautiful.


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Northern Sky: January 19 - February 1, 2019


Deane Morrison         

 As January heads into the home stretch, the morning show, starring Venus and Jupiter, is still going strong. Brilliant Venus has begun a descent into the sunrise, as it does whenever it’s getting ready for another trip behind the sun. Meanwhile, Earth is gaining on Jupiter in the orbital race, and this makes Jupiter climb through the morning sky. On Tuesday, January 22nd, Jupiter slides past Venus on its way up. At the end of the month, Jupiter and Venus will be about nine degrees apart.

 Also on January 31st, you’ll see a waning crescent moon close to Venus. And, if skies are dark, the red star Antares, in Scorpius, off to the right of Jupiter, at about the same distance as Venus. On February 1st, a thinner crescent moon appears below Venus. If you imagine a line from Venus to the moon and extend it down toward the horizon, you may spot Saturn. Earth is catching up to Saturn, too, so the ringed planet is also on its way up in the morning.

But the real show happens in the evening sky on the night of Sunday, January 20, when we get a total eclipse of a supermoon. This full moon deserves that name because it’ll be less than 24 hours from perigee, its closest approach to Earth in a lunar cycle. When the moon rises over Grand Marais—at 4:17 p.m.—you may notice that it’s bigger and brighter than your average full moon. Now, here is a play by play of the eclipse. 

 At 9:34 p.m. the moon’s leading edge makes contact with the Earth’s umbra, or dark inner shadow,  and the shadow starts to spread.

 At 10:41 p.m. totality begins. The moon is now completely engulfed in the umbra. An observer on the moon would see a total solar eclipse, due to Earth blotting out the sun.  The observer may also see a ring of fire around the Earth. The red ring comes from Earth’s atmosphere bending red light from sunsets and sunrises into the umbra, and some of it hits the moon. From our point of view, this light often turns the moon’s face reddish—what we call a blood moon—during a total lunar eclipse.

 At 11:12 p.m. the moon passes closest to the center of the umbra, and it’ll be in deepest shadow.

At 11:43 p.m. totality ends. At this point, the leading edge of the moon breaks out of the umbra.

At 12:51 a.m. on January 21, the moon frees itself from the last vestiges of umbra and the show is over.

 During the height of a lunar eclipse, if you can see the darkened moon or at least remember where it was with respect to the stars when it disappeared, you can use it to find astronomical objects that otherwise would have been washed out by moonlight. This time, you may find the dim but lovely Beehive star cluster. Look to the lower left of the moon, about 12 moon widths away.

 The Beehive is a feature of Cancer, the crab. It’s between Gemini, one of the winter constellations, and Leo, the quintessential spring constellation. To the naked eye it’s just a fuzzy spot, but with binoculars, you can make out the stars. In 1609 Galileo was the first to observe the Beehive telescopically. He counted 36 stars, but there are actually more like a thousand. The Beehive’s Latin name is Praesepe, or manger. The cluster is framed by two stars called Aselli, which are donkeys feeding at the manger. The Beehive’s stars were all born in the same stellar nursery and have stayed together for the approximately 600 million years of their lifetime.


Northern Sky: January 5-18, 2019

Deane Morrison's "Northern Sky"  -  January 5 - 18, 2019

Early and mid-January are great times for star watching because skies are dark, and the winter constellations are bright. It may get a little nippy, but you don’t have to be outside very early, very late, or very long to see the main features.
The morning sky is especially good right now because the sun is rising about as late as it ever does. In the southeast, Venus and Jupiter are drawing closer every day, getting ready to pass each other on the 22nd. Venus is the brighter and, for now, the higher of the two. And to complete the predawn picture, the bright red star Antares, the heart of Scorpius, is just to the west of Jupiter.
In the evening, the winter constellations are up in the southeast after nightfall. They’re grouped pretty close together, so if you’re not familiar with them, you really should have a star chart to sort them out. But the most recognizable constellation, Orion, is easy to find because of the three stars that form his belt. 
Hanging from Orion’s belt is a line of stars that represent his sword. About halfway down the sword, binoculars will give you a glimpse of the sprawling and colorful Orion Nebula. The Orion Nebula is an immense cloud of gas and dust where new stars are forming. It’s about 1300 light-years away, and an estimated 24 light-years wide. Orion is also home to the famous Horsehead Nebula, which you need a telescope to see. But you can find lots of images of the Horsehead Nebula, and the Orion Nebula, online.
Orion’s left foot is Rigel, a blue-white star. Rigel and Betelgeuse, the red star at Orion’s right shoulder, are the brightest stars in Orion and among the top 10 in the whole sky. Rigel is a multiple star system, and overall, it’s estimated to be 40,000 times brighter than the sun. Betelgeuse is a gigantic star, estimated at 1,000 times the width of the sun. It’s less than 10 million years old—a mere child—but it’s aged rapidly and is now close to the end of its life. It’s expected to die in a spectacular supernova explosion. That may not happen for a million years, or it could blow up tomorrow.
In astronomy news, on New Year’s Day NASA announced that its New Horizons spacecraft, which gained fame by sending back stunning images from Pluto, has just completed what its principal investigator calls “the farthest exploration in the history of humankind.” It performed a flyby of an object in the Kuiper Belt, a doughnut-shaped ring of icy worlds beyond the orbit of Neptune. The object is called Ultima Thule, and it’s 4 billion miles away. The first pictures have just been released, and Ultima Thule looks, in the words of mission scientists, like a reddish snowman, something they’re now sure is the result of two spherical bodies that came together and stuck. Mission headquarters at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory says, “the two spheres likely joined as early as 99 percent of the way back to the formation of the solar system, colliding no faster than two cars in a fender bender.”
Ultima Thule is 19 miles long, and its two spheres are 12 and 9 miles wide. Scientists hope this object will clear up some mysteries about how our solar system formed. They want to know, for example, how small objects came together to form larger ones, and how they’ve been bombarded by meteor-like objects, although no impact craters are obvious on Ultima Thule.
Mark your calendars for Sunday, January 20th, when we’ll have a total eclipse of the moon. The show starts at 9:34 p.m., and I’ll have more on that in the next broadcast. 

Deane is a science writer at the University of Minnesota.
She authors the Minnesota Starwatch column which can be found on the University of Minnesota website at


December 2018 black map.jpg

Northern Sky: November 24 - December 7 2018

Northern Sky by Deane Morrison
November 24 - December 7, 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's column “Minnesota Starwatch” can be
found on the University of Minnesota website at 


November Sky Map

Northern Sky: November 10 - 23, 2018

NORTHERN SKY – Deane Morrison
November 10 – 23, 2018
Now that we’re back on standard time, the stars come out earlier. That’s good for watching the evening sky. But the morning sun also comes up earlier than it did on daylight time. It rose over Grand Marais at 7:49 a.m. right before the switchover, and it won’t rise that late again till the second half of December. So for now, everybody will have to get out earlier to see the morning show.
The star of that show is our old friend Venus. It’s climbing over the eastern horizon as it emerges from a trip between Earth and the sun, and so it’s relatively close and very bright. It starts out as a thin crescent, and through a small telescope or even a pair of very strong and steady binoculars, you can see the crescent getting thicker as the days go by. The star above Venus is Spica, in Virgo. If you go out on only one day, try the 14th, when the planet and the star will be at their minimum distance, just over two moon widths apart. Look about an hour before sunrise.
Jupiter will join Venus next month, but right now it's in the process of falling out of the evening sky and getting lost in the sunset. And Saturn is right behind it. In both cases, Earth is going around the sun, leaving those planets behind. In the east, the bright winter constellations are making their annual entrance. However, only a few, like the Pleiades star cluster and Taurus, the bull, are up right after nightfall. If you’re out at that time and looking for something new, you may want to see if you can find some double stars that are up in early evening. Binoculars are highly recommended here.
The first double star is easy: it’s at the bend of the Big Dipper's handle. The Big Dipper is now sitting pretty much upright, just above the northern horizon. The double star in the handle is well known, and you can see it without binoculars if your vision is good. While you’re there, you can use the Big Dipper to find Polaris, the north star. The two stars on the bowl of the Big Dipper that are farthest from the handle point toward the north star. Also, try to find the whole Little Dipper. Polaris is at the free end of its handle, and keep in mind that the two "bowl" stars nearest the handle are pretty dim. The second double star is in Taurus. To recap, it's in the east after nightfall. Find the face of the bull, with a star chart if you need one. You'll see the bright star Aldebaran next to the Hyades star cluster, which is shaped like a V. Follow the line of stars from Aldebaran toward the point of the V, and you'll see the double star. Binoculars will help. Use them again on the Pleiades, which appear to the naked eye as a fuzzy patch above Aldebaran. The third double star is the most challenging. Find Vega, a brilliant star in the west, and look just above it for a tight doublet of stars. You’ll definitely need binoculars for that one. And you may want to postpone your search for double stars until after full moon because a waxing or full moon can wash out the dimmer stars in the early-evening sky.
Our full moon arrives at 11:39 p.m. on the 22nd, which is Thanksgiving Day. It rises over Grand Marais at 4:28 that afternoon, and for my money, that's when it will be most beautiful. At nightfall, it will be between and just west of Aldebaran and the Hyades, below, and the Pleiades above. 



Northern Sky: Oct 13 - 28, 2018

Northern Sky - by Deane Morrison
October 13 - 28, 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