Let Orion Lead You On Winter Night Sky Tour

Even though it is cold, Winter can be the best time of year for stargazing, because low humidity brings clear skies. The sun goes down early too, so it gets plenty dark to take the kids out before bed time. Bundle up and go outside to see some of the brightest stars and popular constellations.

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Winter View of Orion

Let Orion be your guide to the winter night sky. The belt points to some of the brightest stars in the sky and Orion’s sword contains one of the best known and most photographed nebulae in the sky, the Orion Nebula (Messier 42). Follow the line formed by Orion’s Belt to the east to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Sirius is in Canis Major, so you have also found another constellation.

Go west of the belt and you will find Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus. It is the 13th brightest star in the sky. Taurus is also home to the star cluster Pleiades or Seven Sisters. To locate these stars, all you have to do is continue the line from Orion’s belt through Aldebaran, then curve it slightly downward. It looks like a tiny dipper. Pleiades is called Subaru in Japan.

The famous Crab Nebula is also in Taurus. It is the bright remnant of a historic supernova observed in 1054. It is directly overhead, but may be difficult to spot without binoculars. You may recall from previous Name a Star posts that both the ancient Chinese and Ancestral Puebloans recorded this supernova, which was brighter than a full moon..

Back to Orion, take a good look at Betelgeuse, the red star in the top left. It’s a supergiant star that is expected to turn into a supernova in the next 100,000 years.

As winter nears a close, there is still plenty to see in February. If you look high in the northwest, you will be able to see the zigzag row of five bright stars forming the constellation of Cassiopeia, the Queen. 

The constellation Leo, the Lion, also becomes visible in February. It is more of a spring constellation, but look closely and you will see Leo rising in the east shortly after dark. Look for six stars that form a backward question mark.

Keep Looking Up!

Best Mars Viewing In 32 Years Happens Tuesday

Best-Mars-Viewing-In-Next-32-Years

Best Mars Viewing In The Next 32 Years

The fall is a great time to get outside and enjoy the night sky. Remember to bundle up and maybe fix a mug of hot chocolate. October started with a full moon, the Harvest Moon, and will end with a Halloween Blue Moon. A second full moon in the same calendar month only happens about once every 3 years, so don’t miss it.

Mars viewing will be at its best until 2052. The peak will be Tuesday, October 13, however viewing should be excellent until the end of October. Look directly due east one hour after sunset in the middle of Pisces. Mars looks like a bright, reddish-orange “star”. It will be 3 times brighter than the brightest star, Sirius.

Fall can be a fishy time in the sky. From west-to-east, we have a sea goat (Capricornus), a water carrier (Aquarius), a pair of fishes tied by their tails to a fishing line or ribbon (Pisces), yet another fish placed far to the south (Piscis Austrinus), a whale (Cetus) and a winding river (Eridanus). You don’t need galoshes, but binoculars might help you get a better look.

Cetus includes the star Mira, the first variable star to be discovered. Variable stars change apparent brightness. Dutch observer Johannes Holwarda noticed Mira going thru its phases in 1638. Mira is in a bright phase right now. Some variable stars are actually double stars, two stars close together. When one of the double stars moves in front of the other, the light is blocked and appears to dim. You can name a double star for a friend or loved one at Name a Star.

There are a couple of major meteor showers to thrill late night observers: the Leonids in November and  Geminids in December. The Geminids produce slow-moving, green, pink and purple meteors that are arguably the most spectacular of the year to watch. They’ll be most visible the nights of December 13 and 14th, which also marks the new moon. 

For fans of the constellation Orion, the hunter, he will return in December. No reason to mourn the fading of the summer Milky Way, fall skywatching has plenty to offer.

America’s First Astronomers – Native Americans

 

Sun And Moon Pictograph

Did you know that the first astronomers in America were Native Americans? Although the original inhabitants of North America did not leave a written language, they did leave behind rock art, pottery, and architecture indicating that Native Americans were studying the night sky long before the voyage of Columbus. Some archaeologists believe that a star and crescent symbol on a panel near the Penasco Blanco ruin in Chaco Canyon represents the AD 1054 Crab supernova explosion. The ancient Chinese also recorded this same celestial event as reported in a previous Name a Star blog.

 

The Mimbres of New Mexico left behind a ceramic plate carbon-14 dated between 1050 and 1070 AD, which appears to depict the same Crab supernova . Its 23-rayed star probably represents the 23 days that the supernova shown as bright as a full moon.

 

Native Americans farmed, hunted, and gathered by the sky. Narragansettans of Rhode Island timed their seeding and cultivation of legumes by the moon and the rising of Pleiades. The Hopi Sun Chief kept a horizon calendar in the village of Walpi to plan ceremonies and agriculture cycles. Mississippi Valley Cahokians created a Sun Circle between AD 700 and 1200 that accurately predicts summer solstice, winter solstice, and the equinoxes. California’s Chumash counted the moon’s phases and recognized familiar patterns of stars, including the Big Dipper and the Belt of Orion.

 

Fajada Butte Observatory

Do you like learning about ancient cultures? Do you enjoy the night sky? How about adventure? Archeoastronomy, the field of scientific research that studies the astronomy of ancient cultures may be right for you. Climb to the top of Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon to see the Sun Dagger, a petroglyph crafted to mark the cycles of the sun (and possibly also the moon). Fajada Butte is one of the oldest observatories in North America.

 

But wait, there is more for you budding archeoastronomers. On an upper ledge in Chaco Canyon, the Ancestral Puebloans cut a notch in a cliff near Wijiji ruin. This notch lines up with a natural rock chimney on the other side of the canyon, which dramatically marks the winter solstice sunrise. Maybe that carved notch is the written language of our North American ancestors?

 

Ancient Chinese Dragon Bone Star Charts

 

Ancient-Chinese-Dragon-Bone-Star-Chart

Ancient Chinese Dragon Bone Star Chart

The first star charts were inscribed on dragon bones by Chinese astronomers in the 14th century B.C.E. Actually, the bones were ox shoulder blades or tortoise shells. They were called Oracle Bones or Dragon Bones because diviners or fortune tellers would carve star patterns or symbols, then crack the bones with a hot poker. The cracks would be interpreted to tell the future.

NASA astronomers used fourteenth-century B.C.E oracle bones to help determine how much the earth’s rotation is slowing down. Based on analysis of the tortoiseshell inscriptions, astronomers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena reported they had fixed the exact date and path of a solar eclipse seen in China in 1302 B.C.E. This allowed them to determine that the length of a day is getting longer.

Our constellation names are of Greek origin, so we tend to think of the Greeks being the first astronomers. However ancient Chinese observers of the night sky were keeping astronomical records long before the Greeks. Most of the Chinese patterns or constellations were entirely different than those recognized by the Greeks. Of all the thousands of star patterns about a dozen were seen in the same way by both Chinese and Western astronomy. Great Bear and Orion; Auriga, Corona Australis, and Southern Cross.

The Greeks may have given us our modern nomenclature for the night sky, however the Chinese provided the way in which we reckon the precise positions of the stars. The Chinese invented the system used by astronomers today to precisely pinpoint a star’s location with Right Ascension and Declination. Your Name a Star certificate displays these same coordinates, so you can find your star in the heavens.

The famous Halley’s Comet is named after an English astronomer who predicted the next return of the comet in 1758 CE, yet the Chinese first recorded the comet over 2,000 years earlier in 467 B.C.E.  Modern astronomers have used ancient Chinese astronomy records to track comets and the birth of stars. Chinese astronomers even built the world’s first clock 600 years before the first Western clock.

From dragon bones to clocks, ancient Chinese astronomers played a key role in laying the foundation for modern skywatching and getting to work on time.

Astronomy Learning Resources

Sharks_In_Space

Could Sharks Live In Space?

Most schools are distance learning. Some are doing it right. Some leave a bit to be desired. To supplement their curriculum, here at Name a Star we put together a helpful guide for your budding astronomer or scientist. There is still plenty of summer weather left to get outside to enjoy the night sky, so round up your kiddos and take them outside tonight to have fun learning something new!

Would you like to know if sharks could live in space? Of course you do. Discover this and more from The Discovery Channel on TV and online. There is also serious content about astronomy and space. 

If you are a teacher or home schooling a child try this excellent web site to teach them about the solar system. You can find materials for all abilities and interests. NASA has a great website aimed at children ages 5 – 13.

For spectacular graphics and videos, check out National Geographic. You can go on a fun virtual tour of the solar system. Be careful. There are so many interesting links that you could get lost in the cosmos. Did you know that the first spacecraft to set mechanical feet on another planet landed on Venus. In the 1960s and ’70s, the former Soviet Union’s Venera probes plunged through the planet’s punishing atmosphere sending back data from its rocky surface. These early missions provided an important lesson: Venus, the brightest planet or star in the night sky, is like a massive pressure cooker on its surface.

The National Geographic site covers more than the solar system. You can also learn about black holes, galaxies, asteroids, and comets. Test yourself with a quiz too.

You can even boost your astronomy knowledge during your commute to and from work. Look for radio broadcasts from Earth Sky.

If you don’t have internet or cable, you can still learn about astronomy at home. All you need is an ordinary TV with an inexpensive antenna to pick up your local PBS station. The Nova programs will transport you to another world.

Have fun tonight and keep looking up!

Why Does Old Glory Have Stars And Stripes?

Tattered-September-11th-Flag

September 11th Flag

We were all taught the meaning of the American Flag design when we were in grade school, but do you remember? Here’s a quick refresher, plus some fun history you may not know.

The flag of the United States has 13 horizontal stripes, alternating red and white, which represent the original Thirteen Colonies. In the upper left corner is a field of blue with 50 white stars, which represent the 50 states. This is the 27th version of the US flag. It was ordered by President Eisenhower in 1959 after Alaska became the 50th state and adopted by Congress in 1960.

Do these stars have anything to do with astronomical stars in the sky? That answer is not clear. As a matter of fact, when the Declaration of Independence was signed by the Continental Congress in July 1776 no official flag was approved. The signers hoped to create a self-governing American colony loyal to the British Crown, while avoiding war. The unofficial first flag included 13 red and white stripes representing the 13 colonies and a small replica of the British flag where the stars are on today’s flag.

Historically stars on flags and banners represented the heavens and were used to depict territorial divisions. An example of stars representing territorial divisions predating the U.S. flag are those in the coat of arms of Valais, Switzerland of 1618, where seven stars stood for seven districts.

On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution which stated: “Resolved, that the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” Notice that this Flag Resolution did not specify any particular arrangement for the stars. As a result, some US flags arranged the stars in a circle, while others used rows.

The colors of the flag are symbolic as well. Red symbolizes hardiness and valor, white symbolizes purity and innocence, and blue symbolizes perseverance, vigilance and justice. The blue area of the flag is called the canon and it contains a constellation of stars.

Some flags in the US and around the world depict actual constellations such as the Big Dipper on the State of the Alaska flag. The Flag of Brazil depicts several constellations including Crux and Canis Major.

Throughout history people have looked up to the stars in the sky for inspiration. Perhaps the founding fathers put stars on our flags to inspire us? You can inspire a friend or loved one by giving them their own star from Name a Star.

Why Stars Change With The Seasons

Orion_Constellation_Showing_Belt

Orion Constellation

Have you ever noticed that your favorite constellation is not always visible in the night sky? For example, the belt of Orion the Hunter is easy to spot in the winter, but nowhere to be seen in the summer. Where do the stars go? The short answer is that they are still out there shining during the day when you can’t see them.

To understand, remember that the earth rotates on its axis every day, while revolving around the sun every year and you can only see the constellations at night, when your part of the earth is facing away from the sun.

As the Earth orbits around the Sun, constellations move slowly to the west over the course of a year and we see different parts of the sky at night because, as the seasons change, we are looking in a different direction in space. From our spot on earth, the stars appear to rise in the east, cross the sky, then set in the west.

It is like riding on a merry-go-round that takes a year to complete one revolution. As you ride around, you see different parts of the amusement park (universe) pass before our eyes. The part of the universe that we can see depends on which direction the earth is facing at night and where we are in space as the earth orbits the sun.

You have to wait until late summer to see my favorite constellation Delphinus the Dolphin. Greek mythology states that a dolphin was sent by the sea god Poseidon to find Amphitrite, the mermaid he wanted to marry. Visit Name a Star to dedicate a star for a loved one in your favorite constellation.

As our earth whirls through space around the sun, its motions cause night and day and the four seasons. According to our clocks, there are 24 hours in a day, however the earth actually turns on its axis every 23 hours 56 minutes. That 4 minute difference causes the stars to rise and set 4 minutes earlier every night. After a year, we are back where we began 365 days earlier with the same stars returning for our next trip around the sun.

 

Hawaiian Star Gazing: Past and Present

Wayfinder_Nainoa_Thompson

Wayfinder Nainoa Thompson

What do stargazing and Hawaii have in common? A lot it turns out.

The largest research observatory in the world is located on Mauna Kea, the Big Island of Hawaii. Arrive at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station (VIZ) before dark, so you can enjoy the exhibits and the best sunset on the island. The VIZ is named after the Hawaiʻi born astronaut Ellison Onizuka, who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.

Did you know that you can see the stars better at the 9,200 foot VIZ, than you can at the 13,796 foot summit? Your vision at the summit is less acute because of the lack of oxygen there.

Hawaiians are descended from some of the greatest astronomers and navigators who ever lived. As the walls of Troy were falling to the Greeks, Polynesian explorers followed star paths across the world’s greatest ocean to settle one third of Earths’ surface. Ancient Hawaiians had names for hundreds of stars and other astronomical objects and concepts.

Early Polynesians were highly skilled wayfinders who sailed thousands of miles over open ocean without instruments. Navigation was accomplished primarily by a thorough knowledge of the stars and the waves.

More recently these explorations were duplicated by Nainoa Thompson and the crew of the Hokule`a, a Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe. Hokule’a is the Hawaiian name for Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation Boötes (the herdsman). Nainoa started learning astronomy from the children’s book, The Stars, by H. A. Rey, famous for his Curious George series. Consider introducing your children to astronomy with their very own star from Name a Star.

On the first page of The Stars, Rey writes “If you know the stars, you are not easily lost. They tell you the time and direction on land, on sea, and in the air, and this can be valuable on many occasions.” He must have listened to the ancient Polynesians.

If you would like to learn more about the Polynesian art of wayfinding, the building of the Hokule’a, and the epic voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti, read Hawaiki Rising: Hokule’a, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance. Nainoa Thompson was the first Hawaiian to find distant landfall without charts or instruments in a thousand years.

 

Star Watch With Your Kids For Father’s Day

SpaceX Astronauts

Want to have fun with your kids on Father’s Day? Make a game out of viewing objects in the night sky. It can be silly or serious, depending on the age and interest of you children. Try Night Sky I Spy.

The “spy” names a constellation or prominent star and says something like “I spy with my little eye a Big Dipper, where is it?” or “I spy an elephant, where is it?” The players then try to point out what the “spy” sees. If you need some help recognizing summer constellations, check out Sky At Night Magazine.

You can even surprise dad with his own star from Name a Star. Name a star for him, then the whole family can have fun looking for his star.

For the best star viewing, take the family camping away from city lights. Most people scamper for bed after the campfire burns down to embers. Instead lean back, look up, and marvel at the beautiful universe of stars displayed above. Relax and take joy in the successful SpaceX mission to the International Space Station.

The International Space Station literally shines as bright as a star and raises one’s focus upward out of the craziness of today’s world. You might also spot the International Space Station. It is exciting to know that the first two NASA astronauts to launch from Kennedy Space Center in nearly a decade just arrived. Give them a wave as they pass by.

Keep Looking Up!

 

Observatories and Planetariums Near Me

Have you ever wanted to learn more about the night sky?

Child_Looking_Through_Telescope

Child Looking Through Telescope

Did you know that most states have an observatory or planetarium open to the public? For example, there are two observatories within an hour’s drive of Name a Star offices in Bend, Oregon.

Pine Mountain Observatory has multiple telescopes and free camping. In the summer volunteers often bring out their own telescopes to assist visitors in stargazing.

View the night sky from over a dozen telescopes at Trip Advisor’s top rated observatory, Sunriver Observatory. Participate in a laser-guided constellation tour outdoors or come during the day to visit the Nature Center.

Most observatories have professional or amateur astronomers who can help you identify objects like, stars, planets, and nebulae. Some observatories also have a planetarium, where you can see a theater based program. Planetariums are great for day time viewing and during inclement weather. The McDonald Observatory in Texas has one of the best planetariums and an excellent website.

Plan a trip this summer, so you can discover answers to fascinating questions like:
What causes the phases of the moon?
Are meteors really shooting stars?
What is the Milky Way?

To make your stargazing even more fun name a star at Name a Star, then get a close look through a telescope.

Find a Publicly Accessible Telescope near you.

Hours may have changed, so check local listings for current hours and activities. Also check the weather, so you are not disappointed by a clouds obscuring the stars. The moon also affects your night sky viewing experience. A new moon provides the darkest sky, while a quarter moon gives great views of the moon’s topography. A full moon obliterates most of the stars, but puts the earth facing side of the moon on full display.