Star Light, Star Bright… Oops, That’s Not a Star!

June 28, 2008

You know the old rhyme “Star Light, Star Bright. First Star I See Tonight.” But what if the first “star” you saw, wasn’t?

That would be the case if you were looking to the southeast just after 11pm (EDT) these days. You would see a brilliant white “star” above the SE horizon, easily outshining everything else in the sky. You might even think at first glace it was an airplane’s landing lights. No, what you are seeing is the planet Jupiter.

Apart from Venus, Jupiter is the brightest planet in out sky. And it should be, considering Jupiter is the solar system’s “King of the Planets.” Only the Sun is larger than Jupiter in our solar system.

Jupiter is currently in the constellation Sagittarius, and makes a wonderful showpiece to the stars surrounding the planet in the sky. When you are looking towards Sagittarius, you are looking towards the center of our Galaxy.

Here are some facts about Jupiter:

  • Jupiter is five times as distant from the Sun as the Earth.
  • You could fit over 1000 Earths inside Jupiter.
  • It takes Jupiter nearly twelve (Earth) years to orbit the Sun once.
  • Jupiter has sixty-three moons.
  • One “day” on Jupiter is only ten hours.
  • If you weighed 100 lbs on Earth, on Jupiter you would weigh 214.
  • Jupiter is extremely large, but it is not as dense as the Earth.

Jupiter is going to dominate the night skies for the rest of the year, rising earlier and earlier each evening. In fact, on July 9th, Jupiter will be at a point in its orbit called “opposition” and will rise at sunset. It is “opposite” the Sun from Earth, so we see it all night long.

Jupiter will also be one of the featured objects at Public Nights at the James C. Veen Observatory this year. It’s an amazing sight in telescopes.


Good Old Summertime!

June 20, 2008

Ah yes… the wonderful joyous season of summer! The trees are fully in leaf, the flowers are blooming, the birds are singing. There’s warm weather abounding, and no thoughts of cold and snow.

Welcome to summer (the Summer Solstice).

The term “Solstice” is Latin for sun (sol) and to stand still (sistere). On this day – and on the Winter Solstice, the sun stops it’s north/south travels and “stands still” in declination.

For the northern hemisphere, summer officially began at 7.59pm EDT today (Friday the 20th). At that time, the sun was at its highest point visible from this hemisphere, 70.5° high in the sky at local noon. If you were in a more tropical setting, say 24.5° latitude (North) the sun would be directly over your head. You would be at the “Tropic of Cancer.”

And if you were farther north, say above 66.5° latitude, you would be living in the “Land of the Midnight Sun” as the sun would never set for weeks.

So go out and enjoy the warm weather… the green grass… the sounds of nature. If it’s clear at sunset, take a long look at the first sunset of the season.

June 2008’s Full Moon

June 17, 2008

The middle of the third week of June heralds the full moon for the month. This time the moon will attain “full” phase at 1.30pm Eastern Time on the 18th. June’s full moon is called the “Full Strawberry Moon” and everyone in Michigan knows it’s time for the sweet, juicy locally-grown berries, which are much better than the imported ones from other states.

June’s full moon is the southernmost full moon of the year. With the sun at it’s highest point in the sky for us in the northern hemisphere (the Summer Solstice was just over a week ago) the moon, which when it is in the “full” phase is 180° from the sun, is at it’s lowest point. Hence, the moon will rise in the southeast sky, and not get very high above the southern horizon all night.

Discovery Channel Salutes NASA

June 7, 2008

If you have The Discovery Channel on your cable or satellite system, and you are a fan of the space program (which you probably are, if you’re reading this) you should check out a great six-part program that begins on Sunday evening, June 8th.

Titled “When We Left Earth,” this miniseries gives an overview of the fifty years of NASA, using footage seen and also footage previously not seen by the public in many years. And what is even more incredible, NASA worked with the Discovery Channel in converting all those old film and video reels into high definition format, for a stunning visual feast.

Spanning the timeline from the choice of the original Mercury Seven astronauts to the mission of the International Space Station, “When We Left Earth” is a must-see for any space enthusiast, or anyone who has ever gazed up in the night sky in wonder, wishing they could experience what’s out there.

The Discovery Channel website has an extensive area devoted to this program, with interactive timelines, information, and games. Please check it out.

And after you have seen this breakthrough miniseries, you can pick it up on DVD (regular and the spectacular Blu-Ray editions) on July 10th.

So “check your local listings” as to when this program will be seen in your area.