NASA Night Sky Notes: Chill Out: Spot An Ice Giant In August

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting by the Night Sky Network in August, 2019.

By David Prosper

Is the summer heat getting to you? Cool off overnight while spotting one of the solar system’s ice giants: Neptune! It’s the perfect way to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Voyager 2’s flyby.

Neptune is too dim to see with your unaided eye so you’ll need a telescope to find it. Neptune is at opposition in September, but its brightness and apparent size won’t change dramatically as it’s so distant; the planet is usually just under 8th magnitude and 4.5 billion kilometers away. You can see Neptune with binoculars but a telescope is recommended if you want to discern its disc; the distant world reveals a very small but discernible disc at high magnification. Neptune currently appears in Aquarius, a constellation lacking in bright stars, which adds difficulty to pinpointing its exact location. Fortunately, the Moon travels past Neptune the night of August 16th, passing less than six degrees apart (or about 12 Moon widths) at their closest. If the Moon’s glare overwhelms Neptune’s dim light, you can still use the its location that evening to mark the general area to search on a darker night. Another Neptune-spotting tip: Draw an imaginary line from bright southern star Fomalhaut up to the Great Square of Pegasus, then mark a point roughly in the middle and search there, in the eastern edge of Aquarius. If you spot a blue-ish star, swap your telescope’s eyepiece to zoom in as much as possible. Is the suspect blue “star” now a tiny disc, while the surrounding stars remain points of white light? You’ve found Neptune!

Neptune and Uranus are ice giant planets. These worlds are larger than terrestrial worlds like Earth but smaller than gas giants like Jupiter. Neptune’s atmosphere contains hydrogen and helium like a gas giant, but also methane, which gives it a striking blue color. The “ice” in “ice giant” refers to the mix of ammonia, methane, and water that makes up most of Neptune’s mass, located in the planet’s large, dense, hot mantle. This mantle surrounds an Earth-size rocky core. Neptune possesses a faint ring system and 13 confirmed moons. NASA’s Voyager 2 mission made a very close flyby on August 25, 1989. It revealed a dynamic, stormy world streaked by the fastest winds in the solar system, their ferocity fueled by the planet’s surprisingly strong internal heating. Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, was discovered to be geologically active, with cryovolcanoes erupting nitrogen gas and dust dotting its surface, and a mottled “cantaloupe” terrain made up of hard water ice. Triton is similar to Pluto in size and composition, and orbits Neptune in the opposite direction of the planet’s rotation, unlike every other large moon in the solar system. These clues lead scientists to conclude that this unusual moon is likely a captured Kuiper Belt object.

Discover more about Voyager 2, along with all of NASA’s past, present, and future missions, at nasa.gov

Clockwise from top left: Neptune and the Great Dark Spot traced by white clouds; Neptune’s rings; Triton and its famed icy cantaloupe surface; close of up Triton’s surface, with dark streaks indicating possible cyrovolcano activity. Find more images and science from Voyager 2’s flyby at bit.ly/NeptuneVoyager2 Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Finder chart for Neptune. This is a simulated view through 10×50 binoculars (10x magnification). Please note that the sizes of stars in this chart indicate their brightness, not their actual size. Moon image courtesy NASA Scientific Visualization Studio; chart created with assistance from Stellarium.

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!

Bob Piekiel Hosts At Green Lakes State Park – July 26 And August 23

Greetings, fellow astrophiles!

Bob Piekiel setting up and aligning at Green Lakes waaaaay back on 25 July 2014.

I’m pleased to report that CNY’s longest-running star party and observing host Bob Piekiel has two new additions to his 2019 observing schedule – and you’ll need to plan accordingly, as the first is coming up this Friday!

Sessions And Details

Fridays – July 26th and August 23rd. Directions to Green Lakes can be made from the link below:


Both sessions run from 8:00 – 10:30 (p.m.) and there are no scheduled Saturday evening weather-alternates. To double-check on the event the evening of, call Green Lakes at: (315) 637-6111.

NASA Night Sky Notes: Observe The Moon And Beyond: Apollo 11 At 50

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting by the Night Sky Network in July, 2019.

By David Prosper

Saturn is at opposition this month, beckoning to future explorers with its beautiful rings and varied, mysterious moons. The Moon prominently passes Saturn mid-month, just in time for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11!

Saturn is in opposition on July 9, rising in the east as the Sun sets in the west. It is visible all night, hovering right above the teapot of Sagittarius. Saturn is not nearly as bright as Jupiter, nearby and close to Scorpius, but both giant planets are easily the brightest objects in their constellations, making them easy to identify.  A full Moon scrapes by the ringed planet late in the evening of the 15th through the early morning of the 16th.  Some observers in South America will even see the Moon occult, or pass in front of, Saturn. Observe how fast the Moon moves in relation to Saturn throughout the night by recording their positions every half hour or so via sketches or photos. 

While observing the Saturn-Moon celestial dance the early morning of the 16th, you can also contemplate the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Apollo 11 mission! On June 16, 1969, Apollo 11 blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on a journey of almost a quarter million miles to our nearest celestial neighbor, a mission made possible by the tremendous power of the Saturn V rocket – still the most powerful rocket ever launched. Just a few days later, on July 20, 1969 at 10:56 pm EDT, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the lunar surface and became the first people in history to walk on another world. The astronauts set up equipment including a solar wind sampler, laser ranging retroreflector, and seismometer, and gathered up almost 22 kilograms (48 pounds) of precious lunar rocks and soil samples.  After spending less than a day on the Moon’s surface, the duo blasted off and returned to the orbiting Columbia Command Module, piloted by Michael Collins. Just a few days later, on July 24, all three astronauts splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean. You can follow the timeline of the Apollo 11 mission in greater detail at bit.ly/TimelineApollo11 and dig deep into mission history and science on NASA’s Apollo History Site: bit.ly/ApolloNASA.

Have you ever wanted to see the flag on the Moon left behind by the Apollo astronauts? While no telescope on Earth is powerful enough to see any items left behind the landing sites, you can discover how much you can observe with the Flag on the Moon handout: bit.ly/MoonFlag

You can catch up on all of NASA’s current and future missions at nasa.gov

Observe the larger details on the Moon with help from this map, which also pinpoints the Apollo landing site. Full handout available at bit.ly/MoonHandout  
Earth-based telescopes can’t see any equipment left behind at the Apollo 11 landing site, but the cameras onboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) can. This is Tranquility Base as seen from the LRO, just 24 kilometers (15 miles) above the Moon’s surface, with helpful labels added by the imaging team. Image Credit: NASA Goddard/Arizona State University. See more landing sites at: bit.ly/ApolloLRO

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!