Category Archives: Nasa Night Sky Notes

NASA Night Sky Notes: The Messenger Crosses The Sun – Mercury Transit 2019

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 November, 2019.

By David Prosper

Did you know that there are two other objects in our skies that have phases like the Moon? They’re the inner planets, found between Earth and the Sun: Mercury and Venus. You can see their phases if you observe them through a telescope. Like our Moon, you can’t see the planets in their “new” phase, unless they are lined up perfectly between us Earthlings and the Sun. In the case of the Moon, this alignment results in a solar eclipse; in the case of Mercury and Venus, this results in a transit, where the small disc of the planet travels across the face of the Sun. Skywatchers are in for a treat this month, as Mercury transits the Sun the morning of November 11!

You may have seen the transit of Venus in 2012; you may have even watched it through eclipse glasses! However, this time you’ll need a solar telescope to see anything, since eclipse glasses will only reveal the Sun’s blank face. Why is that? Mercury is the smallest planet in our solar system, and closer to the Sun (and further away from Earth) during its transit than Venus was in its 2012 transit. This makes Mercury’s disc too small to see without the extra power of a telescope. Make absolutely certain that you view the transit via a telescope equipped with a safe solar filter or projection setup. Do NOT combine binoculars with your eclipse glasses; this will instantly burn a hole through the glasses – and your eyes! While most people don’t have solar telescopes handy, many astronomy clubs do! Look for clubs hosting Mercury transit observing events near you at bit.ly/findnsn (USA) or at bit.ly/awbtransit (worldwide).

What a fun opportunity to see another planet during the day! This transit is expected to last over five hours. Folks on the East Coast will be able to watch the entre transit, weather permitting, from approximately 7:35 am EST until around approximately 1:04 pm EST. Folks located in the middle of North America to the west coast will see the transit already in progress at sunrise. The transit takes hours, so if your weather is cloudy, don’t despair; there will be plenty of time for skies to clear! You can find timing details and charts via eclipse guru Fred Espenak’s website: bit.ly/mercurytransit2019

Mercury’s orbit is small and swift, and so its position in our skies quickly changes; that’s why it was named after the fleet-footed messenger god of Roman mythology. In fact, if you have a clear view of the eastern horizon, you’ll be able to catch Mercury again this month! Look for it before dawn during the last week of November, just above the eastern horizon and below red Mars. Wake up early the morning of November 24th to see Mars, the Moon, and Mercury form a loose triangle right before sunrise.

Discover more about Mercury and the rest of our solar system at nasa.gov

Photo of the May 9, 2016 transit of Mercury. Mercury is the small dot on the center right. Note how tiny it is, even compared to the small sunspot on the center left. Credit: Dave Huntz
This photo from the same 2016 transit event shows Mercury a bit larger, as it should; it was taken at a higher magnification through a large 16 inch telescope! Credit: J. A. Blackwell

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!

NASA Night Sky Notes: Find Strange Uranus In Aries

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 October, 2019.

By David Prosper

Most of the planets in our solar system are bright and easily spotted in our night skies. The exceptions are the ice giant planets: Uranus and Neptune. These worlds are so distant and dim that binoculars or telescopes are almost always needed to see them. A great time to search for Uranus is during its opposition on October 28, since the planet is up almost the entire night and at its brightest for the year.

The bright three points of the Summer Triangle are among the first stars you can see after sunset: Deneb, Vega, and Altair.  The Summer Triangle is called an asterism, as it’s not an official constellation, but still a striking group of stars. However, the Triangle is the key to spotting multiple constellations! Its three stars are themselves the brightest in their respective constellations: Deneb, in Cygnus the Swan; Vega, in Lyra the Harp; and Altair, in Aquila the Eagle. That alone would be impressive, but the Summer Triangle also contains two small constellations inside its lines, Vulpecula the Fox and Sagitta the Arrow. There is even another small constellation just outside its borders: diminutive Delphinus the Dolphin. The Summer Triangle is huge!

Search for Uranus in the space beneath the stars of Aries the Ram and above Cetus the Whale. These constellations are found west of more prominent Taurus the Bull and Pleiades star cluster. You can also use the Moon as a guide! Uranus will be just a few degrees north of the Moon the night of October 14, close enough to fit both objects into the same binocular field of view.  However, it will be much easier to see dim Uranus by moving the bright Moon just out of sight. If you’re using a telescope, zoom in as much as possible once you find Uranus; 100x magnification and greater will reveal its small greenish disc, while background stars will remain points.

Try this observing trick from a dark sky location. Find Uranus with your telescope or binoculars, then look with your unaided eyes at the patch of sky where your equipment is aimed. Do you see a faint star where Uranus should be? That’s not a star; you’re actually seeing Uranus with your naked eye! The ice giant is just bright enough near opposition – magnitude 5.7 – to be visible to observers under clear dark skies. It’s easier to see this ghostly planet unaided after first using an instrument to spot it, sort of like “training wheels” for your eyes. Try this technique with other objects as you observe, and you’ll be amazed at what your eyes can pick out.

By the way, you’ve spotted the first planet discovered in the modern era! William Herschel discovered Uranus via telescope in 1781, and Johan Bode confirmed its status as a planet two years later. NASA’s Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to visit this strange world, with a brief flyby in 1986. It revealed a strange, severely tilted planetary system possessing faint dark rings, dozens of moons, and eerily featureless cloud tops. Subsequent observations of Uranus from powerful telescopes like Hubble and Keck showed its blank face was temporary, as powerful storms were spotted, caused by dramatic seasonal changes during its 84-year orbit. Uranus’s wildly variable seasons result from a massive collision billions of years ago that tipped the planet to its side.

Discover more about NASA’s current and future missions of exploration of the distant solar system and beyond at nasa.gov

The path of Uranus in October is indicated by an arrow; its position on October 14 is circled. The wide dashed circle approximates the field of view from binoculars or a finderscope. Image created with assistance from Stellarium.
Composite images taken of Uranus in 2012 and 2014 by the Hubble Space Telescope, showcasing its rings and auroras. More at bit.ly/uranusauroras  Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, L. Lamy / Observatoire de Paris

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!

NASA Night Sky Notes: Spot The Stars Of The Summer Triangle

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 September, 2019.

By David Prosper

September skies are a showcase for the Summer Triangle, its three stars gleaming directly overhead after sunset. The equinox ushers in the official change of seasons on September 23. Jupiter and Saturn maintain their vigil over the southern horizon, but set earlier each evening, while the terrestrial planets remain hidden.

The bright three points of the Summer Triangle are among the first stars you can see after sunset: Deneb, Vega, and Altair.  The Summer Triangle is called an asterism, as it’s not an official constellation, but still a striking group of stars. However, the Triangle is the key to spotting multiple constellations! Its three stars are themselves the brightest in their respective constellations: Deneb, in Cygnus the Swan; Vega, in Lyra the Harp; and Altair, in Aquila the Eagle. That alone would be impressive, but the Summer Triangle also contains two small constellations inside its lines, Vulpecula the Fox and Sagitta the Arrow. There is even another small constellation just outside its borders: diminutive Delphinus the Dolphin. The Summer Triangle is huge!

The equinox occurs on September 23, officially ushering in autumn for folks in the Northern Hemisphere and bringing with it longer nights and shorter days, a change many stargazers appreciate. Right before sunrise on the 23rd, look for Deneb – the Summer Triangle’s last visible point – flickering right above the western horizon, almost as if saying goodbye to summer.

The Summer Triangle region is home to many important astronomical discoveries. Cygnus X-1, the first confirmed black hole, was initially detected here by x-ray equipment on board a sounding rocket launched in 1964. NASA’s Kepler Mission, which revolutionized our understanding of exoplanets, discovered thousands of planet candidates within its initial field of view in Cygnus. The Dumbbell Nebula (M27), the first planetary nebula discovered, was spotted by Charles Messier in the diminutive constellation Vulpecula way back in 1764!

Planet watchers can easily find Jupiter and Saturn shining in the south after sunset, with Jupiter to the right and brighter than Saturn. At the beginning of September, Jupiter sets shortly after midnight, with Saturn following a couple of hours later, around 2:00 am. By month’s end the gas giant duo are setting noticeably earlier: Jupiter sets right before 10:30pm, with Saturn following just after midnight. Thankfully for planet watchers, earlier fall sunsets help these giant worlds remain in view for a bit longer. The terrestrial planets, Mars, Venus, and Mercury, remain hidden in the Sun’s glare for the entire month.

Discover the latest in space science from the NASA missions studying our universe at nasa.gov

Once you spot the Summer Triangle, you can explore the cosmic treasures found in this busy region of the Milky Way. Make sure to “Take a Trip Around the Triangle“ before it sets this fall! Find the full handout at bit.ly/TriangleTrip
This wider view of the area around the Summer Triangle includes another nearby asterism: the Great Square of Pegasus.

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!