NASA Night Sky Notes: Spot The Young Stars Of The Hyades And Pleiades

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 January, 2020.

By David Prosper

Orion is the last of a trio of striking star patterns to rise during the late fall and early winter months, preceded by the diminutive Pleiades and larger Hyades in Taurus. All three are easily spotted rising in the east in early January evenings, and are textbook examples of stars in different stages of development.

As discussed in last month’s Notes, the famous Orion Nebula (M42), found in Orion’s “Sword,” is a celestial nursery full of newly-born “baby stars” and still-incubating “protostars,” surrounded by the gas from which they were born. Next to Orion we find the Hyades, in Taurus, with their distinctive “V’ shape. The Hyades are young but mature stars, hundreds of millions of years old and widely dispersed. Imagine them as “young adult” stars venturing out from their hometown into their new galactic apartments. Bright orange Aldebaran stands out in this group, but is not actually a member; it just happens to be in between us and the Hyades. Traveling from Orion to the Hyades we then find the small, almost dipper-shaped Pleiades star cluster (M45). These are “teenage stars,” younger than the Hyades, but older than the newborn stars of the Orion Nebula. These bright young stars are still relatively close together, but have dispersed their birth cocoon of stellar gas, like teenagers venturing around the neighborhood with friends and wearing their own clothes, but still remaining close to home – for now. Astronomers have studied this trio in great detail in order to learn more about stellar evolution.

Figuring the exact distance of the Pleiades from Earth is an interesting problem in astrometry, the study of the exact positions of stars in space. Knowing their exact distance away is a necessary step in determining many other facts about the Pleiades. The European Space Agency’s Hipparcos satellite determined their distance to about 392 light years away, around 43 light years closer than previous estimates. However, subsequent measurements by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope indicated a distance of 440 light years, much closer to pre-Hipparcos estimates. Then, using a powerful technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), which combines the power of radio telescopes from around the world, the distance of the Pleiades was calculated to 443 light years. The ESA’s Gaia satellite, a successor to Hipparcos, recently released its first two sets of data, which among other findings show the distance close to the values found by Hubble and VLBI, possibly settling the long-running “Pleiades Controversy” and helping firm up the foundation for follow-up studies about the nature of the stars of the Pleiades.

You can learn more about the Pleiades in the Universe Discovery Guide at bit.ly/UDGMarch , and find out about missions helping to measure our universe at nasa.gov.

Locate Orion rising in the east after sunset to find the Orion Nebula in the “Sword,” below the famous “Belt” of three bright stars. Then, look above Orion to find both the Hyades and the Pleiades. Binoculars will bring out lots of extra stars and details in all three objects, but you can even spot them with your unaided eye!
Close-up of the Pleiades, with the field of view of Hubble’s Fine Guidance Sensors overlaid in the top left, which helped refine the distance to the cluster. The circumference of the field of view of these sensors is roughly the size of the full Moon. (Credit: NASA, ESA and AURA/Caltech)

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 Observing Sessions At Baltimore Woods (And More!) – 2020 Observing Schedule

This event list will be added to as the year progresses. Check back often!

I’m pleased to have obtained the official schedule for Bob Piekiel’s growing observing and lecture programs for the 2020 season. For those who have not had the pleasure of hearing one of his lectures, attending one of his observing sessions, or reading one of his many books on scope optics (or loading the CD containing the massive Celestron: The Early Years), Bob Piekiel is not only an excellent guide but likely the most knowledgeable equipment and operation guru in Central New York.

Notes On Baltimore Woods Sessions:

As the event date nears, see the official Calendar Page for more information and any updates on the event.

Also…

* Registration for these events are required. Low registration may cause programs to be canceled.
* $5 for members, $15/family; $8 for nonmembers, $25/family.
* To Register By Email: info@baltimorewoods.org
* To Register By Phone: (315) 673-1350

Baltimore Woods:

* January 3 (Fri.)/4 (Sat. weather alternate), 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.

Quadrantids meteor shower, a crescent moon, and winter skies. The area around Orion offers the brightest stars and clusters in the sky. Also, have a close-up look at the moon, and maybe catch a few shooting stars from the Quadrantid meteor shower.

* February 15 (Sat.)/16 (Sun. weather alternate), 5:30 – 8:00 p.m.

This is our best chance to see the elusive planet Mercury, right after sunset, plus great views of the winter skies surrounding the constellation Orion. Venus will also be visible as it makes its way around the sun, getting closer to earth each week.

* March 20 (Fri.)/21 (Sat. weather alternate), 7:00 – 9:30 p.m.

Venus is at its best viewing position for the year, high above the western sky at sunset. Plus, a farewell to winter skies.

* April 24 (Fri.)/25 (Sat. weather alternate), 7:00 – 9:30 p.m.

The Lyrid meteor shower peaks about this time, Venus will be easily visible, and a “hello” to spring skies.

* May 29 (Fri.)/30 (Sat. weather alternate), 6:00 – 9:30 p.m.

Come see the 1st-quarter moon, A farewell to Venus, Mercury (early) along with spring skies.

* June 12 (Fri.)/13 (Sat. weather alternate), 7:00 – 10:00 p.m.

It gets dark late, but if we start early, we can still get a glimpse of Mercury, and maybe a few deep-sky objects later n the evening.

* July 17 (Fri.)/18 (Sat. weather alternate), 8:30 – 10:30 p.m.

Saturn and Jupiter will be rising in the east, and we can have our first look at the southern Milky Way, with its dense array of clusters and nebulae.

* August 12 (Wed.)/13 (Thur. weather alternate), 8:00 – 11:00 p.m.

The annual Perseid meteor, one of the year’s fines, along with great views of Jupiter and Saturn, plus views of the southern Milky Way. No moon to interfere with viewing tonight!

* September 11 (Fri.)/12 (Sat. weather alternate), 7:30 – 9:30 p.m.

Come see our last look at summer skies, Jupiter Saturn, and Mars rising in the east towards the end of the program.

* October 2 (Fri.)/3 (Sat. weather alternate), 5:30 – 8:30 p.m.

Goodbye to summer skies, and hello to fall. The moon will be full at this time, but we’ll have great views of Mars Jupiter Saturn and Uranus!

* November 6 (Fri.)/7 (Sat. weather alternate), 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.

The Taurid meteor shower peaks around this time, fall deep skies, and great views of Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus and Neptune.

* December 13 (Sun.)/14 (Mon. weather alternate), 7:00 – 10:00 p.m.

The Geminid meteor shower, the year’s finest, peaks tonight, plus winter skies with no moon to interfere, plus views of Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus and Neptune!

Beaver Lake Nature Center:

* Thursday, April 18th (details to follow)

Green Lakes:

Awaiting 2019 scheduling.

Chittenango Falls:

Awaiting 2019 scheduling.

Marcellus Library:

Awaiting 2019 scheduling.

Clark Reservation:

Awaiting 2019 scheduling.

NASA Night Sky Notes: The Orion Nebula – Window Into A Stellar Nursery

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 December, 2019.

By David Prosper

Winter begins in December for observers in the Northern Hemisphere, bringing cold nights and the return of one of the most famous constellations to our early evening skies: Orion the Hunter!

Orion is a striking pattern of stars and is one of the few constellations whose pattern is repeated almost unchanged in the star stories of cultures around the world. Below the three bright stars of Orion’s Belt lies his sword, where you can find the famous Orion Nebula, also known as M42. The nebula is visible to our unaided eyes in even moderately light-polluted skies as a fuzzy “star” in the middle of Orion’s Sword. M42 is about 20 light years across, which helps with its visibility since it’s roughly 1,344 light years away! Baby stars, including the famous “Trapezium” cluster, are found inside the nebula’s whirling gas clouds. These gas clouds also hide “protostars” from view: objects in the process of becoming stars, but that have not yet achieved fusion at their core.

The Orion Nebula is a small window into a vastly larger area of star formation centered around the constellation of Orion itself. NASA’s Great Observatories, space telescopes like Hubble, Spitzer, Compton, and Chandra, studied this area in wavelengths we can’t see with our earthbound eyes, revealing the entire constellation alight with star birth, not just the comparatively tiny area of the nebula. Why then can we only see the nebula? M42 contains hot young stars whose stellar winds blew away their cocoons of gas after their “birth,” the moment when they begin to fuse hydrogen into helium. Those gas clouds, which block visible light, were cleared away just enough to give us a peek inside at these young stars. The rest of the complex remains hidden to human eyes, but not to advanced space-based telescopes.

We put telescopes in orbit to get above the interference of our atmosphere, which absorbs many wavelengths of light. Infrared space telescopes, such as Spitzer and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, detect longer wavelengths of light that allow them to see through the dust clouds in Orion, revealing hidden stars and cloud structures. It’s similar to the infrared goggles firefighters wear to see through smoke from burning buildings and wildfires.

Learn more about how astronomers combine observations made at different wavelengths with the Night Sky Network activity, ‘The Universe in a Different Light,” downloadable from bit.ly/different-light-nsn. You can find more stunning science and images from NASA’s Great Observatories at nasa.gov.

This image from NASA’s Spitzer missions shows Orion in a different light – quite literally! Note the small outline of the Orion Nebula region in the visible light image on the left, versus the massive amount of activity shown in the infrared image of the same region on the right. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/IRAS /H. McCallon. From bit.ly/SpitzerOrion

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!