Tag Archives: Summer Triangle

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!

NASA Space Place – A Trip Through the Milky Way

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. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in September, 2018.

By Jane Houston Jones and Jessica Stoller-Conrad

2013february2_spaceplaceFeeling like you missed out on planning a last vacation of summer? Don’t worry—you can still take a late summertime road trip along the Milky Way!

The waning days of summer are upon us, and that means the Sun is setting earlier now. These earlier sunsets reveal a starry sky bisected by the Milky Way. Want to see this view of our home galaxy? Head out to your favorite dark sky getaway or to the darkest city park or urban open space you can find.

While you’re out there waiting for a peek at the Milky Way, you’ll also have a great view of the planets in our solar system. Keep an eye out right after sunset and you can catch a look at Venus. If you have binoculars or a telescope, you’ll see Venus’s phase change dramatically during September—from nearly half phase to a larger, thinner crescent.

Jupiter, Saturn and reddish Mars are next in the sky, as they continue their brilliant appearances this month. To see them, look southwest after sunset. If you’re in a dark sky and you look above and below Saturn, you can’t miss the summer Milky Way spanning the sky from southwest to northeast.

You can also use the summer constellations to help you trace a path across the Milky Way. For example, there’s Sagittarius, where stars and some brighter clumps appear as steam from a teapot. Then there is Aquila, where the Eagle’s bright Star Altair combined with Cygnus’s Deneb and Lyra’s Vega mark what’s called the “summer triangle.” The familiar W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia completes the constellation trail through the summer Milky Way. Binoculars will reveal double stars, clusters and nebulae all along the Milky Way.

Between Sept. 12 and 20, watch the Moon pass from near Venus, above Jupiter, to the left of Saturn and finally above Mars!

This month, both Neptune and brighter Uranus can also be spotted with some help from a telescope. To see them, look in the southeastern sky at 1 a.m. or later. If you stay awake, you can also find Mercury just above Earth’s eastern horizon shortly before sunrise. Use the Moon as a guide on Sept. 7 and 8.

Although there are no major meteor showers in September, cometary dust appears in another late summer sight, the morning zodiacal light. Zodiacal light looks like a cone of soft light in the night sky. It is produced when sunlight is scattered by dust in our solar system. Try looking for it in the east right before sunrise on the moonless mornings of Sept. 8 through Sept 23.

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Caption: This illustration shows how the summer constellations trace a path across the Milky Way. To get the best views, head out to the darkest sky you can find. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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