Tag Archives: Vega

NASA Night Sky Notes: Summer Triangle Corner – Vega

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 June, 2020.

By David Prosper and Vivian White

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere and look up during June evenings, you’ll see the brilliant star Vega shining overhead. Did you know that Vega is one of the most studied stars in our skies? As one of the brightest summer stars, Vega has fascinated astronomers for thousands of years.

Vega is the brightest star in the small Greek constellation of Lyra, the harp. It’s also one of the three points of the large “Summer Triangle” asterism, making Vega one of the easiest stars to find for novice stargazers. Ancient humans from 14,000 years ago likely knew Vega for another reason: it was the Earth’s northern pole star! Compare Vega’s current position with that of the current north star, Polaris, and you can see how much the direction of Earth’s axis changes over thousands of years. This slow movement of axial rotation is called precession, and in 12,000 years Vega will return to the northern pole star position. Bright Vega has been observed closely since the beginning of modern astronomy and even helped to set the standard for the current magnitude scale used to categorize the brightness of stars. Polaris and Vega have something else in common, besides being once and future pole stars: their brightness varies over time, making them variable stars. Variable stars’ light can change for many different reasons. Dust, smaller stars, or even planets may block the light we see from the star. Or the star itself might be unstable with active sunspots, expansions, or eruptions changing its brightness. Most stars are so far away that we only record the change in light, and can’t see their surface.

NASA’s TESS satellite has ultra-sensitive light sensors primed to look for the tiny dimming of starlight caused by transits of extrasolar planets. Their sensitivity also allowed TESS to observe much smaller pulsations in a certain type of variable star’s light than previously observed. These observations of Delta Scuti variable stars will help astronomers model their complex interiors and make sense of their distinct, seemingly chaotic, pulsations. This is a major contribution towards the field of astroseismology: the study of stellar interiors via observations of how sound waves “sing” as they travel through stars. The findings may help settle the debate over what kind of variable star Vega is. Find more details on this research, including a sonification demo that lets you “hear” the heartbeat of one of these stars, at: bit.ly/DeltaScutiTESS

Interested in learning more about variable stars? Want to observe their changing brightness? Check out the website for the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) at aavso.org. You can also find the latest news about Vega and other fascinating stars at nasa.gov.

Vega possesses two debris fields, similar to our own solar system’s asteroid and Kuiper belts. Astronomers continue to hunt for planets orbiting Vega, but as of May 2020 none have been confirmed. More info: bit.ly/VegaSystem Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Can you spot Vega? You may need to look straight up to find it, especially if observing after midnight.

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.

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

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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