Celestial Navigator – November 2015

November is always a great time of year for stargazing.  Cool nights and crisp clear air provide spectacular views on cloudless nights.  As always, stargazing is best away from cities and populated areas, and is a great nighttime activity in camp!111104-Meteor1Photo-hmed-0355p.grid-6x2

  • November 5, 6Taurids Meteor Shower. The Taurids is a long-running minor meteor shower producing only about 5-10 meteors per hour. It is unusual in that it consists of two separate streams. The first is produced by dust grains left behind by Asteroid 2004 TG10. The second stream is produced by debris left behind by Comet 2P Encke. The shower runs annually from September 7 to December 10. It peaks this year on the the night of November 5. The second quarter moon will block out all but the brightest meteors this year. If you are patient, you may still be able to catch a few good ones. Best viewing will be just after midnight from a dark location far away from city lights. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Taurus, but can appear anywhere in the sky.
  • November 11New Moon. The Moon will located on the same side of the Earth as the Sun and will not be visible in the night sky. This phase occurs at 17:47 UTC. This is the best time of the month to observe faint objects such as galaxies and star clusters because there is no moonlight to interfere.
  • November 17, 18Leonids Meteor Shower. The Leonids is an average shower, producing an up to 15 meteors per hour at its peak. This shower is unique in that it has a cyclonic peak about every 33 years where hundreds of meteors per hour can be seen. That last of these occurred in 2001. The Leonids is produced by dust grains left behind by comet Tempel-Tuttle, which was discovered in 1865. The shower runs annually from November 6-30. It peaks this year on the night of the 17th and morning of the 18th. The first quarter moon will set shortly after midnight leaving fairly dark skies for what could be a good show. Best viewing will be from a dark location after midnight. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Leo, but can appear anywhere in the sky.
  • November 25Full Moon. The Moon will be located on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun and its face will be will be fully illuminated. This phase occurs at 22:44 UTC. This full moon was known by early Native American tribes as the Full Beaver Moon because this was the time of year to set the beaver traps before the swamps and rivers froze. It has also been known as the Frosty Moon and the Hunter’s Moon.

Celestial Navigator for September 2015

Supermoon Rising
Supermoon Risin September 3 – Neptune at Opposition. The blue giant planet will be at its closest approach to Earth and its face will be fully illuminated by the Sun. It will be brighter than any other time of the year and will be visible all night long. This is the best time to view and photograph Neptune. Due to its extreme distance from Earth, it will only appear as a tiny blue dot in all but the most powerful telescopes.

September promises lots of exciting night sky activity – ideal for camping and stargazing.  The first half of this month will bring us great views of Mercury and Neptune, a new moon, and a partial eclipse!  During the latter half of the month, the September (autumnal) Equinox occurs, and the fall Supermoon – also known as the Harvest Moon. Perhaps most exciting of all – a total lunar eclipse for North America at the end of the month.

  • September 4Mercury at Greatest Eastern Elongation. The planet Mercury reaches greatest eastern elongation of 27 degrees from the Sun. This is the best time to view Mercury since it will be at its highest point above the horizon in the evening sky. Look for the planet low in the western sky just after sunset.
  • September 13New Moon. The Moon will located on the same side of the Earth as the Sun and will not be visible in the night sky. This phase occurs at 06:41 UTC. This is the best time of the month to observe faint objects such as galaxies and star clusters because there is no moonlight to interfere.
  • September 13Partial Solar Eclipse. A partial solar eclipse occurs when the Moon covers only a part of the Sun, sometimes resembling a bite taken out of a cookie. A partial solar eclipse can only be safely observed with a special solar filter or by looking at the Sun’s reflection. The partial eclipse will only be visible in southern Africa, Madagascar, and Antarctica. (NASA Map and Eclipse Information)
  • September 23September Equinox. The September equinox occurs at 08:21 UTC. The Sun will shine directly on the equator and there will be nearly equal amounts of day and night throughout the world. This is also the first day of fall (autumnal equinox) in the Northern Hemisphere and the first day of spring (vernal equinox) in the Southern Hemisphere.
  • September 28Full Moon, Supermoon. CNlBALCWEAAoIbUThe Moon will be located on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun and its face will be will be fully illuminated. This phase occurs at 02:50 UTC. This full moon was known by early Native American tribes as the Full Corn Moon because the corn is harvested around this time of year. This moon is also known as the Harvest Moon. The Harvest Moon is the full moon that occurs closest to the September equinox each year. This is also the second of three supermoons for 2015. The Moon will be at its closest approach to the Earth and may look slightly larger and brighter than usual. This will be the closest full moon of the year.
  • September 28Total Lunar Eclipse. A total lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes completely through the Earth’s dark shadow, or umbra. During this type of eclipse, the Moon will gradually get darker and then take on a rusty or blood red color. The eclipse will be visible throughout most of North and South America, Europe, Africa, and western Asia.
excerpts from seasky.org

Celestial Navigator – July 2015


Wednesday, July 8, 4:24 p.m. EDT  Last Quarter Moon

The Last Quarter Moon rises around 1:30 a.m. and sets around 1:30 p.m. It is most easily seen just after sunrise in the southern sky.

Wednesday, July 15, 9:24 p.m. EDT  New Moon

The moon is not visible on the date of New Moon because it is too close to the sun, but can be seen low in the east as a narrow crescent a morning or two before, just before sunrise. It is visible low in the west an evening or two after New Moon.

Friday, July 24, 12:04 a.m. EDT  First Quarter Moon

The First Quarter Moon rises around 1:15 p.m. and sets around 12:30 a.m. It dominates the evening sky.

Second Full Moon, July 2015

Friday, July 31, 6:43 a.m. EDT  Full Moon

This is the second Full Moon in July, what is sometimes called a “Blue Moon.” It rises around sunset and sets around sunrise; this is the only night in the month when the moon is in the sky all night long. The rest of the month, the moon spends at least some time in the daytime sky.


Uranus and the Moon

Wednesday/Thursday, July 8/9, dawn

The moon will be close to Uranus just before sunrise. In the lands surrounding the Indian Ocean, the moon will actually occult Uranus.

Venus at greatest brilliancy

Thursday, July 9, dusk

Venus reaches its greatest brilliancy at magnitude –4.7.

Aldebaran and the Moon

Sunday, July 12, sunrise

The waning crescent moon will pass close to the bright red star Aldebaran low in morning twilight. The moon will occult Aldebaran as seen from eastern Russia, northern Japan, Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, and Iceland.

Venus and the Moon

Saturday, July 18, dusk

The moon will be close to Venus just after sunset. Venus will appear in binoculars as a tiny crescent just north of the crescent moon. The moon will occult Venus as seen from New Guinea, northeastern Australia, Melanesia, and French Polynesia.

Ceres at opposition

Saturday, July 25, 4 a.m. EDT

Ceres, the largest asteroid or smallest dwarf planet, will be in opposition to the sun. At magnitude 7.5, it will be located right on the border between Sagittarius and Microscopium, just south of Capricornus.


Mercury is well placed in the eastern sky at dawn for the first half of the month for observers in the Southern Hemisphere.

Venus shines high in the western sky after sunset, reaching its greatest brilliancy from the sun on July 9.

Mars is too close to the sun to be visible.

Jupiter is low in the western evening sky all month, close to Venus on the 1st and 31st of the month.

Saturn is well placed in Libra in the evening sky.

Uranus rises near midnight in Pisces.

Neptune rises in the late evening in the constellation Aquarius.

Celestial Navigator – June 2015

How to Photograph the Moonjune-2015-full-moon

If you own a DSLR or a point and shootwith an optical zoom, I’m sure that every once in a while you see a beautiful moon and you think about taking a picture of it, especially when the moon is full and beautiful. There are other times when you spot a news announcement about a Lunar Eclipse and you think about capturing the moment, but do not know how to do it right. Or you want to capture the moon together with a foreground object such as a house or a lone tree, but the picture is not coming out right because the moon is much smaller and looks like a white blob. If you had any of these situations or simply want to find out how to take a picture of the moon with a digital camera, then this guide is for you.

1) Why does the moon look smaller in pictures?

Before we start talking about how to take a picture of the moon, let’s first answer some basic questions. I’m sure if you have already attempted to take a picture of the moon, you probably ran into a problem where the moon looks tiny in comparison to what you saw while taking the picture. Why does the moon get photographed so much smaller? The simple answer is – you are probably taking a picture of the moon with a wide-angle lens. Keep in mind that your eyes are like a 50mm fixed lens and if you are taking a picture with a wide-angle lens that is shorter than 50mm, the moon will be captured in smaller size! So, if you want to capture an object like a big tree or a house with the moon, you would need to stand further away and photograph the scene at least at 50mm to try to match what you saw with your eyes. And even at 50mm the moon might look smaller, especially if it was near the horizon when you took a picture of it. This also happens because of a phenomenon called “Moon Illusion“, where the moon appears bigger to your eyes, when in fact it is not.

2) Why do I see the moon as a white blob?

If you have taken a picture of the moon after sunset and it looked in the picture like a white circular object rather than the moon, it is because the moon was overexposed. When you take a picture of the moon with other objects around it (as in the example with a tree above), your camera by default will meter, or calculate the exposure, based on everything but the moon. This happens because the moon is too small in comparison with the objects around it and a single spot of light should not affect the overall exposure of the picture. Think of it as a light bulb – if you take a picture of a dimly lit room with a visible light bulb, the room will be exposed normally, while the light bulb will be overexposed. If the camera measured exposure on the light bulb, the room would be completely dark, while the light bulb is properly exposed. The same thing happens with the moon – it works just like the light bulb at night and it will always be overexposed. During the day, however, this is not a problem, because the amount of light coming from the moon would differ only slightly in comparison with the objects around it, including the sky. So, why do our eyes see everything normally, while a digital camera cannot? That’s because our eyes and our brain can see a much broader range of light. In photography terms, this is known as “dynamic range“.

3) Where and when to photograph the moon

Obviously, you should be taking a picture of the moon on a clear night with no clouds in the sky. Even a thin layer of clouds will make it impossible to get a clear picture of the moon, so absolutely make sure that the sky is clear. Pollution in large cities, especially in hot summer days will also play a big role, so I recommend getting out of town and traveling to a remote location with no light or air pollution, preferably at a higher elevation. The less the distance between you and the moon, the better the pictures. In terms of when to photograph the moon, take a look at this US Navy Moon Phases page, where you can find out what phase the moon is currently in and you can also calculate what it will be by picking the date from the bottom of the page. As for the time of the day – any time works, as long as the moon is visible.

4) Required equipment – Camera and Lens

  1. A DSLR camera with a 200mm+ telephoto lens or a point and shoot camera that has an optical zoom capability.
  2. A stable tripod.
  3. Remote camera trigger (optional). If you do not have one, a timer in your camera will also work

If you want to enlarge the moon and show the details of the moon surface, a good telephoto lens longer than 200mm is almost required. The longer the lens, the better. If you have a telephoto lens that can take teleconverters, I highly recommend adding a teleconverter to increase the overall focal length. For example, a 1.4x teleconverter will increase the focal length of a 300mm lens by 40% or to 420mm total, while a 2.0x teleconverter will increase the focal length of the same lens to 600mm. The only thing to keep in mind, is that teleconverters negatively impact image quality and decrease the maximum aperture of the lens, so if you had a 300mm f/4 lens, it would essentially become a 420mm f/5.6 lens (which is not that big of a deal, because you will be using higher apertures for moon photography anyway). As the focal length is increased, camera shake can also become a big problem. At long focal lengths of 300mm and above, even a slight move can screw up the picture. That’s why if you are using a telephoto lens, a stable tripod is required to be able to produce a sharp image of the moon. Having a remote camera trigger also helps reduce the camera shake and if you have a Mirror Lock Up (MLU) feature in your camera, you can almost completely eliminate all vibrations.

The best setup for moon photography is an astro-telescope with a camera mount. Basically, you mount a digital camera to a telescope, which works as a long telephoto lens. But those setups can get very expensive and are suited best for dedicated astrophotography.

5) How to photograph just the moon

To photograph just the moon by itself, without any objects in the foreground, you will need a long telephoto lens like explained above to magnify the moon and try to fill as much of the frame as possible. Even with a good telephoto lens setup though, you will most likely be cropping the final image, simply because only a telescope would be able to provide enough magnification to fill the entire frame. With your telephoto lens mounted in your camera, secure it on a tripod and point at the moon. Make sure that your tripod is good and stable enough to accommodate and hold your lens and your camera. When it comes to shutter speedaperture and ISO, here is what I recommend for general use:

  1. Camera Mode: Set your camera mode to full Manual Mode.
  2. ISO: Set your ISO to 100 if you have a Canon DSLRand to 200 if you have a Nikon DSLR (basically, whatever base ISO you have in your camera). For most other brands, the base ISO is also 100. If you have a point and shoot camera, see if you can find a menu setting to set your ISO to 100. Make sure “Auto ISO” is turned Off.
  3. Aperture: Set your aperture to f/11.
  4. Shutter Speed: Set your shutter speed to 1/125 on cameras with base ISO 100, and to 1/250 on Nikon DSLRswith base ISO 200.
  5. Lens Focus: Set your lens to manual focus(either through a switch on the lens or on the camera) and set your focus to infinity. Be careful while setting the focus to infinity, as some lenses allow focusing beyond infinity. On more advanced DSLRs such as Nikon D300, there is a handy feature called “live-view with contrast detect”, which can accurately acquire focus on distant objects. I have used it many times for my moon photography and it works great! If you do not have such a feature in your camera, then try setting your lens to the center of the infinity sign, then take a picture and see if it came out sharp by zooming in the rear LCD of the camera.

Nikon D90 DSLR: ISO 200, Aperture f/11, Shutter Speed 1/250.
Canon EOS Rebel XSi: ISO 100, Aperture f/11, Shutter Speed 1/125.

The above aperture and shutter speeds are derived from a Sunny f/11 rule, which is not necessarily very accurate for moon photography. I recommend starting with the above settings and adjusting the shutter speed based on the brightness of the moon. If it is too bright, set your shutter speed to a higher value. If it is too dim, set your shutter speed to a lower value. You can also play with aperture, but be careful, as changing the aperture to a small number can actually soften the image, while increasing the aperture to a very high number would mean slower shutter speeds. Remember, the moon moves pretty fast, so you definitely do not want to be photographing it with a slow shutter speed (certainly not below 1/100 of a second), especially when using a long telephoto lens.

Another thing I recommend doing is bracketing your shots. When I was taking a picture of the full moon, I noticed that some parts of the moon came out overexposed, while other parts were underexposed. I couldn’t get a perfect shot to properly expose all areas of the moon, so I decided to try taking multiple shots of the moon, then merging them into HDR in Photoshop. To my surprise, the result turned out to be better than expected – the first image in this article was done that way. If you do not want to do an HDR of the moon, I still recommend to bracket the exposures – in worst case scenario, you will keep the best photo and delete the rest.

Lastly, for those who have long telephoto lenses longer than 400mm, you might be able to use “Aperture Priority” mode instead of “Manual“, as long as you set your metering to spot metering. At 400mm and above, the moon fills enough of the frame to be able to use modes other than manual.

6) Why photograph the moon?

So, why would one want to photograph the moon? I was asked this question several times before and my answer is simple – because we only have one moon and it is beautiful, so why not? The moon also makes the otherwise boring night sky look more interesting and can add a sense of enigma to a picture. While photographing the moon by itself might be somewhat boring, including the moon as an element of composition can yield great results. In addition, there are moon phases (crescent to full) that give even more opportunities for various compositions. And lastly, why not experiment with something new and learn how to photograph bright objects at night? It is definitely a lot of fun, so get out and shoot some moon pics! 🙂

June Calendar of Night Sky Events

  • June 2Full Moon. The Moon will be located on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun and its face will be will be fully illuminated. This phase occurs at 16:19 UTC. This full moon was known by early Native American tribes as the Full Strawberry Moon because it signaled the time of year to gather ripening fruit. It also coincides with the peak of the strawberry harvesting season. This moon has also been known as the Full Rose Moon and the Full Honey Moon.
  • June 6Venus at Greatest Eastern Elongation. The planet Venus reaches greatest eastern elongation of 45.4 degrees from the Sun. This is the best time to view Venus since it will be at its highest point above the horizon in the evening sky. Look for the bright planet in the western sky after sunset.
  • June 16New Moon. The Moon will located on the same side of the Earth as the Sun and will not be visible in the night sky. This phase occurs at 14:05 UTC. This is the best time of the month to observe faint objects such as galaxies and star clusters because there is no moonlight to interfere.
  • June 21June Solstice. The June solstice occurs at 16:38 UTC. The North Pole of the earth will be tilted toward the Sun, which will have reached its northernmost position in the sky and will be directly over the Tropic of Cancer at 23.44 degrees north latitude. This is the first day of summer (summer solstice) in the Northern Hemisphere and the first day of winter (winter solstice) in the Southern Hemisphere.
  • June 24Mercury at Greatest Western Elongation. The planet Mercury reaches greatest western elongation of 22.5 degrees from the Sun. This is the best time to view Mercury since it will be at its highest point above the horizon in the morning sky. Look for the planet low in the eastern sky just before sunrise.
*excerpts from photographylife.com and seasky.org

Celestial Navigator – May 2015

The night sky tonight and on any clear night offers an ever-changing display of fascinating objects you can see, from stars and constellations to bright planets, often the moon, and sometimes special events like meteor showers. Observing the night sky can be done with no special equipment, although a sky map can be very useful, and a good beginner telescope or binoculars will enhance some experiences and bring some otherwise invisible objects into view. You can also use astronomy accessories to make your observing easier. Below, find out what’s up in the night sky for the month of May.

Monday, May 18, 12:13 a.m. EDT New Moon

The moon is not visible on the date of New Moon because it is too close to the sun, but can be seen low in the east as a narrow crescent a morning or two before, just before sunrise. It is visible low in the west an evening or two after New Moon.

Monday, May 25, 1:19 p.m. EDT First Quarter Moon

The First Quarter Moon rises around 1 p.m. and sets around 2:15 a.m. It dominates the evening sky.

Thursday, May 17, evening twilight

This is the best evening apparition of Mercury this year for observers in the northern hemisphere. Use Venus to help you locate it. Mercury is most easily located by sweeping with binoculars, but once you’ve located it, you should be able to see it with your unaided eyes.

Wednesday, May 20, 8:06–8:35 p.m. EDT.  Double shadow transit on Jupiter

The shadows of Io and Ganymede will be on opposite limbs of Jupiter, while the moons Io and Callisto will be central on the disk.

jupiters moons

Friday, May 22, 10 p.m. EDT Saturn at opposition

Saturn will be in opposition to the sun. Note how most of Saturn’s moons are in the same plane as the rings, except for Iapetus, whose orbit is tilted 8.3 degrees. At opposition, Iapetus is close to maximum elongation towards the west, while Titan is close to maximum elongation towards the east.

Wednesday, May 27, 10:01 p.m.–12:18 a.m. EDT Double shadow transit on Jupiter

The shadow of Io chases the shadow of Ganymede across the face of Jupiter, catching up with it and passing it at 11:48 p.m. EDT. The Great Red Spot will also cross Jupiter’s disk during this period.


Mercury is well placed for northern hemisphere observers in the evening twilight sky for the first three weeks of May.

Venus shines high in the western sky after sunset.

Mars moves from Aries to Taurus on May 3, too close to the sun to be visible.

Jupiter is well placed in the evening sky all month.

Saturn is just north of Scorpius’ “claws.” At opposition on May 22, it is visible all night.

Uranus rises just before the sun in Pisces.

Neptune is in the eastern morning sky in the constellation Aquarius.

Skywatching Terms

  • Asterism: A noteworthy or striking pattern of stars within a larger constellation.
  • Degrees (measuring the sky): The sky is 360 degrees all the way around, which means roughly 180 degrees from horizon to horizon. It’s easy to measure distances between objects: Your fist on an outstretched arm covers about 10 degrees of sky.
  • Visual Magnitude: This is the astronomer’s scale for measuring the brightness of objects in the sky. The dimmest object visible in the night sky under perfectly dark conditions is about magnitude 6.5. Brighter stars are magnitude 2 or 1. The brightest objects get negative numbers. Venus can be as bright as magnitude minus 4.9. The full moon is minus 12.7 and the sun is minus 26.8.
  • Terminator: The boundary on the moon between sunlight and shadow.
  • Zenith: The point in the sky directly overhead.

Night Sky Observing Tips

  • Adjust to the dark: If you wish to observe faint objects, such as meteors or dim stars, give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the darkness.
  • Light Pollution: Even from a big city, one can see the moon, a handful of bright stars and sometimes the brightest planets. But to fully enjoy the heavens — especially a meteor shower, the constellations, or to see the amazing swath across the sky that represents our view toward the center of the Milky Way Galaxy — rural areas are best for night sky viewing. If you’re stuck in a city or suburban area, a building can be used to block ambient light (or moonlight) to help reveal fainter objects. If you’re in the suburbs, simply turning off outdoor lights can help.
  • Prepare for skywatching: If you plan to be out for more than a few minutes, and it’s not a warm summer evening, dress warmer than you think necessary. An hour of observing a winter meteor shower can chill you to the bone. A blanket or lounge chair will prove much more comfortable than standing or sitting in a chair and craning your neck to see overhead.
  • Daytime skywatching: When Venus is visible (that is, not in front of or behind the sun) it can often be spotted during the day. But you’ll need to know where to look. A sky map is helpful. When the sun has large sunspots, they can be seen without a telescope. However, it’s unsafe to look at the sun without protective eyewear. See our video


Celestial Navigator – April 2015

 April Stargazing and the Zodiacal Light

Tonight, or any night after sunset in this month of April 2015, people around the world will see the dazzling planet Venus in the western sky. Then … wait a bit zodiacal_light_600for the sky to get fully dark. After twilight ends, the elusive zodiacal light might appear in your western sky with Venus – if your sky is dark enough. For those living in the Northern Hemisphere, Venus can be your guide to the evening zodiacal light this month. This is a good time of year to see the zodiacal light in the evening from mid-northern latitudes.

As twilight ends, if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, look for Venus in the midst of the mysterious zodiacal light – a cone of light jutting upward from the western horizon about 80 to 120 minutes after sunset.

April 13 – 18 – International Dark Sky Week. International Dark Sky Week is held during the week of the new moon in April. It is a week during which people worldwide turn out their outdoor lights in order to observe the wonders of the night sky without light pollution. It has been endorsed by the International Dark-Sky Association, the American Astronomical Society, the Astronomical League. So go ahead and turn out your outdoor lights this week to appreciate the beauty of the night sky!

April 18 – New Moon. The Moon will be located on the same side of the Earth as the Sun and will not be visible in the night sky. This phase occurs at 18:56 UTC. This is the best time of the month to observe faint object such as galaxies and star clusters because there is no moonlight to interfere.

April 22, 23 – Lyrids Meteor Shower. The Lyrids is an average shower, usually producing about 20 meteors per hour at its peak. It is produced by dust particles left behind by comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, which was discovered in 1861. The shower runs annually from April 16-25. It peaks this year on the night of the 22nd and morning of the 23rd. These meteors can sometimes produce bright dust trails that last for several seconds. The first quarter moon will set shortly after midnight, leaving fairly dark skies for the what could be a good show. Best viewing will be from a dark location after midnight. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Lyra, but can appear anywhere in the sky.

April 25 – International Astronomy Day. Astronomy Day is an annual event intended to provide a means of interaction between the general public and various astronomy enthusiasts, groups and professionals. The theme of Astronomy Day is “Bringing Astronomy to the People,” and on this day astronomy and stargazing clubs and other organizations around the world will plan special events. You can find out about special local events by contacting your local astronomy club or planetarium. You can also find more about Astronomy Day by checking the Web site for the Astronomical League.

Celestial Navigator – March 2015

Sky Maps and Smartphone Apps

Stargazing for Dummies

How many among us can look up at the night sky and point out prominent stars, planets, and other heavenly wonders, purely from memory?  Certainly there are some of us who are blessed with the ability to discern patterns and locations in what appears to the rest of as a completely random and endless sky full of white dots.

Even if you are not one of ‘them’, the celestial know-it-all’s, there are still simple ways to enrich your star gazing experience with the use of a few simple, and free, tools available online and elsewhere.  Here are a few of our favorites:

Sky Maps  – There are several sites that offer free downloads of printable sky maps – our favorite is http://www.skymaps.com/downloads.html   We like to use these in remote areas where other cellular or GPS based maps may not be accessible.  Printed sky maps are easy to use – simply hold them overhead, orient it to north, and you can easily sky mapstart to match up stars with your map.  Next thing you know, you’re finding constellations and planets and nebulae, and the sky patterns will begin to reveal themselves to you.

Smartphone Apps  –  These take printed sky maps to a whole new and interactive level. Working on the same principle of holding your phone overhead to align your screen with the stars, these apps can detect your location, zoom in or out, and show outlines of constellations.  The apps we prefer are: Google Sky Map, Sky Safari, and Sky Map. All are available through the App or Play Stores, and are free in their basic versions.  All of them will place more celestial knowledge at your fingertips than Copernicus had on his best day.

Also available to the amateur stargazer are affordable, GPS-guided telescopes, that combine all the functionality of the Smartphone Apps with telescopic power.  Now you can identify celestial objects, and see them up close.  Most of these telescopes start in the $400 range, and can exceed upwards of $4000.  Experience has shown us tetx-at-tchat the less expensive telescopes are more than sufficient.  Unless you want to explore deep-space objects, most telescopes will only turn small white dots into slightly larger white dots, and therefore the extra expense is not justified.  For viewing closer objects such as the moon and planets, smaller and less-expensive is the way to go.  Our favorite for many years is a slightly older version of the Meade ETX80, which starts around $300 (http://www.meade.com/products/telescopes.html?cat=16)


Celestial Navigator – February 2015

There’s something magical about stargazing on a crisp winter night. When the atmosphere is still and cold and clear, the stars seem to blaze brighter. And in a winter sky ablaze with sparkling stars and conspicuous constellations, Orion the Hunter dominates all.


Orion is easy to find this time of year: Just look in the southeast a little after sunset for a line of three medium-bright stars. That’s Orion’s belt and, once you’ve found it, you can easily pick out the rest of the constellation. Orion reaches its highest point in the southern sky about 9 p.m. during the first part of February, and about 7:30 p.m. during the latter part of the month.

The bright, distinctly orange star to the upper left of Orion’s belt is Betelgeuse, pronounced — more or less — “beetle juice.” Betelgeuse, which represents one of Orion’s shoulders, is about 650 light-years away. It is one of the brightest stars in the sky and is incomprehensibly huge. If Betelgeuse replaced the sun in the center of our solar system, its surface would extend beyond the orbit of Mars.

Think of it this way: If the sun were the size of a grain of salt, the Earth would be an invisible speck about 2 inches away. Betelgeuse would be the size of a cantaloupe.

The star marking Orion’s other shoulder, above and to the right of the belt, is Bellatrix. It is about 240 light-years away and is roughly 4,000 times brighter than the sun. From left to right, the belt stars are Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. If you’ve ever wondered how big a degree is, remember Orion’s belt — the three stars are about 1 degree from one another.

Rigel, the brightest star in Orion, represents the hunter’s left knee (on the right as he faces us). It is around 800 light-years away and has a small, bluish companion star, but you’ll need a telescope to see it. The star representing Orion’s other knee is Saiph. Saiph and Rigel are tens of thousands of times brighter than the sun.

One of the most glorious sights in the sky floats a little below Orion’s belt in the hunter’s fainter sword. The Great Nebula of Orion, also known as M42, appears to the naked eye as a fuzzy star, one of three in the sword. Binoculars reveal a small, faint patch of wispiness, but a telescope shows the nebula as an extended cloud, full of detail.

In most photos, the Orion Nebula looks pink and blue, but through a telescope, it appears grayish white, with a hint of green. Astronomers say the nebula, a gas and dust cloud about 24 light-years across, is an interstellar nursery. Deep within its fan-shaped depths, huge globules of gas condense from the surrounding material, becoming denser and denser, hotter and hotter. Once their cores reach the temperatures and pressures needed to sustain nuclear fusion, voila! a star is born.

Those young, hot stars make the nebula glow.

Even urban skygazers should be able to spot Orion’s belt, shoulders and knees. If you’re observing from a dark location, you’ll also be able to see a fainter, vertical row of stars to the right of Orion. They represent his shield, while an even fainter group of stars to the left and above Orion represent his upraised arm, holding a club.

Orion, one of the oldest constellations, is mentioned by name in the Bible and the Iliad. It was especially important to the ancient Egyptians, who knew Orion as Sahu, an incarnation of Osiris, their god of the underworld.

Some have argued that the three stars of Orion’s belt represent the three major pyramids at Giza, which, like the belt stars, lie almost in a straight line.


Jupiter and Venus are can’t-miss sights in February. As the month begins, Venus, the brighter of the two, shines brilliantly in the southwest, then drifts more to the west as the month progresses. Jupiter, nearly as bright, hangs high in the south-southwestern sky after sunset in early February but drifts closer to Venus throughout the month. They’ll reach their closest approach to one another in March.


Look for a sliver of a crescent moon low in the west after sunset on Wednesday, Feb. 22. The planet Mercury is to the left of the moon. A slightly fatter crescent moon hangs a little above and to the right of Venus in the west on Saturday, Feb. 25, and a little to the right of Jupiter the next evening.

Heres a calendar of events for this month:

  • February 3Full Moon. The Moon will be directly opposite the Earth from the Sun and will be fully illuminated as seen from Earth. This phase occurs at 23:09 UTC. This full moon was known by early Native American tribes as the Full Snow Moon because the heaviest snows usually fell during this time of the year. Since hunting is difficult, this moon has also been known by some tribes as the Full Hunger Moon.
  • February 6Jupiter at Opposition. The giant planet will be at its closest approach to Earth and its face will be fully illuminated by the Sun. This is the best time to view and photograph Jupiter and its moons. A medium-sized telescope should be able to show you some of the details in Jupiter’s cloud bands. A good pair of binoculars should allow you to see Jupiter’s four largest moons, appearing as bright dots on either side of the planet.
  • February 18New Moon. The Moon will be directly between the Earth and the Sun and will not be visible from Earth. This phase occurs at 23:47 UTC. This is the best time of the month to observe faint objects such as galaxies and star clusters because there is no moonlight to interfere.
  • February 22Conjunction of Venus and Mars. A conjunction of Venus and Mars will be visible on February 22. The two bright planets will be visible within only half a degree of each other in the evening sky. Look for this impressive sight in the west just after sunset.

Here is a handy link to a glossary of astronomical terms – great information for the beginning star-gazer or the seasoned pro.  Check it out – http://www.seasky.org/astronomy/astronomy-glossary.html

excerpts from seasky.org and azcentral.org

Celestial Navigator – January 2015

Tonight, if you have a clear sky, set a goal for yourself of seeing all five visible planets. Byvisible planet, we mean any solar system planet that’s readily visible to the unaided eye. In their order going outward from the sun, the five visible planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, (Earth), Jupiter and Saturn. These worlds have been observed by our ancestors since time immemorial.

Best of all, you don’t have to stay up all hours of the night to see these five visible planets. You can catch Mercury, Venus and Mars in the southwest at nightfall, Jupiter in the east at early-to-mid evening and Saturn in the southeast before dawn.

As dusk gives way to darkness, or about 60 to 75 minutes after sunset, look for Venus, Mercury and Mars in the direction of sunset. Mercury poses the biggest challenge because it’s the first planet to set behind the sun. If you can’t see Mercury with the unaided eye, you can always resort to binoculars. Aim them at dazzling Venus – which is easily visible above the sunset point. Then sweep with your binoculars, below Venus in the direction of the sunset point, to view Mercury in the same binocular field. Keep in mind that Mercury follows the sun beneath the horizon about 75 minutes later. Venus does likewise, a short time after Mercury.

Fortunately, the red planet Mars stays out for a couple hours after Mercury and Venus set. Mars is only modestly bright. Nonetheless, it is easy to see with the unaided eye. Roughly four hours after sunset, or after Mars has set in the west, look for super-brilliant Jupiter to rise in the east. Jupiter should be high enough to view by bedtime, even if your eastern view is somewhat obstructed by mountains or trees.

Once Jupiter climbs over the eastern horizon, it stays out for rest of the night. Jupiter swings up to its high point for the night around 2 to 3 a.m. (that’s local time, the time on your clock no matter where you are on Earth). Jupiter shines in the west just before dawn. Jupiter will be hard to miss, for this brilliant beauty outshines any star.

Saturn, the sixth planet outward from the sun, rises several hours before sunrise, lighting up the southeast sky during the predawn hours. Shortly before dawn, look for golden Saturn to shine above the red star Antares. Both are toward the sunrise direction.

Bottom line: Given clear skies, the five visible planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – should be yours to behold on these January 2015 nights.

excerpts from earthsky.org

Celestial Navigator – December 2014

With luck, skywatchers can catch sight of the five brightest planets in the sky this month.

The smallest and innermost of the planets, Mercury, will be overwhelmed by the dazzling glare of the sun for much of December, but by New Year’sEve, it will have edged far enough away from the sun’s vicinity to be glimpsed low in the west-southwest sky right after sundown.

Also slowly becoming more evident in the evening sky this month is the dazzling planet Venus; in fact, you can use it to point the way to Mercury by month’s end. On Dec. 22, Venus will be joined by an exceedingly thin crescent moon. Also in the western evening sky is Mars, now a full eight months past its brilliant apparition of last spring and continuing to fade as it pulls away from Earth.

Jupiter is now a brilliant fixture in the late evening and overnight hours, hovering not far from the sickle of Leo, while the ringed wonder, Saturn, begins to slowly lift higher in the east-southeast predawn sky.

Dec. 8: Mercury passes superior conjunction today, when the planet is on the opposite side of the sun from Earth. As this event coincides with the date of Mercury’s aphelion — its farthest point from the sun — the planet withdraws only very slowly to the east of the sun.

Dec. 11: Looking low toward the east-northeast horizon around 10 p.m. local time, you’ll see the waning gibbous moon, accompanied about 6 degrees to its upper left by the brilliant planet Jupiter shining at a dazzling magnitude of minus 2.3 — more than twice as luminous as Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.

Dec. 19: If you look very low toward the east-southeast horizon at around 5:30 a.m. local time, you’ll see a delicately thin waning crescent moon. Sitting about 5 degrees below and to its left will be a bright yellow-white “star” shining with a sedate glow. That will be Saturn.

Dec. 22: Venus returns to its role of “evening star” this month. When December begins, this planet is just 5 degrees high in the southwest at sundown (as seen from about 40 degrees north latitude) and touches the horizon just over half an hour later.

This evening, this magnitude minus 3.9 world is 9 degrees high at sunset and remains up for another hour. Look for it about half an hour after sunset low to the southwest horizon; if you spot it, look about 7 degrees to its right for a breathtakingly thin waxing crescent moon less than one day from new phase.  Binoculars will help.

Dec. 24: If you look southwest at dusk on Christmas Eve, you’ll see a crescent moon, and about 7 degrees to its left, shining with a yellow-orange hue, will be Mars. The Red Planet has now receded to a distance of 180 million miles (290 million kilometers) from Earth.

Dec. 31: Mercury is still setting in the middle of evening twilight. Using binoculars, search for it within half an hour of sunset, about 4 degrees to the lower right of the much brighter Venus. These two planets will put on a great evening show during the first three weeks of January.

Excerpts from http://www.space.com/27898-brightest-planets-december-night-sky.html