Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Ursa Minor

As first appeared in the January/February/March 2012 edition (yeah, I know) of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF) and, I am proud to say, soon to be included in an edition of the Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society (MVAS) newsletter, Telescopic Topics.

Image generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

[Author’s Note: A tradition owing to Dr. Stu Forster during his many years as President and Editor, the Syracuse Astronomical Society (www.syracuse-astro.org) features (at least) one Constellation in each edition of its near-monthly newsletter, the Astronomical Chronicle.]

The Constellation discussion for this year is going to take a bit of a turn.

As part of the 2011 Syracuse Astronomical Society (SAS) lectures presented at Liverpool Public Library and Beaver Lake Nature Center, I spent a few minutes covering (briefly) how to navigate the Night Sky. By way of introduction, I described how one of my graduate advisors, Dr. Bruce Hudson, began scribbling furiously a long string of quantum mechanical equations about something-or-other that devoured the lion’s share of a whiteboard. Upon mentioning that I had no idea how he kept such information at the ready in his noggin, he replied “Try doing it 50 years.”

It is, in my humble opinion, useless to present the 88 Constellations to a general, new-to-observing audience in an hour and expect anyone to remember information that I, as el presidente, am still trying to digest after several years (a problem made all the more infuriating by the fact that this information hasn’t changed in several millennia). The problem that I and others at this latitude have is that the vast majority of the Night Sky changes throughout the year and, given that weather conditions often result in short spells of clear sky and long patches of overcast conditions, there is often little opportunity for “mental reinforcement” to help commit the lesser (well, at least smaller or dimmer) Constellations to memory.

The solution I discussed in the lectures was to play the “observability odds” and focus on learning those Constellations that you can, given clear skies, see all year long from Central New York (CNY). This group of Constellations are defined as “circumpolar” and, by their location about the axis of rotation of the Earth, never dip below the West/Northwest Horizon (or, at least, they do not entirely disappear over the course of a long evening of observing unless you’re surrounded by considerable foliage).

The set of images at the end of this article will show you how to kill six birds with one long, clear turn of the stone we call Earth. The small family of six Constellations I’ve included in this discussion are (1) Ursa Major (although, here, I’m only including the Big Dipper asterism for ease of identification. This is obviously a better target for new observers), (2) Draco the Dragon (a long and winding Constellation that is curled around the Little Dipper), (3) Cepheus, the late-late-late King of Ethiopia (as much as I dislike the use of simple geometric objects to identify groups of stars (because, well, they’re all points on imaginary polygons), the odd pentagon does stand out at night), (4) Cassiopeia (Jonathan Winters’ Big “W” and, thanks to Earth’s rotation axis, also sometimes a “3,” or an “M,” or an “E,” but obvious upon first being pointed out), and (5) Camelopardalis the giraffe (one of the last Constellations you might otherwise learn. Also one of the last Northern Constellations marked as such, in this case in 1612 by Petrus Plancius. You might even have a little trouble picking this one out. The Greeks (for instance, and in their infinite wisdom (I note with a 100% Greek heritage)) did not even bother to identify anything in this part of the sky as being of significance given how relatively dim the stars are). This list leaves number six, Ursa Minor, which I denote in the images as “0” as your celestial clock face base of operations.

Ursa Minor, or the Little Dipper (below, shown at its approximate orientation at 10:00 p.m. on March 23rd), is a nondescript Constellation that requires a bit of searching to find in the Night Sky. Polaris, its last handle star (2.0 mag.), is made easier to find by the fact that it is in a very dark, very nondescript piece of sky (it is identifiable simply by being where it is). Its cup-edge stars Pherkad (3.0 mag.) and Kochab (2.1 mag.) are a bit brighter and also in a dull region of the sky. The four remaining stars are the ones that become more visible as you mark their location with your scanning eyes. These four are made a bit more difficult to find from Darling Hill Observatory (home of the SAS) because of the bright light bulb directly at our Northern Horizon that is downtown Syracuse.

A possible trick to finding Polaris for the new-at-observing is to use the two most prominent Constellations in the North, Ursa Major (again, using the Big Dipper asterism here) and Cassiopeia. Finding the bowl of the Big Dipper and imagining a clock face, find Cassiopeia at nearly 7 o’clock to the edge-most bowl stars, then aim for the location where you’d expect those hands to be riveted (as shown below). Again, you’ll find a single bright-ish (“eh”) star at this location.

Having sufficiently talked down the significance of Polaris as a celestial observable, this otherwise nondescript star has something other nondescript stars have. To quote “Glorious John” Dryden:

Rude as their ships were navigated then;
No useful compass, no meridian known;
Coasting they kept the land within their ken;
And knew no North but when the Pole star shown.

Or, as William Tyler Olcott sums more quickly in his book “Star Lore,” Polaris is “the most practically useful star in the heavens.” Modern civilizations know Polaris as the star around which the Earth appears to spin, making it the most stably-placed object in the Night Sky over any reasonable span of human existence (a qualification I use in this article to avoid a discussion of the fascinating but “not relevant to learning the Night Sky right now” Precession of the Equinoxes).

The apparent constancy of all of the star positions (and Constellations) in the Night Sky relative to one another is, of course, due to stellar parallax, the celestial equivalent of the more familiar terrestrial parallax. If you’ve ever been the passenger on a long drive, you’ve borne witness to the trees along the road moving at a tremendous clip while the distant trees slide far more slowly through your field of view (that is, stay in your field of view while the trees along the road fall far behind you over the same amount of time). Polaris provides an ideal example of this same phenomenon on a celestial scale by its apparent immovability in the Night Sky despite the best efforts of Earth as it reaches nearly 300,000,000 kilometers of physical separation from its starting point every six months. The two images below demonstrate the phenomenon…

Your Green Laser Along Earth’s Rotation Axis (Pointing UP From The North Pole), One Beam Every Three Months, Separated By (At Best) 2 Astronomical Units (a.u.), Looking At A “Close Object” With A Large Apparent Motion Against The “Background”

Your Green Laser Along Earth’s Rotation Axis (Pointing UP From The North Pole), One Beam Every Three Months, Marking A Position 431 Light Years Away (Looking At A “Distant Object”) And A Small Apparent Motion Against The “Background” (All NOT To Scale)

At above-left you see a small slightly-sideways model of Earth’s motion around the Sun (at points being marked about every three months), with the left-most and right-most positions separated by two astronomical units, the astronomical unit being the mean distance between the Sun and Earth (bearing in mind Kepler‘s Elliptical description of our orbits), a value of about 150 million kilometers. To objects in our own Solar System or even a few nearby stars, this large change in position is enough to clearly see those objects that are nearby move more than the “background” of more distant objects (you could do this at home with a decent scope and excellent note-taking skills, possibly reproducing the 1838 work of Friedrich Bessel in his measurement of the parallax of 61 Cygni). In our case, the more distant objects are the stars far from our vantage point (think of “stars” as “trees” and the same driving analogy works, although now you’re driving around a circular track and paying your passenger to always look North). Polaris, as measured by the Hipparcos satellite (using parallax to exacting detail), determined that Polaris is 431 light years away, a distance of 27.5 million a.u.! And this is a CLOSE star considering the 100,000 light year diameter of the Milky Way. At this distance, if the four green laser pointer beams were a meter long, their separation in Earth’s orbit would be a small enough measuring distance to map out the contents of a single-celled organism in exacting detail. My ability to draw a proper parallax-like image to show this is limited by the pixels on my screen being gigantic compared to the apparent change in position in this crude image (so the above image is decidedly NOT to scale).

All of this discussion above is basically to convince you that, when you look up in the Night Sky, Polaris will effectively NOT move to the best of your ability to observe it, making it a best starting point for your Constellation memorization adventure.

Well, Polaris will NOT move provided you always observe from the same latitude on the Earth’s Surface. The last piece of the puzzle to put ourselves into proper perspective comes from a zoom-in of our Earth, shown below. You’ll see that our North Pole, appropriately placed at 90o North Latitude, is aligned nearly exactly with Polaris (again, for our purposes, this approximation is fine). What does that mean? It means that, with the right low Horizon (or high hill), nearly ALL of the Northern Constellations are circumpolar at the North Pole! Think of the memorization mess! Alternatively, at the equator (0o), the Night Sky is, effectively, constantly in motion (this should make you truly appreciate the navigational and astronomical skills of the Polynesians in their spread across the South Pacific islands).

As you walk from the Equator to the North Pole, moving from 0o to 90o North Latitude, the North Star appears to get higher and higher in the Night Sky. By this, the angle of Polaris above the Horizon (its altitude) is equal to our latitude (so when you know one (say, by getting your latitude and longitude from google maps or the like), you know the other. This is one of the great “then explain this, dummy!” rhetorical smack-downs to members of the Flat Earth Society). In our case, Polaris is about 40o above our horizon. Personally, I think 40o North Latitude is a perfectly reasonable place to begin Constellation memorization. Not too many, not to few. And, as is the common theme we’ll explore this year, once you have a reliable base of celestial operations, learning the remaining Constellations becomes a significantly easier (but still Herculean) task.

The Counterclockwise Circumpolar Map

Your Northern Horizon from CNY will, clear skies permitting, ALWAYS look something like the following, with the Constellation closest to the N/NW Horizon labeled as follows (0 = Ursa Minor, the Little Dipper. * = Polaris, which appears to not move (to a coarse approximation)):


A. Big Dipper (1, technically, Ursa Major, but the Big Dipper is smaller and more obvious)


B. Draco (2, aim for the dragon’s head. If the Big Dipper is N/NE, an easy find)


C. Cepheus – 3, a crazy house standing upright, just right of a bright “E”


D. Cassiopeia – 4, the big “W,” at the horizon an “E” (or its canonical chair)


E. Camelopardalis (?!) – 5, the back-end of a giraffe(with Cassiopeia as a “Big W,” the giraffe is drinking from the tipped bowl of the Big Dipper).

NOTE: The Earth’s rotation makes 1-to-5 move counterclockwise! Fresh Constellations over your Eastern Horizon, stale ones disappear at your West.

Happy Hunting – Damian

Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Cetus

As first appeared in the October 2010 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

There is a region of the Night Sky that is dominated by aquatic creatures. Alternately, if we consider empty space as its own kind of ocean, there are regions where the stars of the Aquatic Constellations appear to undulate at geologic time scales, making the current arrangement of stars effectively motionless to our eyes and those of many generations to come.

Within this Water Region are the Constellations (as listed at wikipedia) Aquarius, Capricornus, Cetus, Delphinus, Eridanus, Hydra, Pisces, and Piscis Austrinus. If we think in terms of seasonal change, this does seem like an oddity of planning. Who would place the Aquatic Constellations in the Night Sky during the late fall and winter, when the temperature in some parts of the Northern Hemisphere (such as at Darling Hill Observatory) might as well be that of interstellar space? Where are the polar bear and penguin Constellations?

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

The answer to this has less to do with the apparent location of these Constellations in our Night Sky and more to do with the position of the Sun during our daytime sky roughly six months later (the Sun IN Pisces, for instance). When the Sun is in this region of the sky from our terrestrial perspective, the Northern Hemisphere is well into Spring, the time of the rainy season in our and ancient cultures. The image above shows the position of the Sun at noon on April 1, 2011. No joke. If our blue sky were to disappear, we’d have a few seconds to enjoy the daytime Constellations (before we passed out, were cooked by radiation, or froze to death, depending on where the atmosphere went. Fun factoid – Mercury, with no atmosphere to speak of, provides 24-hour Constellation observing!).

This brings us to Cetus, formerly known as a sea monster (indirect evidence for the lack of submarines in ancient Greece?), now increasingly considered to be a whale (perhaps equally terrifying to a small boat far from land in antiquity). Like some misidentified sea monster seen from a dry beach by a hydrophobic observer, Cetus provides a small amount of clear identification and several subtle treats for Earth-locked amateur astronomers that leave quite a bit to the imagination.

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

One of the patient treats in Cetus is the variable multiple star Mira (Omicron Ceti). As our Observatory Director Ray Dague pointed out at our last Public Viewing session, this star takes its own 331.65 day journey from a 10.1 magnitude star to a 2.0 magnitude star. That is a phenomenal change! It is current at 6.5 magnitude and found in the neck of the beast (above).

M77 image by Hunter Wilson.

As for Messier Objects, those objects one can definitely say they saw on first pass with even moderately-sized binoculars, Cetus is accompanied by only M77, a distant (47 million light years away) barred spiral galaxy (at left, photo by Hunter Wilson). While one distant galaxy is anchored in this part of the sky, this small region is host to tens-of-thousands of invisible objects swimming around our Sun. Cetus is a border Constellation to the Zodiac, those 12 Constellations that mark the path of the Sun and planets from our observing post on Earth. By the way the borders are drawn, Cetus does play host very occasionally to planets and, notably, the objects of the Asteroid Belt. Cetus had the distinction of being the host to 4 Vesta (shown below, photo from the Hubble Space Telescope), the 2nd largest object identified in the Asteroid Belt, during its discovery on 29 March 1807 by Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers.

4 Vesta (Images taken 2007 May 14 and 16). From hubblesite.org.

And then there’s stuff we can only imagine seeing without the most powerful scopes in the known universe. Cetus is the host to JKCS 041 (shown below, also in the neck as marked in the opening image. Must be a hungry monster), the current holder of the title as most distant galaxy cluster yet discovered, residing at a boggling distance of 10.2 billion light years from us. Wikipedia hosts a short little movie about this distant cluster HERE.

JKCS 041 (22 Oct 2009) from NASA/CXC/INAF/S.Andreon et al Optical: DSS; ESO/VLT.

Clear skies, Damian

P.S. It has taken all my concentration to not refer to Cetus as a Whale of a Constellation.

Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Triangulum

As first appeared in the October 2010 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

I remember my first foray into Constellation memorization, still the first thing I recommend for anyone beginning in amateur astronomy (primarily for using these imagined creations to memorize the locations of far dimmer objects when you graduate up to binoculars or small scopes, but also simply to develop a sense of, well, the space between these creations as you jump between objects).

Orion, yeah yeah… Scorpius, O.K. obvious… The body of Sagittarius looks like a teapot, that’s not bad… Cassiopeia is the great big “W” Jonathan Winters discovered in “It’s a Mad … Mad World“… The “Dippers” are dippers… Canis Minor is composed of two stars, and they happen to be in a straight line! At least it contains a bit of animal lore and the great Procyon. That should be easy to find.

Ah! Triangulum. A famed triangle of stars. Named after the famed shape called “The Triangle,” and believed to be the last Constellation drawn out by Ptolemy as one of the original 48 Constellations of Antiquity. It bet it was supposed to be “The Great Northern Spearhead,” but Ptolemy must have been a pacifist. It is believed he committed it to papyrus at 4:50 p.m. on a Friday before the scribes began copying the first edition Monday morning.

I have to admit, this Constellation seemed like an odd member of the original series, if for no other reason than the seemingly minimal amount of work (or so I thought) that must have gone into its creation. As I hope to convey to you in the next few paragraphs, this little Constellation has stood the test of time for a few good reasons.

To begin, the heart of Triangulum dates back all the way to the Babylonians (which means it likely also dates back further into pre-recorded history) who, with the inclusion of what we now know as γ-Andromeda, called this Constellation MUL.APIN, or “The Plough.” With this simple extension added in red in the image above, I hope the resemblance is now obvious. To my technologically-biased mind, the nondescript triangle of the modern sky instantaneously becomes the (seemingly) everlasting testament to the power of agriculture and the shining reminder to all of the simple tool responsible for the creation of a commodity we know today as “surplus.” I don’t think that’s going too overboard in the description.

You are here.

We have these “organic farming” discussions where people ask you “Where do you think your food comes from?” It has been quite a recent phenomenon in the long history of this little sphere Carl Sagan referred to as a “Pale Blue Dot” (that’s you at right) that the members of a society have been relieved of the strain of producing for themselves by technology that improves efficiency and, more importantly, vastly increases quantity. If I take the comparison to the extreme, the Constellations that represented tools or deities have been replaced in many societies by the gigantic billboards that celebrate the financial well-being of companies continuing their crusade to relieve you of your currency, an economic reality impossible in a society where everyone’s working entirely to maintain a base subsistence level. The world remains in transition towards a time when all are at the same technological level as the First World countries (and it is only a matter of time), meaning something as simple to many of you reading this as an animal-driven plough remains a vital key to survival in other parts of the world.

I vote we re-designate the “Summer Triangle” as the “Summer Plough!”

While it may have been a signal for a Late-Summer party at the very beginning of some harvest, the Babylonians used the presence of their Triangulum to mark the “Way of Enlil,” the apparent path of the Sun after the Summer Solstice. In a society that used the Heavens as their Calendar, this simple Constellation took on a wholly more significant meaning.

Thanks to wikipedia, I know that a more recent attribution (to only the Triangle, not the Plough) of this Constellation is to the goddess Ceres, who successfully convinced the god Jupiter to add the island of Sicily (at left, the football that the boot of Italy appears to be kicking towards the U.S.) to the Night Sky (perhaps a preferred way to leave your mark in history, esp. given the alternative taken by Atlantis).

Sicily, featuring an active Mount Etna (Image by Jacques Descloitres, NASA MODIS Land Rapid Response Team).

Given this most interesting history, is there anything to actually do with a pair of eyes or an eyepiece in this part of the sky? I’m pleased to report that this part of the sky is actually quite busy (the Star Map at this beginning of this article is about as busy as one can get without looking at Sagittarius), with Triangulum serving as a useful anchor for finding a number of objects in our Eastern sky this month.

M33, the Triangulum Galaxy. Photo by Hunter Wilson.

As it happens, one of the precious few naked eye galaxies (provided ideal viewing conditions) in the Northern Sky lies just to the South (to the right as you’re looking at it) of α-Tri. M33 (at right), appropriately named the “Triangulum Galaxy,” is a member of the Local Group of galaxies (the most famous member being our Milky Way, the second most famous being the Andromeda Galaxy) and, at 2.9 million light years away, lies (by some estimates) 700,000 light years farther from us than the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) AND, according to measurements using the Very Long Baseline Array, is moving at 190 km/second relative to us and towards M31 (the demolition derby will not be pleasant for M33, given it contains only 4% of the stars of M31 (how many mopeds are there in a semi-rig?). It is still under debate as to whether or not M33 is a companion galaxy to the more massive M31 (they do share proximity), but it certainly stands on its own as a spectacle in a good telescope on a dark night. This first recorded observation (it all comes down to paper) is attributed to Giovanni Battista Hodierna around 1650 (above at left), the most famous recorded observation (it all comes down to publication) can be given to Charles Messier (above at right) on August 25-26, 1764 (now that’s bookkeeping!).

Giovanni Battista Hodierna (left) and Charles Messier (right).

All of the other objects in the boundaries of Triangulum are dim (10>th order or dimmer), making your time spent with moderate optics in this area short compared to the time you’d likely spend just on M31 alone. As a good practice for the next Messier Marathon, you can use M33 (*1) and M31 (*2) to mark the Southern side of a rectangle composed of M33, M31, M34 (*3) and M76 (*4, these last two are right on the Perseus-Andromeda border). As M33 will give you M32 and M101, that’s a quick-six to check off as you plough your way through the list of 110.

Comet Hartley 2 and NGC 457 (the E.T. Cluster). Photo by SAS member Stu Forster.

AND, as long as were in this neck of the woods (and the tree line in this part of the sky at Darling Hill is now just becoming more bearable to the impatient observer with the falling of leaves), we can use the Babylonian form of Triangulum to quickly point our way to M76, then slowly walk the Telrad to the North (left) until we reach the Southern Double of the famed Double-Double, which then puts into view both members of the Perseus Double-Double Cluster (NGC 884 and NGC 869) and Comet Hartley 2, which is working its way through our neighborhood. Our own Stu Forster managed to capture Hartley (green glow at left) as it passed through the local neighborhood of NGC 457, more commonly known as the Owl or E.T. Cluster (yes. tha E.T., the two bright eyes work for both).

Clear skies, Damian