Upstate New York Stargazing – April, 2018

The good, the bad, and the potentially ugly things that fall from space. Micrometeorites (IFLScience.com), a SkyLab fragment (from wikipedia), and the Chelyabinsk meteor trail (Alex Alishevskikh).

Upstate NY Stargazing in April: The Lyrid meteor shower

Published: Apr. 02, 2018, 2:31 p.m.

By Damian Allis

When asked to list the contents of our Solar System, some stop at the Sun, planets, and moons. Others will remember comets – a list of objects that grows much longer every year. For those looking for up-to-date info, see minorplanetcenter.net – we have comfortably cleared the 4000 comet mark. Some may add the asteroid belt – a region between Mars and Jupiter which looks less like the chaotic debris field from "The Empire Strikes Back" and more like oases of larger rocks separated by vast, empty deserts of tiny particles. Don't forget the currently 18,000-long list of NEOs, or Near-Earth Objects.

These are among the more than 18,000 reasons why the late-great Stephen Hawking and others have championed the need for colonization beyond the Earth's surface.

Changing positions in the sky is one thing – changing elevations is very different. Occasional bright flares make the news when captured on video. Events like Tunguska and Chelyabinsk remind us that there thing in space we might miss that could level cities. We are fortunate that most of the roughly 160 tons of debris from space that hits the Earth *each day* is in the form of micrometeorites that you could start collecting with a strong magnet and a flat rooftop.

The highly-anticipated demise of the Tiangong-1 over the weekend was a reminder that we may not be able to always rely on the "dilution-solution" of handling our garbage. Our planet is large, spherical, mostly covered in water, and largely unpopulated – but the number of satellites going to space will only increase as launches get cheaper. It remains to be seen if nations will opt to address the dangers of space junk before or after something serious – and unavoidable – happens here on the ground.

Lectures And Observing Opportunities In Upstate/Central New York

New York has a number of astronomers, astronomy clubs, and observatories that host public sessions throughout the year. Announced sessions from respondent NY astronomy organizations are provided below for April. As wind and cloud cover are always factors when observing, please check the provided contact information and/or email the groups a day-or-so before an announced session, as some groups will also schedule weather-alternate dates. Also use the contact info for directions and to check on any applicable event or parking fees.

Astronomy Events Calendar

OrganizerLocationEventDateTimeContact Info
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper Lake1st Friday ObservingApr. 67:30 PMemail, website
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper Lake3rd Friday ObservingApr. 207:30 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyOctagon Barn Star PartyApr. 138 – 10 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyNight Sky AdventureApr. 177 – 8:30 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyAAAA MeetingApr. 197:30 – 9 PMemail, website
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterMember MeetingApr. 67:30 – 9:30 PMemail, website
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterObserving At The StrasenburghApr. 79:00 – 10:30 PMJim S., 585-703-9876
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterObserving At The StrasenburghApr. 149:00 – 10:30 PMJim S., 585-703-9876
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterASRAS Open HouseApr. 1512 – 4 PMemail, website
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterObserving At The StrasenburghApr. 219:00 – 10:30 PMJim S., 585-703-9876
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterObserving At The StrasenburghApr. 289:00 – 10:30 PMJim S., 585-703-9876
Baltimore WoodsMarcellusHello Spring SkiesApr. 13/147:30 – 9:30 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalKAS Monthly MeetingApr. 47 – 9 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingApr. 67 – 9 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingApr. 137 – 9 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingApr. 207 – 9 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingApr. 277 – 9 PMemail, website
Liverpool Public LibraryLiverpoolPlanet 9 LectureApr. 197 – 8:30 PMwebsite
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic StargazingApr. 78:15 – 10:30 PMemail, website
Syracuse Astronomical SocietySyracuseMessier Marathon and Public ViewingApr. 137:00 PMemail, website

Lunar Phases

Third QuarterNew MoonFirst QuarterFull Moon
Apr. 8, 3:17 amApr. 15, 9:57 pmApr. 22, 5:45 pmApr. 29, 8:58 pm

The Moon's increasing brightness as Full Moon approaches washes out fainter stars, random meteors, and other celestial objects – this is bad for most observing, but excellent for new observers, as only the brightest stars (those that mark the major constellations) and planets remain visible for your easy identification. If you've never tried it, the Moon is a wonderful binocular object. The labeled image identifies features easily found with low-power binoculars.

Lunar features prominent in low-power binoculars.

Observing Guides

Items and events listed below assume you're outside and observing most anywhere in New York. The longer you're outside and away from indoor or bright lights, the better your dark adaption will be. If you have to use your smartphone, find a red light app or piece of red acetate, else set your brightness as low as possible.

The sky at 9 p.m. on April 15, accurate all month except for the changing Moon position.

Evening Skies: Observers with bad necks or busy schedules have been waiting all winter for April. The constellations of the Winter Triangle – Canis Major, Canis Minor, and Orion – and additional of the Winter Hexagon – Gemini, Auriga, and Taurus – are finally lower in the western sky after sunset. Binocular viewers have precious little time to take in objects around Taurus and Orion.

This is also our last month to take advantage of Orion as a guide to its local constellations before it disappears again until just before sunrise in early August.

Orion can guide you around its neighborhood. Red = belt stars to Sirius and Canis Major; Orange = Rigel and belt center to Castor and Pollux in Gemini; Yellow = Bellatrix and Betelgeuse to Canis Major; Green = Belt stars to Aldebaran and Taurus; Blue = Saiph and Orion's head to Capella in Auriga. Click for a larger view.

Morning Skies: The observing excitement this month is to the south. Saturn and Mars are putting on an excellent show atop the teapot asterism in Sagittarius, while Jupiter watches from the west in Libra. Hopping from Antares to Jupiter to Spica, try to find the very personable representation of the constellation Virgo, who appears to be falling on her backside on the western horizon this month.

The sky at 5 a.m. on April 15, accurate all month except for the changing Moon position.

Planetary Viewing

Venus: Venus has been an evening delight recently, with early March observers even fitting it and Mercury into the same binocular field of view. Venus continues to set later each day this month, getting brighter throughout.

For bright sightings, Venus has the first half of the month to itself. On the 17th, it pairs with a thin crescent moon after sunset, then spends the next few days sliding right between our two closest star clusters – the Pleiades and Hyades in Taurus. April 28th is the closest grouping of the three, with Venus almost making a straight line with Aldebaran and the Pleiades.

Groupings of Venus, the Moon, Pleiades, and Hyades later this month.

Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn: Jupiter starts the month rising close to 11 p.m. and finishes the month clearing the horizon at 9 p.m. We'll have Jupiter in our nighttime sky until October, ideal for small telescopes all summer long. As an early marker, the Moon joins Jupiter from above in Libra on April 3rd

The full view of the southern sky on April 3, showing morning pairings of the Moon and Jupiter to the southwest and Mars and Saturn to the southeast.

Those with even poor-quality binoculars are able to see the four bright satellites of Jupiter – known as the "Galilean Moons" for their first observer – and the appearance of Jupiter as a disc of light instead of a simple pinpoint like all stars. Many websites, including the Jupiter's Moons webapp at Sky & Telescope, can provide you with the real-time and future positions of the fast-moving moons for any viewing opportunity you get this and every month.

The best show will be between Mars and Saturn this month. On April 1st, the two are just above the handle of the Sagittarius teapot with Mars on the right. On April 3rd, Mars will be directly below Saturn, an excellent site with or without binoculars. Mars move farther west each night thereafter, buzzing just below distant Pluto on the 26th and 27th. For those still not sure if those two extremely bright pinpoints are Mars and Saturn or not, the Moon provides an obvious marker on the morning of April 7.

The Moon meets Saturn and Mars above the teapot asterism of Sagittarius on April 7. Click for a larger view.

If you scan the area around both planets with binoculars, don't be surprised if you see batches of stars or little fuzzy features that don't come into focus – you're looking into the center – and densest – part of the Milky Way in this direction, where open clusters, globular clusters, and nebulae abound.

Swift Mercury even makes an appearance due east just before 6 a.m. starting in mid-April. If you intend on using binoculars to find it, be sure to stop your search well before sunrise.

ISS Flyovers

Satellite flyovers are commonplace, with several bright passes easily visible per hour in the nighttime sky, yet a thrill to new observers of all ages. Few flyovers compare in brightness or interest to the International Space Station. The flyovers of the football field-sized craft with its massive solar panel arrays and six current occupants can be predicted to within several seconds and take several minutes to complete.

Those looking to figuratively catch the ISS this month have the first 12 days to do so, after which it is gone from our skies until early May. The ISS is an evening target these first two weeks, with several days of double-flyovers all between 8 and 11 p.m.

ISS Flyovers

DateBrightnessApprox. StartStart Direct.Approx. EndEnd Direct.
4/1moderately8:24 PMNW8:29 PMNE
4/1moderately10:01 PMNW10:03 PMN/NW
4/2moderately9:09 PMNW9:12 PMNE
4/3moderately8:16 PMNW8:21 PMNE
4/3moderately9:53 PMNW9:55 PMN/NW
4/4very9:01 PMNW9:04 PMNE
4/4somewhat10:37 PMW/NW10:37 PMW/NW
4/5moderately8:08 PMNW8:13 PME/NE
4/5very9:45 PMNW9:47 PMN/NW
4/6very8:52 PMNW8:57 PME/NE
4/6somewhat10:29 PMW/NW10:29 PMW/NW
4/7extremely9:36 PMW/NW9:39 PMW
4/8extremely8:44 PMNW8:49 PME/SE
4/8somewhat10:21 PMW10:22 PMW
4/9very9:28 PMW/NW9:31 PMS/SW
4/10extremely8:36 PMW/NW8:41 PMSE
4/11moderately9:21 PMW/SW9:24 PMS/SW
4/12moderately8:28 PMW8:33 PMS

Predictions courtesy of heavens-above.com. Times later in the month are subject to shifts – for accurate daily predictions, visit spotthestation.nasa.gov.

Meteor Showers: Lyrids – Active April 16 To April 25, Peaking The Morning Of April 22

Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through the debris field of a comet or asteroid. As these objects approach the warming sun in their long orbits, they leave tiny bits behind – imagine pebbles popping out the back of a large gravel truck on an increasingly bumpy road. In the case of meteor showers, the brilliant streaks you see are due to particles usually no larger than grains of sand. The Earth plows through the swarm of these tiny particles at up-to 12 miles-per-second. High in the upper atmosphere, they burn up due to friction and ionize the air around them, producing long light trails. We can predict the peak observing nights for a meteor shower because we know when and where in Earth's orbit we'll pass through the same part of the Solar System – this yearly periodicity in meteor activity is what let us identify and name meteor showers well before we ever had evidence of what caused them.

The name of each meteor shower is based on the constellation from which the shooting stars appear to radiate – a position in the sky we call the radiant. The Lyrid radiant is precariously close to the funny bone of the troubled Hercules, but is still considered within the official borders of Lyra the Harp. Finding the radiant is as easy as finding the bright star Vega, which rises in the northeast just before 9 p.m. on the active nights of the Lyrids. Those awake during the peak 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. window are treated to the complete Summer Triangle – a reminder that the summer constellations are well on their way.

The Lyrid Meteor Shower radiant, roughly between the bright star Vega and the southern elbow of Hercules. Click for a larger view.

How to observe: The nights leading up to the Lyrid peak will be the best time for viewing this month, as observers on the 23rd and 24th will have to compete with the bright moon to the west. One thing you'll be sure *not* to see this year is the comet producing the Lyrids – Comet Thatcher (C/1861 G1) has a 415-year orbit and was last in our part of the Solar System in 1861, just a bit too early for anyone to even attempt capturing it on a photographic plate.

Learn A Constellation: Gemini

Gemini in the western sky after sunset this month above Orion's Club.

In last month's article, we delved into some of the mathematics that made up the early lunar calendars, noting how much simpler life would be if only the Moon went around the Earth every 30 days and the Earth went around the Sun every 360 days. This month, we go with a full-on mythological possibility.

Venus is bright enough to cast shadows, but is never out for more than a few hours past sunset or a few hours before sunrise – a planet can only be visible all night long if it's beyond our own orbit. Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are the only three throughout human history that any one of our ancestors could have observed all night long. Of the three, Jupiter is the brightest object, no doubt the reason for its moniker of "king of the planets," its association with Zeus throughout Greek/Roman antiquity, and its attribution to the Babylonian god Marduk long before the Greeks.

Jupiter's orbit is 11.86 years long. That means, nearly every 12 years, Jupiter appears in roughly the same place in the sky from our vantage point on Earth. If one were to believe that the god(s) did not trade in coincidences in the nighttime sky, certainly the 12-year cycle for Jupiter's return to its starting point was something profound – and the division of its path into 12 stations by the Babylonians was simply good bookkeeping to make sure of no confusion when it came to knowing where one's god might be.

Our year-long walk around the zodiac brings us to Gemini the Twins this month. These two have spent at least the last 2,000 years dancing atop Orion's club in their Greek mythological roots, and have had their bright stars Castor and Pollux regarded as celestial twins as far back as Babylonian times. As the eastern-most member of the Winter Hexagon, Pollux and all of Gemini are easy to find and all the more prominent by their placement above Orion and Taurus. Often sketched with hands held, Pollux is all knees-and-feet, while the svelte Castor seems to have had a part of one leg knocked to the other by Orion's club.

M35, off Castor's foot and as wide as the full Moon. The smaller, denser cluster at lower-right is NGC 2158.

Gemini is best known for four observing targets of astronomical or historical significance. Off the western foot of Castor lies the open cluster M35, observable as a fuzzy patch without binoculars under dark skies. Much closer to home, Aristotle mentioned observing Jupiter occulting, or temporarily covering, a star in Gemini way back in December of 337 B.C.E. Much closer to home and recent history, both Uranus (1781) and Pluto (1930) were discovered within the borders of Gemini.

Dr. Damian Allis is the director of CNY Observers and a NASA Solar System Ambassador. If you know of any other NY astronomy events or clubs to promote, please contact the author.

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Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Orion

As first appeared in the April 2012 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Image generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

Much can be said about the old hunter Orion. To Central New York observers, it had (until very recently) been the case that Orion made his way across the Night Sky during the coldest and least hospitable (to most nighttime observers) months of the year. Conditions would keep observers in hiding from him (some of the best CNY observers I know would risk surgical strikes on the Orion Nebula with their fastest to set-up and tear-down equipment). The abbreviated winter of 2011/2012 and reasonably early start of the SAS observing season have provided us with excellent opportunities in the past few months to make Orion The Hunter now the hunted. The mid-April observing session will be the last "official" opportunity to observe Orion before he disappears behind the Western horizon until the most nocturnal of us can next see him in our Eastern sky before sunrise in late August. I then take this opportunity to discuss Orion, one many CNY/SAS members may know the best by sight but may know the least by observing attention.

One of the topics covered in the 2011 SAS lecturing series was how we observe. Not the discussion of optics or the physics of planetary motion along the ecliptic, but the visual and mental mechanisms we use to translate the photonic triggers in our retina into mental pictures of celestial objects. Orion was the astronomical example I used to describe Pareidolia, how we impose a kind of order on things we see despite that order not being present in the actual collection. When you look at a cloud, you may see a face, an animal, or something your mind triggers as being something it clearly is not. I often placed the infamous "Face On Mars" next to the Constellation Orion to show clearly how we see what we think we see despite all reasonable evidence to the contrary (or the two can be mangled together, as shown below). The clouds may look like an animal, the "Face On Mars" looks unmistakably like a shadowed face, and Orion, as it happens, has looked like a human figure to virtually all peoples for as long as we have record of Constellations, the same way Scorpius has appeared as a scorpion to every civilization for which this little monster was part of the local biosphere.

Pareidolia is not just for cognitive neuroscience! One of the keys to learning the sky I discussed last year was to let your mind wander while staring at the sky and see if certain things jump out at you. The constellations are, for the most part, made up of the most reasonably bright star groupings, but if you see any type of geometry that makes some part of the sky easy to identify, run with it. This same philosophy may be responsible for the rise of the asterism, or "non-Constellation star grouping," as the distillation of mythological complexity into more practical tools for everyday living. For instance, I suspect everyone reading this can find the asterism known as the Big Dipper, but how many know all of the stars of its proper Constellation Ursa Major? Our southern tree line and Cortland obscure some of the grandeur of Sagittarius, which means we at the hill identify the location of its core (and several galactic highlights) by the easy-to-see "teapot." The body of Orion is a similar case of reduction-to-apparent, as the four stars marking his corners (clockwise from upper left)…

Betelgeuse (pronounced "Betelgeuse Betelgeuse Betelgeuse!" – marking his right shoulder; a red supergiant of very orange-ish color even without binoculars)

Bellatrix – the left shoulder (so you now know the Constellation is facing us as originally defined) – a blue giant known also known as the "Amazon Star"

Rigel – the left foot; a blue supergiant and the star system within which the aliens that make the Rigel Quick Finder reside

Saiph – the right foot; a star dim in the visible but markedly brighter in the ultraviolet. Saiph and Rigel are about the same distance away (Saiph 50 light years closer at 724 light years, a point to consider as you observe them both)

… and the three stars marking his belt (from left)…

Alnitak – A triple-star system 800 light years away with a blue supergiant as its anchor star

Alnilam – the farthest star of the belt at 1359 light years, this young blue supergiant burns as brightly as the other two, making the belt appear equally bright "al across"

Mintaka – 900 light years away, this is an eclipsing binary star system, meaning one star passes between us and the main star in its orbit (about every 5.7 days)

… are obvious to all, while the head and club stars require a longer look to identify.

Sticking to Naked Eye observing for a moment, Orion is not only famous for its historical significance and apparent brightness. Orion is ideally oriented to serve as an order of alignment for several nearby Constellations and is surrounded by enough bright stars and significant Constellations that curiosity alone should have you familiar with this part of the sky in very short order. As an April focus, it is of benefit that all of the Constellations we'll focus on either hit the horizon at the same time as Orion or they rest above him.

I've color-coded the significant stars marking notable Constellations in the image below. If you're standing outside on any clear night, the marked stars should all be quite obvious (we're talking a hands' width or two at arm's length). From right and working our way counterclockwise…

(RED) Following the belt stars to the right will lead you to the orange-ish star Aldebaran, marking the eye of Taurus the Bull. This is a dense part of the sky, as Aldebaran marks both the head of the Bull and also marks the brightest star in the Hyades star cluster (a gravitationally-bound open cluster 150 light years away composed of over 100 stars). Just to the right of this cluster is the "Tiny Dipper" known as the Pleiades (Messier 45), another dense star cluster worth observing at all magnifications. Both of these clusters are simultaneously easier and harder to find at present, as Venus ("1") is resting just above them, providing an easy way to find both clusters but plenty of reflected light to dull the brilliance of the two open clusters.

(ORANGE) Auriga, featuring Capella (the third brightest star in the Night Sky), is an oddly-shaped hexagon featuring a small triangle at one corner. Auriga, like Ursa Minor in last month's discussion, is made easy to find by the fact that the five marked stars are in an otherwise nondescript part of the sky (relatively dim generally, but brighter than anything in the vicinity). Venus will dull Hassaleh (Auriga's closest star to Venus and the two open clusters below it) but Elnath and Capella will be easy finds.

(YELLOW) Castor and Pollux, the twins of Gemini, are literally standing on Orion's club. Making an arrow from Mintaka (the right-most star of the belt) and Betelgeuse will lead you to Alhena (Pollux's left foot), after which a slow curve in a horseshoe shape will give you the remaining stars.

(GREEN) Canis Minor is two stars (which is boring), but is significant for containing Procyon, the 7th brightest star in the Night Sky (which means it will be an EASY find). But don't confuse it with Sirius, which is the big shimmering star in…

(BLUE) Canis Major is the larger of Orion's two dogs and contains Sirius ("The Dog Star"), a star so bright (magnitude −1.46) and so close (8.6 light years) that it appears not as a star but as a shimmering light. Some would say an airplane, others would say a hovering UFO. Part of my duties as president involve intermittently explaining that it is not the latter.

And, with respect, Monoceros is an old Constellation but not a particularly brilliant one. Having Canis Minor and Canis Major identified will make your identification of Monoceros quite straightforward.

We now turn to the other "stellar" objects in Orion, composed of three Messiers and one famous IC. M78 is a diffuse nebula almost one belt width above and perpendicular to Alnitak. You will know it when you see it. M43 and M42 (marked as "4" in the image below), on the other hand, are so bright and close that you can see their nebulosity in dark skies without aid of any optics.

M42 – The Orion Nebula is, in the right dark conditions, a Naked Eye sight in itself. For those of us between cities, even low-power binoculars bring out the wispy edges and cloudy core of this nebula. For higher-power observers, the resolving of Trapezium at M42's core serves as one of your best tests of astronomy binoculars (I consider the identification of four stars as THE proper test of a pair of 25×100's. Ideal conditions and a larger aperture will get you six stars total). You could spend all night just exploring the edges and depths of this nebula. You can take a look back at the Astro Bob article in the April 2012 edition of the Astronomical Chronicle (From My Driveway To Orion, Nature Works Wonders) for a more detailed discussion of this part of Orion.

M43 – de Mairan's Nebula is, truth be told, a lucky designation. M43 is, in fact, part of the M42 nebula that is itself a small part of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex (not THAT'S a label). M43 owes its differentiation to a dark lane of dust that breaks M43 and M42, just as the lane of dust in our own Milky Way we know as the "Great Rift" splits what would otherwise be one continuous band of distant stars the same way a large rock in a stream causes the water to split in two and recombine on the other side.

Finally (and the one you'll work for), IC 434, the Horsehead Nebula, lies just to the lower-left of Alnitak (1). The Horsehead is itself a dark nebula, a region absorbing light to make it pronounced by its difference from the lighter regions around it. To put the whole area into perspective, The Horsehead is itself STILL within the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex. The sheath of Orion's Sword and nearly the entire belt is contained in this Complex, like dust being rattled off with each blow from Orion's club.

I close by taking a look at the perilously ignored club attempting to tear into Taurus. At present, asteroids surround Orion's Club like pieces of debris flying off after a hard impact. All are in the vicinity of 12th magnitude (so require a decent-sized mirror), and all are also moving at a sufficiently fast clip that their paths can be seen to change over several observing sessions (if, by miracle, enough clear days in a row can be had to make these measurements). I have highlighted the five prominent ones in the image below.

Is it an oddity to have Orion so full of asteroids? Certainly not! Orion is placed near the ecliptic, the apparent path of the planets in their motion around the Sun. Orion's club just barely grazes the ecliptic at the Gemini/Taurus border, two of the 12 Constellations of the Zodiac, the collection of Constellations that themselves mark the ecliptic. As nearly all of the objects in the Solar System lie near or within the disc of the Solar System, you expect to find all manner of smaller objects in the vicinity of the Zodiacal Constellations. In effect, Orion's club is kicking up different dust all year long as the asteroids orbit the Sun. You only have a few more weeks to watch the action happen before Orion's return in the very early early morning of the very late summer.

– Happy Hunting, Damian