The University of Arizona

Skywatcher's Guides

Flandrau’s Observatory is operated entirely by volunteers. Please call ahead to see if the observatory is open (generally Thurs-Sat 7pm – 10pm). Our astronomer volunteers will help you experience the 16-inch telescope as well as answer your questions about the night sky.

Written by: Lucas Snyder (Flandrau Planetarium Operator)
Images contributed by: Tim Van DevenderAlistair Symon (Flandrau Telescope Operators), Nine Planets, and Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS)

Navigationphoto by Tim Van Devender

Stars and Constellations

In December, the summer constellations are still visible for the first few hours of the night towards the west.  The Summer Triangle is still fairly high, with Vega heading to the west-northwest, Deneb closest to the zenith, and Altair in the west-southwest.  The center of the Milky Way is now below the horizon, but there is still a good portion of our galaxy we can see streaking high across the sky. The fall sky is now very prominent, getting high in the eastern sky.  The "W" of Cassiopeia is very high in the north-northeast. In the absence of the Big Dipper (part of our spring sky) Cassiopeia can be used to locate the north star: The top (open side) of the "W" faces to the north, so in that direction look for a star about the same brightness as the main stars in Casssiopeia, and that will most likely be Polaris.  Next, the Great Square of Pegasus is nearly in the middle of the sky.  Andromeda is nearby in the northeast, with Perseus just below.  There is also a fairly bright star called Fomalhaut in the south, though its constellation Piscis Austrinus is not easy to distinguish.  Finally, the winter sky is beginning to come up along the eastern horizon.  Taurus the bull is now up in the east with the bright star Aldebaran and the Pleiades (aka the seven sisters or Subaru) star cluster.  Auriga the charioteer is also up in the northeast, with the bright star Capella.

 

In January, the summer constellations are now very low in the west.  Deneb is the highest point of the Summer Triangle in the northwest, with Vega below near the horizon, and Altair more towards the west.  The Milky Way continues to streak across the sky, though the summer portion is now giving way to the winter portion.  The fall constellations are now right in the middle of the sky.  More of the winter constellations are now up, most notably Orion the hunter in the east below Taurus.  Gemini the twins are also up in the east-northeast just below Auriga.

 

 Interesting Stars to Observe

Name / Designation

Apparent Magnitude
(lower = brighter)

Distance

(light-years)

Notes

Sirius

-1.44

8.6

 

Arcturus

-0.05

36.7

 

Vega

0.03

25

 

Capella

0.08

42

 

Rigel

0.18

770

 

Procyon

0.4

11

 

Betelgeuse

0.45

427

 

Altair

0.76

17

 

Aldeberan

0.87

65

 

Pollux

1.16

38

 

Markab

1.25

140

 

Deneb

1.25

3230

 

Regulus

1.36

77

means "Little King"

Castor

1.58

52

 

Polaris

1.97

431

 

Alpheratz or Sirrah

2.07

97

 

Mirach

2.07

199

 

Algol

2.09

93

variable star

Denebola

2.14

36.2

 

Enif

2.38

670

 

Almak

2.1 / 5.0 & 6.3

355

 triple star system w/ 64 yr orbit

Albireo

3.2 / 5.8 & 5.1

390 / 380

 possibly a triple star system

Eta Cassiopeiae

3.5 / 7.4

19

480 yr orbit

 

Solar System

Mars is still low in the southwest, and is only visible at the beginning of the night.  It is moving through Capricornus and into Aquarius.

 

Venus is now visible low in the west-southwest after sunset.

 

Jupiter is rising earlier each night, around 11pm in early December and 6:30pm by the end of January.  It is just in front of Leo the Lion.

 

Saturn is emerging from behind the sun and will be visible in the morning before sunrise near the claws or Scorpius.

 

Mercury will be emerging from behind the sun in early December and visible in the morning sky before sunrise.  It will be at its greatest elongation (angular separation from the sun) in mid-January and then quickly passing between us and the sun by the end of the month.

 

Jupiter Great Red Spot Transits during December and January (when the Flandrau dome is open)

NOTE: The GRS is visible on the disk of Jupiter for 50 minutes before and after meridian transit time.

Date

Meridian Transit Time

01/10/15

08:14 PM

01/15/15

07:21 PM

01/17/15

08:59 PM

01/22/15

08:06 PM

01/24/15

09:44 PM

01/29/15

08:51 PM

 

Calendar of Night Sky Events during October and November

 

12/06/14

Full Moon.

12/08/14

Mercury at superior conjunction. Hidden behind the sun.

12/14/14

Peak of Geminids meteor shower. One of the best showers of the year.

12/14/14

Last quarter moon.

12/21/14

Earth at southern solstice. The beginning of our Winter.

12/21/14

New Moon.

12/28/14

First Quarter Moon.

01/03/15

Pluto at conjunction. Behind the sun.

01/03/15

Earth at perihelion. This is the closest we get to the sun for the year.

01/04/15

Full Moon.

01/10/15

Mercury and Venus in conjunction. Separated by only 0.6°.

01/11/15

Comet Lovejoy at brightest. Should be visible with the naked eye in the constellation Taurus.

01/13/15

Last Quarter Moon.

01/14/15

Mercury at greatest eastern elongation. Visible in the evenings after sunset.

01/19/15

Mars in conjunction with Neptune. Separated by only 0.2°.

01/20/15

New Moon.

01/26/15

First Quarter Moon.

01/30/15

Mercury at inferior conjunction. Between us and the sun.

 

Deep Sky

The summer Milky Way is now partially below the horizon at the beginning of the night, but the winter Milky Way is getting more and more prominent.  There are many open star clusters that can be seen with only binoculars scanning this part of the sky.  For example we have the asterism of the Coathanger between Aquila and Cygnus in the fainter constellation of Vulpecula.  The Pleiades (M45) is visible naked-eye in the east just above the face of Taurus which itself is another cluster called the Hyades.  We also have the Double Cluster in Perseus high in the north-northeast.  Finally, the constellation of Auriga in the northeast contains M36, M37, and M38 in close proximity.

 

There aren't as many globular clusters we can see this time of year, but there are still a few.  M15 is visible near the head of Pegasus in the west-southwest.  The next brightest one is M2 in Aquarius to the southwest.

 

For nebulae, we have several in the plane of the galaxy, one of which is the North America Nebula (C20) to the west-northwest in Cygnus.  The spectacular Orion Nebula (M42) is now just rising at the beginning of the night in the east. For planetary nebulae we have the Ring Nebula (M57) in Lyra, the Dumbell Nebula (M27) in Vulpecula, and the Blue Snowball (C22) in Andromeda.

 

And now the galaxies:  Our neighbor the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is now very high in the middle of the sky and is visible on dark nights with the naked eye.  Also nearby is the Triangulum Galaxy (M33), visible with binoculars.

 

 Interesting Deep Sky Objects to Observe during October and November

Designation

Name

Apparent Magnitude

Apparent Size

Distance

(light-years)

Type

Messier 45

Pleiades

1.6

110'

440

open cluster

Messier 31

Andromeda Galaxy

3.4

3° x 1°

2,900,000

spiral galaxy

Messier 44

Beehive Cluster

3.7

95'

577

open cluster

Messier 42

Orion Nebula

4

85' x 60'

1400-1600

diffuse nebula

Messier 33

Triangulum Galaxy

5.7

67' x 42'

3,000,000

spiral galaxy

NGC 7293

Helix Nebula

7.3

16'

450

planetary nebula

Messier 27

Dumbbell Nebula

7.4

8' × 6'

1,250

planetary nebula

NGC 7009

Saturn Nebula

8

36"

2,400

planetary nebula

Messier 81

Bode's Galaxy

8.5

21'

1,200,000

spiral galaxy

Messier 57

Ring Nebula

8.8

1'

2,300

planetary nebula

Messier 82

Cigar Galaxy

9.5

14'

1,200,000

galaxy

 

Frequently Asked Questions – Is there life in space?

The earth is completely full of life.  Everywhere we look, we find life, even in extreme places where you wouldn't expect it.  So it makes sense to wonder if life might be prolific throughout the universe as well.  While we haven't made the big discovery of life on another planet, we have found the building blocks necessary to support it.  For example, we have found organic compounds on comets, which may explain how those building blocks came to earth in the first place.  Looking farther out in space, we have also found those organic compounds in star-forming nebulae, which means the conditions that led to life on earth may be common throughout our universe.

 

When we started launching spacecraft to other objects in the solar system in the 1960s, we were surprised to find them completely desolate and devoid of (obvious) life.  This discovery completey revolutionized our understanding of our place in the cosmos, but it did not dissuade us completely from considering the existence of life outside of earth.  Our present space missions continue to search for signatures of past or present life.

 

We have been scientifically looking for signals of intelligent life since 1960, and some informal observations had been done as early as the 1890s.  In all that time, we have not found any definitive proof that someone is out there trying to communicate with us.  However, there have been several moments where we thought we had detected something.  Most of these have been proven to be natural phenomena such as pulsars, but a few remain unexplained.  The problem, though, is that these mysterious signals were only detected once, and have not been found again.

 

For all the spacecraft we have sent out into the solar system, we have placed them through procedures to remove any potential life forms that try to hitch a ride to another planet.  However, we have found bacteria able to survive our decontamination process, so it is possible that we could have inadvertently contaminted other planetary bodies with earth stowaways.  Experiments have shown that these bacteria could survive for a long time, but it is not known if they could thrive and proliferate an entire planet.

 

Discoveries of vast numbers of exoplanets (planets not orbiting our sun) in recent years has bolstered the notion that we are not alone in space.  We now think there are as many planets out there are as there are stars, so with that many possibilities, even if life is relatively rare, there statistically have to be some planets out there with life.  It is just a matter of time until we find that proof we've been looking for.

 

If you have any questions you'd like me to answer in the next issue of SWG, please let me know.  I'm also happy to take suggestions or comments, and also pictures if you'd like to send them.  Happy viewing!

 

Table of Images (Click on an image to expand)

Sketches and Images - Image Credit (Tim Van Devender)

Mars

Mars

Saturn

Saturn

Jupiter

Jupiter

The Moon

The Moon

Jupiter and Io Moon Shadow

Jupiter and Io Moon Shadow

Messier 45 (Pleiades)

M45

NGC 884 and NGC 869 - Perseus Double Cluster

NGC 884 and NGC 869 - Perseus Double Cluster

NGC 2024 - The Horsehead and Flame Nebulae

NGC 2024 - The Horsehead and Flame Nebulae

NGC 2237 - The Rosette Nebula

NGC 2237 - The Rosette Nebula

NGC 2264

NGC 2264

Images from Alistair Symon
Messier 27 (Dumbbell Nebula)

M27

Mssier 31 (Andromeda Galaxy)

M31

Messier 33 (Triangulum Galaxy)

M33

Messier 45 (Pleiades)

M45

Messier 57 (Ring Nebula)

M57

Images from Nine Planets
Jupiter

Jupiter

The Moon

The Moon

Images from SEDS
Messier 13 (Hercules Globular Cluster)

M13

Messier 15

M15

Messier 27 (Dumbbell Nebula)

M27

Messier 31 (Andromeda Galaxy)

M31

Messier 33 (Triangulum Galaxy)

M33

Messier 44 (Beehive Cluster)

M44

Messier 45 (Pleiades)

M45

Messier 57 (Ring Nebula)

M57

NGC 7009 (The Saturn Nebula)

NGC 7009

NGC 7293 (The Helix Nebula)

NGC 7293

 

Bibliography

Cornelius, Geoffrey. The Starlore Handbook: an Essential Guide to the Night Sky. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle, 1997. Print.

Ottewell, Guy. Astronomical Calendar 2012. Raynham, Mass: Universal Workshop, 2011. Print.

Ottewell, Guy. Astronomical Calendar 2013. Raynham, Mass: Universal Workshop, 2012. Print.

Ottewell, Guy. The Astronomical Companion. 2nd ed. Raynham, Mass: Universal Workshop, 2010. Print.

 

Astronomy Magazine. February 2013. Volume 41, No 2.

Astronomy Magazine. February 2013. Volume 41, No 3.

Sky & Telescope. February 2013. Volume 125, No 2.

Sky & Telescope. March 2013. Volume 125, No 3.