A sextant is a tool for measuring the angular altitude of a star above the horizon and has helped guide sailors across oceans for centuries. It is now being tested aboard the International Space Station as a potential emergency navigation tool for guiding future spacecraft across the cosmos. The Sextant Navigation investigation will test the use of a hand-held sextant that utilizes star sighting in microgravity.
Our flying observatory SOFIA carries a telescope inside this Boeing 747SP aircraft. Scientists use SOFIA to study the universe — including stars, planets and black holes — while flying as high as 45,000 feet.
SOFIA is typically based at our Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California, but recently arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand, to study celestial objects that are best observed from the Southern Hemisphere.
So what will we study from the land down under?
Eta Carinae, in the southern constellation Carina, is the most luminous stellar system within 10,000 light-years of Earth. It’s made of two massive stars that are shrouded in dust and gas from its previous eruptions and may one day explode as a supernova. We will analyze the dust and gas around it to learn how this violent system evolves.
Celestial Magnetic Fields
We can study magnetic fields in the center of our Milky Way galaxy from New Zealand because there the galaxy is high in the sky — where we can observe it for long periods of time. We know that this area has strong magnetic fields that affect the material spiraling into the black hole here and forming new stars. But we want to learn about their shape and strength to understand how magnetic fields affect the processes in our galactic center.
Saturn’s Moon Titan
Titan is Saturn’s largest moon and is the only moon in our solar system to have a thick atmosphere — it’s filled with a smog-like haze. It also has seasons, each lasting about seven Earth years. We want to learn if its atmosphere changes seasonally.
Titan will pass in front of a star in an eclipse-like event called an occultation. We’ll chase down the shadow it casts on Earth’s surface, and fly our airborne telescope directly in its center.
From there, we can determine the temperature, pressure and density of Titan’s atmosphere. Now that our Cassini Spacecraft has ended its mission, the only way we can continue to monitor its atmosphere is by studying these occultation events.
The Large Magellanic Cloud is a galaxy near our own, but it’s only visible from the Southern Hemisphere! Inside of it are areas filled with newly forming stars and the leftovers from a supernova explosion.
The Tarantula Nebula
The Tarantula Nebula, also called 30 Doradus, is located in the Large Magellanic Cloud and shown here in this image from Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer. It holds a cluster of thousands of stars forming simultaneously. Once the stars are born, their light and winds push out the material leftover from their parent clouds — potentially leaving nothing behind to create more new stars. We want to know if the material is still expanding and forming new stars, or if the star-formation process has stopped. So our team on SOFIA will make a map showing the speed and direction of the gas in the nebula to determine what’s happening inside it.
Also in the Large Magellanic Cloud is Supernova 1987A, the closest supernova explosion witnessed in almost 400 years. We will continue studying this supernova to better understand the material expanding out from it, which may become the building blocks of future stars and planets. Many of our telescopes have studied Supernova 1987A, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, but our instruments on SOFIA are the only tools we can use to study the debris around it with infrared light, which let us better understand characteristics of the dust that cannot be measured using other wavelengths of light.
Jupiter and Venus at sunset, Mars, Saturn and Vesta until dawn.
First up is Venus. It reaches its highest sunset altitude for the year this month and sets more than two hours after sunset.
You can’t miss Jupiter, only a month after its opposition–when Earth was directly between Jupiter and the Sun.
The best time to observe Jupiter through a telescope is 10:30 p.m. at the beginning of the month and as soon as it’s dark by the end of the month.
Just aim your binoculars at the bright planet for a view including the four Galilean moons. Or just enjoy Jupiter with your unaided eye!
Saturn is at opposition June 27th, when it and the Sun are on opposite sides of Earth. It rises at sunset and sets at sunrise. Great Saturn viewing will last several more months. The best views this month will be just after midnight.
All year, the rings have been tilted wide open–almost 26 degrees wide this month–giving us a great view of Saturn’s distinctive rings.
The tilt offers us a view of the north polar region, so exquisitely imaged by the Cassini spacecraft.
Near Saturn, the brightest asteroid–Vesta–is so bright that it can be seen with your unaided eye. It will be visible for several months.
A detailed star chart will help you pick out the asteroid from the stars. The summer Milky way provides a glittery backdrop.
Finally, Mars grows dramatically in brightness and size this month and is visible by 10:30 p.m. by month end.
The best views are in the early morning hours. Earth’s closest approach with Mars is only a month away. It’s the closest Mars has been to us since 2003.
The Moon and Saturn meet Mars in the morning as our InSight spacecraft launches to the Red Planet on May 5!
You won’t want to miss red Mars in the southern morning skies this month.
InSight, our first mission to explore Mars’ deep interior, launches on May 5th with a launch window that begins at 4:05 a.m. PDT and lasts for two hours.
Some lucky viewers in central and southern California and even parts of the Mexican Pacific coast will get a chance to see the spacecraft launch with their unaided eyes AND its destination, Mars, at the same time.
Mars shines a little brighter than last month, as it approaches opposition on July 27th. That’s when Mars and the Sun will be on opposite sides of the Earth. This will be Mars’ closest approach to Earth since 2003!
Compare the planet’s increases in brightness with your own eyes between now and July 27th.
The Eta Aquarid meteor shower will be washed out by the Moon this month, but if you are awake for the InSight launch anyway, have a look. This shower is better viewed from the southern hemisphere, but medium rates of 10 to 30 meteors per hour MAY be seen before dawn.
Of course, you could travel to the South Pacific to see the shower at its best!
There’s no sharp peak to this shower–just several nights with good rates, centered on May 6th.
Jupiter reaches opposition on May 9th, heralding the best Jupiter-observing season, especially for mid-evening viewing. That’s because the king of the planets rises at sunset and sets at dawn.
Wait a few hours after sunset, when Jupiter is higher in the sky, for the best views. If you viewed Jupiter last month, expect the view to be even better this month!
SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP aircraft with a 100-inch telescope used to study the solar system and beyond by observing infrared light that can’t reach Earth’s surface.
What is infrared light? It’s light we cannot see with our eyes that is just beyond the red portion of visible light we see in a rainbow. It can be used to change your TV channels, which is how remote controls work, and it can tell us how hot things are.
Everything emits infrared radiation, even really cold objects like ice and newly forming stars! We use infrared light to study the life cycle of stars, the area around black holes, and to analyze the chemical fingerprints of complex molecules in space and in the atmospheres of other planets – including Pluto and Mars.
Above, is the highest-resolution image of the ring of dust and clouds around the back hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. The bright Y-shaped feature is believed to be material falling from the ring into the black hole – which is located where the arms of the Y intersect.
The magnetic field in the galaxy M82 (pictured above) aligns with the dramatic flow of material driven by a burst of star formation. This is helping us learn how star formation shapes magnetic fields of an entire galaxy.
A nearby planetary system around the star Epsilon Eridani, the location of the fictional Babylon 5 space station, is similar to our own: it’s the closest known planetary system around a star like our sun and it also has an asteroid belt adjacent to the orbit of its largest, Jupiter-sized planet.
Observations of a supernova that exploded 10,000 years ago, that revealed it contains enough dust to make 7,000 Earth-sized planets!
A gluttonous star that has eaten the equivalent of 18 Jupiters in the last 80 years, which may change the theory of how stars and planets form.
Molecules like those in your burnt breakfast toast may offer clues to the building blocks of life. Scientists hypothesize that the growth of complex organic molecules like these is one of the steps leading to the emergence of life.
This map of carbon molecules in Orion’s Horsehead nebula (overlaid on an image of the nebula from the Palomar Sky Survey) is helping us understand how the earliest generations of stars formed. Our instruments on SOFIA use 14 detectors simultaneously, letting us make this map faster than ever before!
Pinpointing the location of water vapor in a newly forming star with groundbreaking precision. This is expanding our understanding of the distribution of water in the universe and its eventual incorporation into planets. The water vapor data from SOFIA is shown above laid over an image from the Gemini Observatory.
We captured the chemical fingerprints that revealed celestial clouds collapsing to form young stars like our sun. It’s very rare to directly observe this collapse in motion because it happens so quickly. One of the places where the collapse was observed is shown in this image from The Two Micron All Sky Survey.
From our resident night sky expert, Jane Jones: If you can see Orion and Gemini in the sky, you’ll see some Geminids. Expect to see about 60 meteors per hour before midnight on Dec. 13 and from midnight-3:30 a.m. on Dec. 14 from a dark sky. You’ll see fewer meteors after moonrise at 3:30 a.m. local time. In the southern hemisphere, you won’t see as many, perhaps 10-20 per hour, because the radiant—the point in the sky where the meteor shower appears to originate—never rises above the horizon.
2. Viewing tips.
Kids can join in on the fun as early as 9 or 10 p.m. You’ll want to find an area well away from city or street lights. Come prepared for winter temperatures with a sleeping bag, blanket, or lawn chair. Lie flat on your back and look up, taking in as much of the sky as possible. After about 30 minutes in the dark, your eyes will adapt and you’ll begin to see meteors. Be patient—the show will last until dawn, so you have plenty of time to catch a glimpse.
3. Late bloomer.
The Geminids weren’t always such as a spectacular show. When they first began appearing in the mid-1800s, there were only 10-20 visible meteors per hour. Since then, the Geminids have grown to become one of the major showers of the year.
4. Remind me—where do meteor showers come from?
Meteors come from leftover comet particles and bits from asteroids. When these objects come around the Sun, they leave a dusty trail behind them. Every year, the Earth passes through these debris trails, which allows the bits to collide with our atmosphere, where they disintegrate to create fiery and colorful streaks in the sky.
5. That said…
While most meteor showers come from comets, the Geminids originate from an asteroid: 3200 Phaethon. Asteroid 3200 Phaethon takes 1.4 years to orbit the Sun once. It is possible that Phaethon is a “dead comet” or a new kind of object being discussed by astronomers called a “rock comet.” Phaethon’s comet-like, highly-elliptical orbit around the Sun supports this hypothesis. That said, scientists aren’t too sure how to define Phaethon. When it passes by the Sun, it doesn’t develop a cometary tail, and its spectra looks like a rocky asteroid. Also, the bits and pieces that break off to form the Geminid meteoroids are several times denser than cometary dust flakes.
6. Tell me more.
3200 Phaethon was discovered on Oct. 11, 1983 by the Infrared Astronomical Satellite. Because of its close approach to the Sun, Phaethon is named after the Greek mythological character who drove the Sun-god Helios’ chariot. Phaethon is a small asteroid: its diameter measures only 3.17 miles (5.10 kilometers) across. And we have astronomer Fred Whipple to thank—he realized that Phaethon is the source for the Geminids.
7. A tale of twins.
The Geminids’ radiant is the constellation Gemini, a.k.a. the “Twins.” And, of course, the constellation of Gemini is also where we get the name for the shower: Geminids.
8. In case you didn’t know.
The constellation for which a meteor shower is named only helps stargazers determine which shower they’re viewing on a given night; the constellation is not the source of the meteors. Also, don’t just look to the constellation of Gemini to view the Geminids—they’re visible throughout the night sky.
9. And in case you miss the show.
There’s a second meteor shower in December: the Ursids, radiating from Ursa Minor, the Little Dipper. If Dec. 22 and the morning of Dec. 23 are clear where you are, have a look at the Little Dipper’s bowl—you might see about 10 meteors per hour.
Dawn pairing of Jupiter and Venus, Moon shines near star clusters, meteor activity all month long!
This month binoculars will come in handy–to view the moon, star clusters, and a close pairing of Venus and Jupiter.
You can’t miss bright Venus in the predawn sky. This month Venus pairs up with Jupiter on the morning of November 13th.
The Leonids peak on a moonless November 17th. Expect no more than 10 meteors an hour around 3:00 a.m., the height of the shower.
The Northern and Southern sub-branches of the Taurid meteor shower offer sparse counts of about 5 meteors per hour, but slow, bright meteors are common.
The nearby November Orionids peak on the 28th. In contrast to the Taurids, the Orionids are swift. But don’t expect more than 3 meteors per hour.
The moon glides by three beautiful star clusters in the morning sky this month, and a pair of binoculars will allow you to see the individual stars in the clusters. Aim your binoculars at the Pleiades and the moon on the 5th.
Then aim at the Messier or M-35 cluster and the moon on the 7th and the Beehive cluster and the moon on the 10th.
Meanwhile, at dusk, catch Saturn as it dips closer to the western horizon and pairs up with Mercury on the 24th through the 28th.
Also, Comet C/2017 O1 should still be a binocular-friendly magnitude 7 or 8 greenish object in November. Use Polaris, the North Star as a guide. Look in the East to Northeast sky in the late evening.
View these celestial beauties taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and released as a set of views in a modern day “Messier Catalog.”
Spotting comets was all the rage in the middle of the 18th century, and at the forefront of the comet hunt was a young French astronomer named Charles Messier. In 1774, in an effort to help fellow comet seekers steer clear of astronomical objects that were not comets (something that frustrated his own search for these elusive entities), Messier published the first version of his “Catalog of Nebulae and Star Clusters,” a collection of celestial objects that weren’t comets and should be avoided during comet hunting. Today, rather than avoiding these objects, many amateur astronomers actively seek them out as interesting targets to observe with backyard telescopes, binoculars or sometimes even with the naked eye.
Hubble’s version of the Messier catalog includes eight newly processed images never before released by NASA. The images were extracted from more than 1.3 million observations that now reside in the Hubble data archive. Some of these images represent the first Hubble views of the objects, while others include newer, higher resolution images taken with Hubble’s latest cameras.
Planet Pairs, Stellar Superstars, Observe The Moon Night!!
This month, catch planet pairs, our moon near red stars, an asteroid, meteors and International Observe the Moon Night!
You can’t miss bright Venus in the predawn sky. Look for fainter Mars below Venus on the 1st, really close on the 5th, and above Venus after that.
Midmonth, the moon is visible near Regulus, the white starry heart of the constellation Leo.
In the October 8-11 predawn sky watch the moon glide near the Pleiades star cluster and pass near the red stars Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus and Betelgeuse in Orion.
After dusk in the early part of the month look for Saturn in the southwest sky above another red star: Antares in Scorpius. Later in the month, find the moon above Antares October 22 and 23.
Saturn will be above the moon on the 23rd and below it on the 24th.
Uranus reach opposition on October 19th. It’s visible all night long and its blue-green color is unmistakeable. It may be bright enough to see with your naked eye–and for sure in binoculars.
The Orionids peak on October 20–a dark, moonless night. Look near Orion’s club in the hours before dawn and you may see up to 10 to 15 meteors per hour.
Use binoculars to look for bright asteroid 7 Iris in the constellation Aries. Newbies to astronomy should be able to spot this magnitude 6.9 asteroid – even from the city.
Look later in the month and sketch its positions a day or two apart–to see it move.
Finally, celebrate International Observe the Moon Night on October 28 with your local astronomy club, Solar System Ambassador, museum, or planetarium. The first quarter moon that night will display some great features!
Set your sights beyond the solar system and take a late summertime road trip along the Milky Way!
On September 15 the Cassini spacecraft ends its glorious Saturnian science tour by plunging into the atmosphere of Saturn, becoming forever a part of the ringed planet. Learn more about the end of mission activities HERE.
This month Saturn is the only prominent evening planet low in the southwest sky.
Look for it near the constellation Sagittarius. Above and below Saturn–from a dark sky–you can’t miss the summer Milky Way spanning the sky from northeast to southwest.
Grab a pair of binoculars and scan the teapot-shaped Sagittarius, where stars and some brighter clumps appear as steam from the teapot. Those bright clumps are near the center of our galaxy, which is full of gas, dust and stars.
Directly overhead is the great Summer Triangle of stars. Vega, Altair and Deneb are in the pretty constellations Lyra, Aquila and Cygnus.
As you gaze toward the northeast you’ll see Cassiopeia, the familiar W-shaped constellation…and Perseus. Through your binoculars, look for the Perseus Double Cluster. Both of the clusters are visible with the naked eye, are 7500 light years away, and contain more than 300 blue-white super-giant stars!
Every star and every object you can see with your unaided eye is part of the Milky Way. With one exception: the great Andromeda galaxy, which is faintly visible through binoculars on the opposite side of the night sky from Saturn and the teapot.