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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Observational Astronomy in action

Thursday, July 1, 2010

To quote the oft-quoted newspaper writer's summation ... "A good time was had by all."

That about sums up the experience for those attending the first Observational Astronomy class at the extended campus of Mid-Planes Community College. Although the teacher was kind of long-winded and sometimes quite boring.

We had a couple of hours inside going over some basics and looking at the computer-generated planetarium, and then went outside, to what will become our favorite dark-sky place, for some viewing.

We were hampered a bit by the soon-rising full moon, but managed some orientation work. We concluded with a spectacular overfly of the International Space Station. As the credit card company says, "Priceless."

Our next session will be July 28 out at our viewing location. We will be looking at some summer constellations and some of the Messier objects located in the south. You can still come out and join us. The class will last for three more sessions and we would be happy to have you join us.

With summer officially here, the Summer Triangle, Deneb, Vega, and Altair, is quite visible just above the eastern horizon. Start looking about an hour after sunset.

Vega, the brightest star in Lyra, the Harp is the highest. The lower left corner is anchored by Deneb, and across the bottom of the triangle to the right is Altair in Aquila, the Eagle.

Vega, also known as Alpha Cygni, is a double star the fifth brightest star in the night sky. It is located about 25 light years away and was the focus of the movie "Contact" several years ago. Astronomers think Vega has a Jupiter-sized planet orbiting around it.

Twelve thousand years, ago Vega was the North Star and, because Earth wobbles on its axis like a spinning top the direction the axis points also wobbles, Vega will be the pole star again in the year 13,727. Don't hold your breath.

The second of our triangle stars is Deneb, the tail star of Cygnus, the Swan. In fact, in Arabic Deneb means "tail." It is the 19th brightest star in the night sky and is located about 1,300 light years away. If you are a "Star Trek" fan, now you know where the Denubian Slime Devils come from.

There are several other "tail" stars in our night sky. Deneb Kaitos, the tail star in Cetus, the Whale. Deneb Algedi, the tail of Capricornus, the Sea Goat, and Denebola, the tail of our old friend, Leo, the Lion.

Altair, also known as Alpha Aquilae, is the 12th brightest star in the night sky. It is located about 17 light years away and is eleven times brighter than our sun and has almost twice the mass.

The Arabic name for Altair means "Flying Eagle." In several other ancient cultures Altair was also associated with eagles.


The constellations of spring are rapidly leaving our evening sky and just as rapidly are being replaced with the star of summer. In addition to the Summer Triangle the true stars of summer are showing up in the south these warm evenings. The leader of that parade is Scorpius, the Scorpion. The unmistakable fishhook shape is located high in the south in the early evening. Its brightest star is Antares, the rival of Mars. A quick look with binoculars or a small telescope will reveal the reddish color which gave rise to the idea it was indeed the rival of the planet Mars. The area around Scorpius is a wonderful hunting ground for lots of faint fuzzies. The center of our Milky Way galaxy is in that general direction so there are lots of things to look at and for. Happy Hunting


Sagittarius and a tongue twister, and more astronomical blathering.

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