U.S. crew capsules back in space

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Kudos first of all to the folks at NASA for the successful launch, orbit, and recovery of the latest generation of space vehicle, the Orion Crew Capsule. This vehicle will hopefully be the one that enables astronauts to travel to Mars or an asteroid and back.

As for what is going on in our local skies, Mars is still the "Little planet that won't go away." It is still hanging above the southwest horizon after sunset and will continue to do so until March of next year.

It will be joined by the giant Jupiter after 10:30 p.m. MDT (as well as the moon). If you want to see Saturn you will need to wait until before sunrise looking east.

In case you were wondering, the bright, twinkly, star in the northeast about an hour or so after sunset is the star Capella, the brightest star in the sort of rectangle-shaped constellation Auriga, the Charioteer.

If you were not wondering, now you can go out and take a look for it. The best time will be about 7:30 p.m. MDT, that is also about the time Orion will be totally above the eastern horizon.

Since you will be outside -- dressed warmly I hope -- find our old friend Cassiopeia.

Look north almost overhead for the group of stars in the shape of the letter, "M," that is our girl. Now look just to the right for another constellation, or better yet, look east to find Orion, above Orion is Taurus, then another group of stars looking a little like the letter, "A."

That is Perseus, now for our "gem" of the week. Between Cassiopeia and Perseus is a delightful binocular view of the Perseus double-cluster. If you have a very dark sky you may be able to see it with just the eyes, but binoculars improve the view greatly.

Now, for something completely different; Christmas is a-coming and while the goose may be getting fat, the thoughts of what gift to get for your astronomically minded friend, child, husband, wife, or all of the above.

I usually shy away from recommendations concerning telescopes because the variety is so great and that kind of decision requires some special thought considering age, location, availability, and abilities of the receiver.

However, I can, and do, recommend books about astronomy which any person so directed will find of some use and joy even though the skies are cloudy.

The first recommendation is a great book titled, "365 Starry Nights" by Chet Raymo. It is chocked full of information and ideas about astronomy. And, as the title suggests, it is a gift that will give all year long.

The second book I would recommend is "Turn Left at Orion," by Guy Consolmagno and Dan M. Davis. In addition to terrific astronomical advice, the authors present very realistic depictions of what to expect when looking through the eyepiece.

Young astronomers often expect to see the grand multi-colored views like presented in photographic representations not realizing those photos are the results of hours of imaging and processing.

In reality, what is seen is often dim and gray, that is one of the major reasons I like the book.

At the risk of doing a commercial, both books can be found on Amazon, or even other on-line resources.

If you are going to insist on an optical gift my recommendation would be a really good, quality pair of binoculars. After all, what you get with them is essentially two small telescopes.

SKYWATCH: Third-quarter moon, Sunday, Dec. 14.

NEXT WEEK: More all I want for Christmas and other astronomical blathering.

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