Explore the Night Sky

Interested in a bit of winter stargazing? Virginia Renehan and Nanette Benoit, teaching assistants for the astronomy course Moons and Planets, offer tips for observing the night sky over the next couple of months, and where you can go to further explore astronomy.

Look up in the sky! It’s a ...

The nighttime features you see in the winter sky aren’t the same as the ones you see in the summer. Constellations come and go with seasons. And other phenomenons of the night change with each month.

November sightings

Leonid Shower

Leonid meteor shower

The winter constellations Orion, Leo, and Taurus arrive in November. And you can say goodbye to the Summer Triangle.

This month also brings the Leonid meteor shower on the night of November 16, as the Earth moves through the particles left behind by the Comet Tempel-Tuttle. It’s a good time to view the meteor shower because the Moon will only be a crescent in the evening. This meteor shower earns its name from its apparent point of origin, or radiant, in the Leo constellation.

December sightings

On December 12 and 13, the Geminid meteor shower should be great, given there will be no bright moon to wash out the view. The December Geminids, along with the Quadrantids in January, are the only meteor showers not generated by comet debris—but instead by bits of an asteroid or other orbiting body.

Geminid Shower

Geminid meteor shower

Anytime, anywhere all winter long

Look for Venus in the early hours before dawn. It will appear as the brightest star in the east-southeast part of the sky. Jupiter will rise in the east after sunset. It will also appear as a bright star. Both Venus and Jupiter are visible to the naked eye. Uranus and Neptune are well placed in the southern sky after sunset, but you’ll need a telescope to see them.

The best times to view the Moon are when it’s less than half full or past full and waning. The full moon is so bright that all the details of the craters and highlands disappear. There’s no shadow to bring contrast to the view.

You can get a sky finder chart and download a free map for any given month. The second page of the map lists all the visible planets, moon phases, and celestial happenings for the month.

Enjoy the night sky without an astronomical fee

The night sky is a lot of fun without a telescope. It’s fairly easy to use a simple sky chart for each month of the year to enjoy the visible planets, major constellations, and the Moon.

Of course, if you have binoculars, that makes looking at the Moon more interesting, as you can see its craters and mountains. Smaller constellations like the Pleiades look nice through binoculars. They resemble brilliant diamonds on black velvet.

You can see satellites streaking across the sky most nights if you’re in a dark location. Look for a small pinpoint, moving fairly fast without blinking (blinking lights mean it’s an airplane), and positioned pretty high in the sky. You can find a schedule of where the International Space Station is at any given time. The station is extremely bright and fun to watch as it whizzes across the sky.

Astronomy is best shared with friends and other enthusiasts. Try contacting a local amateur astronomy club. You don’t need a telescope. Amateur astronomers love to share photos, as well as their knowledge of the night sky.

In the Boston area you can contact the following groups for stargazing buddies:

Curiosity didn’t kill the cat. It explored Mars!

The Mars Curiosity rover is an exciting mission, demonstrating a string of successful firsts in the space exploration program. NASA has long been committed to moving forward in near-Earth and long-distance space exploration. The Mars rover missions are just a few of the successful tools in NASA’s toolbox.

Leonid Shower

Curiosity’s Self-Portrait

So far, Curiosity discovered there was evidence of a stream on Mars, which means the planet possibly had a wetter environment, a denser atmosphere that would allow for rain, the presence of liquid water, and a more temperate climate. We already knew from the previous Phoenix lander that there is still frozen water on Mars at the poles.

All great science is built on the shoulders of those that came before. Curiosity is an important step forward for NASA and space exploration. It has demonstrated major new technologies, and has taken far less money and far less time from idea to landing than the Moon landings.

But that’s the economy of scale—the longer we go at this business of space science and exploration, the more we can do with what we know and can build. We are able to better capitalize on current technology, and the development of new technologies takes less time and resources.

Smartphones on Mars?

As innovations continue, it’s not hard to fathom that some day we may be tweeting from Mars. For fun, Virginia and Nanette told us what they would tweet from the new frontier of the Red Planet.