21 July 2015

Southern Summer Skies

Facing South in the Summer
Facing south in the summer reveals a rich region of the night sky featuring the heart of the Milky Way and several excellent zodiac constellations. If you have a clear horizon to the south, the constellation Scorpius dominates the space with a long curving shape that winds around the horizon back to the tip of the tail of the scorpion, a feature called the Cat's Eyes, Shaula and Lesath.

For the next few months, Saturn is lurking next to the head of the scorpion, adding a bright highlight to the pattern. Scorpius and neighboring Sagittarius (to the east) are found directly in the center of the galaxy so there are numerous deep space objects to be found in the vicinity, making it one of the best places to enjoy with binoculars. You can move from spot to spot and never run out of interesting objects to see. This week the gibbous Moon drifts through that region of the sky so the darkness will be somewhat spoiled, but I find it good to get to know constellations when there is moonlight as well as when you have complete darkness. With moonlight you can learn the basic outline of the constellation, and without moonlight the deeper objects will emerge and reveal themselves to the careful viewer.

Image courtesy Sky & Telescope. 

13 July 2015

Pluto and New Horizons

As an amateur astronomer, Pluto is a tantalizing target to find, but one that is quite out of reach for all except the most committed amateur astronomers with the best possible equipment. And even if you locate it in a telescope it will be an extremely faint pinprick of light. So it has never entered my interest until this week. Instead of viewing it from a distance, humanity has finally launched a probe to fly by the planet (ok, dwarf planet) and offer up a close-up during its close passage.

Almost 10 years after launching, New Horizons arrives at Pluto this week. The initial pictures are promising, and I am confident we will be overwhelmed with new data and new discoveries in the days ahead, and in the weeks and months that follow as the vast collection of sensor data is gradually transmitted back to Earth. I loved every major interplanetary mission growing up, watching Pioneer and Voyager vastly expand our knowledge of the Solar System. New Horizons will provide the icing on the interplanetary cake; with our first ever close up of a dwarf planet and a peek into the Kuiper Belt.

Stay tuned to NASA for a busy week of discovery: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/index.html