To go back one season, click here to see Autumn 2013 "Eyes on the Sky" astronomy videos.
The Moon went through several periods of bombardment that created various surface features we can see today. Some of the earliest, and largest ones were the one that crated the maria, the dark, lava-filled areas we see on the Moon. A middle period crated many of the craters visible in the southern highlands. But the most recent period, between 1.1 billion years ago and the present, created some of the younger craters we see. These ones threw out lunar surface material that is lighter than that which was around longer, and darkened by the solar wind and other processes.
That lighter ejecta material is what makes craters like Copernicus, Tycho, Aristarchus stand out as brighter and with such good contrast against those darker, older backgrounds. Learn more about where to find and observe these craters this week. Most any small telescope of even 50mm or larger can show these features, and even simple binoculars can reveal the lighter crater rays.
Over the last two weeks Eyes on the Sky looked at some of the closest naked-eye stars in the winter sky. This week is about a VERY far off star - Tau Canis Majoris - and an open cluster that either surrounds it, or happens to be in the same line of sight from earth: NGC 2362. Learn about these fascinating objects in the night sky, and where you can easily find them while pondering their distance and other amazing facets.
To find Tau CMa and NGC 2362, see Star Chart #15.
Last week Eyes on the Sky looked at the closest naked-eye stars in the winter sky. This week it continues at 30 light years distance, and moves out to ~50 light years - similar to being in the same medium-sized-city region of our galaxy. Beginning where we left off in Orion at Chi Orionis, the "nearest naked eye stars" hops over to Cetus to a "young, Sun-like star," then continues over in Gemini with Pollux and Castor, and finishes in Auriga with Capella and an "older, Sun-like star."
To find Kappa 1 Ceti, see Star Chart #8.
To find Chi 1 Orionis, Castor, Pollux, Capella & Lambda Aurigae, see Star Chart #3.
Many amateur astronomers are interested in, "What's farthest?" or "What's largest?" Well, what about "What's nearest?" Most are aware that the Alpha Centauri star system is closest to Earth, at 4.3 light years. But what other stars? Unfortunately, a good many of those stars are small, and quite faint. However, there are a number that are in our "stellar neighborhood" that can be seen naked eye from most places, or at least found with the aid of binoculars.
Check out the video above to learn what other stars besides Sirius are not-all-that-far from Earth and our Sun, and where you can find a lot of them in the winter sky. Need a star chart? Here's a "Winter Guide to Nearby Naked Eye Stars."
Check out the newest dark sky reserve and dark sky community
Mars is nearing it's opposition with the Earth and Sun on April 8. Because of the nearly two years long orbital period of Mars, we don't get a good look at the planet very often - one, because the planet is fairly small, and two, because we are not close to this small, rocky world but for a few months every two years. Despite the small size of 10 arc seconds in angular diameter this week, now is a good time to start looking at the Red Planet. Learning how to discern detail on the small disk now will train your eye to see more when the disk increases by 33% over the next two months.
And why is that plane "flying" from Earth to Mars? Well, you'll just have to watch the video to find out!
The Moon offers up a variety of things to see, which changes by the hour, even! This week, look for some interestingly-shaped craters like Gutenberg, prominent mountains like Mons Hadley, or unusually straight features like Rupes Recta. The Moon serves up all of these, and more, throughout this week. And most any small telescope can show these features too, except for perhaps the smallest craters, like Gutenberg A.
The Lunar X can be seen well by those in the western part of the United States close to and somewhat after midnight on Feb 6; European observers that align with Universal Time can see it in the pre-dawn hours. More info on observing the Lunar X at this link.
Last week, a supernova was discovered in nearby galaxy Messier 82. And not just any supernova, but a Type 1a supernova. This is important because 1) Type 1a's are "standard candles" for astronomers and 2) it's the closest Type 1a to pop off since the 1800's. This is a fantastic scientific opportunity! So how to learn more? Well, for one, the video above. Next, check out the star charts you can print from the American Association of Variable Star Observers.
At this link, input SN 2014J into the name/designation box. Choose a size of chart to plot - I like the E and F charts - you'll recognize the 10.6 and 10.0 magnitude stars referenced in the Eyes on the Sky video in these two chart sizes. If you're observing with binoculars (or even a refractor) choose "Visual" (you may have to mentally reverse left/right) or "Reversed" for a reflector telescope. Then click on "Plot Chart" and you'll have a handy-made, ready-for-observing chart to compare the supernova brightness to nearby stars in your field of view. If you do this, then be sure to submit your observations to the AAVSO too, so you can add to the data points in the SN 2014J light curve.
But wait, there's more! The planet Mercury reaches greatest eastern elongation in the western ski this week. How does that whole eastern/western thing work? Check out the video for more info.
Light pollution is an oft-discussed topic here at Eyes on the Sky. The "Dark Sky Facts" included in nearly every video, not to mention the links to websites and organizations devoted to fighting it, along with links to other sites that offer products to reduce/minimize it, are the reason this site even exists. But in order to know how to better reduce light pollution, we need to measure how extensive it is. That's what Globe at Night does. Please take 5 minutes the next time you are out observing, and submit your observations and data. The more we know about the problem, the better we can combat it.
The Moon is our closest natural celestial neighbor (most of the time - except when the occasional asteroid zips closer to Earth). It's large, and so we can see A LOT of detail on it. Plus, although it is tidally locked to Earth - meaning it only shows us one side - we can actually see "around the corner" and spy many features along the edge. You can learn more about how that happens due to libration here. And check out some of the great features to see on the Moon early in the week.
Gemini is easy to find from Orion; point from Mintaka (the "belt" star on the right in the northern hemisphere) through Betelgeuse, and you wind up in the heart of Gemini. It's even easier to find this season because Jupiter is making it's way through the twins. And that, in and of itself, is certainly a good reason to know this part of the night sky, so you can routinely come back to the Kind of the Planets over the course of the winter and spring.
But there's more here: The "twin" stars, for starters. But are they really twins? The video above goes into more detail, and this blog post about Castor and Pollux will provide additional information. Beyond that, look for the very wide, "spilled table sugar" open cluster of Messier 35 with a long focal length eyepiece. There you will find more tips for observing this cluster.
The Quadrantid meteor shower occurs this Friday, and will probably be one of the best of 2014 based on the lunar cycle. More info on meteor observing here, and check out this past Eyes on the Sky video for where to look. The peak occurs at 20:00 UT, so for Europe the peak will be in early/mid evening, and for the Americas start looking as soon as it gets dark.
And here's where to find this week's Dark Sky Fact apps: Loss of the Night and Dark Sky Meter.
There is SO much to see in this part of the sky, and yet many observers only look at Messier 42, the largest part of the Orion Nebula. Of course, that is a fantastic place to look, as it is the brightest nebula in the sky, and for some observers, may even display color.
But there is more to see here. How about multiple stars? Got 'em! Both Theta Orionis (the Trapezium) and Iota Orionis are multiple stars. Double stars? Got 'em! Struve 745, Struve 747 and Struve 750 are all visible within this short line in the sky. Nebulae? Well.... yeah! That's why many of us track down this area in the first place! Messier 42 and 43 are the brightest nebula in the night sky. Find out more in the video above, and in the blog posts linked here.
So what happened with the Asheville lights from the "Dark Sky Fact"? Here's the story.
In the northern hemisphere, we will have our shortest day of the year. That's great news for sky watchers: It means it stays dark for a REALLY long time! So get out those binoculars or just bundle up and head outside on a clear night to check out the upcoming stars and patterns they create in the sky for the coming season. Orion, Taurus, Ursa Major and other bright stars speckle the sky with twinkling brightness. Learn your way around the winter stars in just 5 minutes by checking out this video.