February Qué tal Available

   The February issue of Qué tal is now online and available for reading. This month there is a shift in planet visibility as Venus moves too close to the rising Sun for morning viewing, and Mars is also lost to the setting Sun’s glare but in the evening. Mercury is best visible for the first half of the month in its best evening viewing for this year. Jupiter remains very visible as an evening object, and Saturn rises around midnight.
   And get ready for Comet Pan-STAARS

Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information.

Student Science Opportunities

Iris logo    “Join the Tracking a Solar Storm challenge and guide students as they learn about the Sun’s anatomy, the space weather it generates, and why studying our star is important.
   This challenge is designed around NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS, mission. Scheduled to launch in April 2013, the IRIS spacecraft will study the dynamics of the interface region of our Sun’s atmosphere using an ultraviolet telescope and imaging spectrograph. As students participate in the challenge, they will learn about the IRIS mission and the instruments scientists use to gather solar data.
   An educators’ guide to the IRIS challenge is available on the Tracking a Solar Storm website and includes key information for helping students study the sun’s weather, track a solar storm, and predict its effect on Earth. Students will demonstrate what they have learned by collecting data and producing a space weather report.”

Click here to go to the IRIS Challenge web site.

whatif   “Candy, soda and other everyday items will be the tools of the trade for teenage rocket makers competing in the What If? Live Student Design Challenge, which was kicked off Tuesday by NASA and the Ahoora Foundation of Plano, Texas. Registration is open through Feb. 28 for the worldwide contest, in which 14- to 18-year-old students will design experimental propulsion systems using materials that are cheap and easy to get.”

Click here to read the NASA press release.
Click here to go to the What If web site.
Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information.

Finding Uranus

Click on image to see it full size

Click on image to see it full size

   Okay – the ‘cute’ answer is look behind you, however from an Astronomer’s perspective this may prove difficult so look westward shortly after sunset for the 4 stars making up the asterism The Square of Pegasus and follow the two stars on the left side of the square in a straight line toward the horizon and you will have found Uranus. It is just to the east from another asterism, the Circlet of Cetus the Whale. Uranus is right at the limit of brightness for naked-eye seeing but in binoculars or telescope it is visible as small dot.
   Uranus is located just east of the 0-hour line, the location of the Sun on the March equinox.
Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information.

Luna, The Sisters, and Jupiter

jan20   This evening the waxing gibbous Moon rises a few degrees away from the open star cluster the Pleiades. Very often referred to as the ‘7 Sisters’ (but not to be confused with the singing group from Motown!) this group of a few hundred stars has between 6 and maybe 15 stars bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, with the 6 or 7 brightest very visible as a small dipper shape. In time-exposure images of the Pleiades, or as the graphic I use, show wispy gas clouds glowing from the energy output by these relatively young stars.

jan21   Tomorrow evening, 21 January, the Moon will have waxed to a slightly larger gibbous phase and will also have shifted its position eastward by approximately 12-15 degrees. This is the amount of orbital motion, more or less, that the Moon makes every 24 hours. The Moon is also very close to the planet Jupiter and the pair of them along with the bright star Aldebaran and the v-shaped open star cluster, the Hyades, should all combine for some interesting pictures. Despite a forecast temperature in the low 20’s (F) I’ll be out there!

   Back to the Moon
   On a related note NASA is steadily moving forward with its development of the Orion crew capsule that will be the container taking crews on future missions to the Moon. With a planned mission, no crew, in 2017, the Orion space craft will be launched to the Moon, swing around the Moon, and then return to Earth. Landing will be very reminiscent of our Apollo program as the Orion capsule will land with parachutes in the ocean.
   Click here to read the NASA press release – watch the video below to see an animation of the 2017 Orion flight to the Moon and return to Earth.

Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information.

As the World Turns

   Today, January 19, the Sun is in two places at one time! The banner for this page was made using an Astronomy program and on this date the program showed that the Sun is entering the Astronomical Zodiacal sign of Capricornus, while according to the pseudoscience, astrology, the Sun is just entering the boundaries of the next constellation to the east – Aquarius. How is this possible?
   As the world turns, so does the sky, or so it appears to us from Earth. Our perspective of the sky is based in part on the Earth’s regular motions. Most of us are familiar with the concepts of rotation and revolution. Not everyone, though, is familiar with the less-perceptible Earth motion of precession. The Earth wobbles about its axis much the way a gyroscope does as it slows down. However, unlike a gyroscope, the Earth spins very slowly and will not stop spinning and topple over.

The Precession Circle

The Precession Circle

   The Earth’s wobbling motion is referred to as precession, or the shifting of the Earth’s axis over time. The wobbling is caused by a combination of its 23.5° axial tilt from the plane of the solar system, and the gravitational pull of the Sun and the other planets back toward the plane of the solar system. Because of the Earth’s rotational spin, it, like a gyroscope, resists outside forces, and does not align itself with the solar system.
   One way to visualize the changes caused by precession is to think about how the position of the Celestial Pole (the point in space directly over the Earth’s North Pole) moves with respect to the background stars. As the Earth precesses, the North Pole traces out a circle in the night skies, as does the South Pole. Presently, the Earth’s North Pole points almost directly towards the star Alpha Ursa Minor, commonly known as Polaris the North Star. Polaris is less than one degree from the North Celestial Pole. However, Polaris has not always been our North Star, nor even our brightest polestar. Several thousands of years ago the Star Thuban, in the constellation Draco the Dragon, was the Pole Star.
   The changing skies Precession is a slow but steady motion. The completion of one cycle takes about 25,800 years. As the Earth precesses, our view of the sky slowly changes, so that after a long period of time, the stars and constellations shift their positions in the skies relative to the Sun.
   Ancient cultures kept track of time by noting the Sun’s position with respect to the constellations. For example, the start of each season was identified by the Sun’s position within a constellation’s boundaries. However, due to precession of the Earth’s axis, this start position has shifted westward at over the centuries and in most instances is an entire constellation west from its position 3,000 years ago.

Position of Sun for Start of Each Season



(1000 B.C.)


(2000 A.D.)

Spring – March Aries Pisces
Summer – June Cancer Taurus
Fall – September Leo Virgo
Winter – December Capricorn Sagittarius

Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information.

Which Way Are You Going?

   This semester I have a Physical Science class in addition to my Astronomy class and during last night’s discussion about speed and acceleration I mentioned that the speed of an object is always relative or with reference to something else. I even added that “quote” from Einstein’s mother, “Everybody is a relative.”
4 motions   Seriously, in discussing this I dipped into Astronomy and talked about how the Earth and other planets in our solar system all have at least 4 general motions relative to the Sun and the galaxy. And that even the galaxy is in motion and its speed is also relative. On the Earth we rotate (1,000 mph at the equator); we revolve around the Sun (67,000 mph); along with the rest of the solar system we are following the Sun toward the star Vega (43,920 mph); and with regard to the galaxy we are revolving around the galactic center (483,000 mph) as are other stars in the galaxy.
Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information.

A Snake, Bird, and a Cup

Click on this graphic to see it animated

Click on this graphic to see it animated

   Above the southern horizon during the northern hemisphere mid-winter pre-dawn hours is an interesting grouping of four constellations of which three are centuries old classical constellations linked together in mythologies, while the fourth constellation, Sextans the sextant, is a ‘modern’ constellation.
   As perhaps the longest constellation the stars of Hydra the Watersnake, known in mythology as the many-headed snake that Hercules battled, meanders across the sky from east to west.
   According to mythology the constellation’s great length represents the long time it took for Hercules to defeat Hydra. Hydra had nine heads, and as Hercules found out, simply cutting off each of its heads was not sufficient to slay the snake. For as soon as one head was cut off, two more would grow back in its place. So, in order to defeat Hydra, Hercules had to burn each decapitated stump. The Sun’s progression in the skies down the length of the constellation Hydra represents Hercules’ progress in killing the snake.
   During northern hemisphere summer, the Sun is in Cancer the Crab as Hydra’s head rises in the East. Both Leo and Virgo stretch end to end, parallel to the snake’s body. So as the Earth revolves around the Sun, the Sun appears to move from Cancer eastward into Leo, and then into Virgo. Throughout this period, the Sun’s light drowns out more and more of the stars in Hydra and the ‘fire’ from the Sun sears the stumps as Hercules continues to successfully cut off additional heads.
corvus-crater   Riding on the back of Hydra are two inconspicuous constellations, Corvus the Crow and Crater the Cup . These two constellations have been associated with the god Apollo. Crater has been known as Apollo’s goblet, and Corvus has been known as the bird of Apollo that sometimes performed special deeds for him.
Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information.

Next Generation Science Standards

ngss-2   The most recent and revised set of the Next Generation Science Standards, NGSS, have been released today. The links below will take you to the main page on the web site and the others take you to the specific grade levels for the standards under review for Earth and Space Sciences.

  •    Clck here to read more about the Next Generation Science Standards.
  •    Click here to read the Grade 1 ‘NGSS’ for Earth and Space Sciences (Space Systems: Patterns and Cycles).
  •    Click here to read the Grades 3-5 ‘NGSS’ for Earth and Space Sciences (Space Systems: Stars and the Solar System).
  •    Click here to read the Middle School ‘NGSS’ for Earth and Space Sciences (Space Systems).
  •    Click here to read the High School ‘NGSS’ for Earth and Space Sciences (Space Systems).

Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information.

Explore Planet Four

fans and blotches   Planet Four is a new Citizen Science project from the folks at Zooniverse that invites participants to help locate features on the surface of Mars. Features unlike anything we have on Earth. Participants will search through images of the southern hemisphere (South Pole region) of Mars taken by the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, looking for features described as “fans and blotches”. The plan calls for examining these features over a several year period watching for changes as seasons progress on Mars in the hopes of better understanding the Martian climate.

   Click here to go to the Citizen Science web site – Zooniverse

Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information.