EDITOR’S NOTE: For everyone who’s wished they had advance alert of an upcoming meteor shower/eclipse/etc. – and/or wondered “What’s that bright ‘star’ up there?” – this is for you; West Seattle’s own Solar System Ambassador Alice Enevoldsen, famous for her solstice/equinox sunset watches among other things, has offered to write periodic “Skies Over West Seattle” previews. Here’s the first!
By Alice Enevoldsen
Special to West Seattle Blog
Even with our cloudy skies and immense light pollution, there is hope for skygazing in West Seattle. As with everything, what you need is to be ready to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. I’m here to offer some suggestions for what to do with those opportunities.
The easy part is to not forget to look up. It is easy for us to bend our heads towards the ground all the time: reading our phones, the news, and watching to make sure we don’t step in puddles. When you get out of the car or off the bus, take a second to turn your face up to the sky. Just before you go to bed, as you’re locking up, glance out the window, or step out for a moment, and see what’s up there.
Beyond that, the winter skies can be truly beautiful. There are many extremely bright stars, and recognizable constellations like Orion are high in the sky and up most of the night. The cold air of winter is also more still than the warm, roiling air of summer. This makes the stars appear more crisp. In astronomical parlance this is called “good seeing.” When it is clear out these situations together make the night sky breathtaking, even from the city.
Hey! What’s That?
Did you see something bright last night, and wonder what it was? It’s either Jupiter or the brightest star in the night sky: Sirius.
If what you’re seeing is low to the horizon and twinkling like crazy, it’s probably Sirius. Sirius sparkles so much in our night skies that at times it almost looks like it is blinking between colors: red, blue, white, and even green. It is often mistaken for an airplane or a UFO.
If the object you’re seeing is high in the sky, very bright and steady then you’re seeing Jupiter. Jupiter won’t twinkle at all, because planets don’t twinkle and stars do. Jupiter is just a short way East of Orion, between the constellation of Taurus and the Pleiades. Next time you notice it, grab a pair of binoculars. You can hold them still on the top of your car or a porch railing. If you hold steady enough you’ll be able to make out Jupiter’s four largest moons in a line to either side of the planet itself.
February 3, Last Quarter: The last quarter moon (would have been, if clearer) visible in the morning sky, rising around 1:00 am and setting about 11:00 am.
February 10, New Moon: The new moon is when you won’t see the Moon at all.
February 17, First Quarter: The first quarter moon is ideal for evening and daytime observation. You’ll see it rising around 10:30am and setting near 2:00am. With a telescope or binoculars you can see plenty of detail without straining your eyes.
February 25, Full Moon: The full Moon is a prime opportunity to see the rays radiating from the large crater Tycho visible at the southern pole, as well as the best time to view the Moon with just your eyes. These rays are lighter, almost white, bands of material that splashed out when the crater was formed. The full Moon rises at sunset, and sets at sunrise.
(9/2/2012 Crater Rays from Tycho, photograph by Jason Gift Enevoldsen)
The Big Dipper
The Big Dipper is almost vertical in the early evening sky this time of year. This is an asterism (an unofficial constellation) that many of you will be familiar with, but you probably picture it horizontal. This time of year you’ll see it “handle-side-down” just to the East of North after sunset as the sky begins to get darker.
The Pleiades are one of my favorite deep sky objects. They are visible much of the year, but in the winter evenings they are near the zenith. You’ll notice them as a tiny group of stars. Some people even call them a mini Big Dipper because the stars make the same pattern as the Big Dipper in miniature. The best thing about the Pleiades is that they’re fun to see with just your eyes, with binoculars, or with a telescope. Depending on the technology you’re using you’ll see different numbers of stars in this open cluster. How many can you see tonight? What about tomorrow? Depending on the “seeing” and your own vision you’ll also see a different number of stars.
Asteroid 2012 DA 14
Asteroid 2012 DA 14 (isn’t that a catchy name?) is going to fly past the Earth on February 15th. It will pass quite closely, but it will miss us. Unfortunately, it will be too dim to see without a telescope, and it will be moving too quickly for most home telescope users to be able to follow.
Next month, pay attention to news articles about Comet PANSTARRS and the spring equinox on March 20, 2013.
Stellarium: free planetarium software for your home computer. Bring up the sky for anywhere in the world, any time and date in history or the future.
Clear Sky Chart: the astronomer’s forecast for the next couple days. Cloudcover, darkness, and “seeing” which is how nice it is to view the stars, all on one handy chart. http://cleardarksky.com/c/Seattlekey.html
USNO: Dates and times of astronomical happenings. http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/
Who is Alice?
Alice is many things and works and volunteers for a few different notable organizations, but the suggestions and opinions put forth in this article are her own and no-one else’s. You can find more about astronomy at www.alicesastroinfo.com.