Oct 25

Look! Up in the Sky! It’s a… ???

So it’s nearing sunrise… sunset… the middle of the night… or most anytime, and you notice something up in the sky that for some reason has caught your eye, but what is it? So before calling Mulder and Scully, I thought I would give you a brief overview of the common objects noticed… those of an identified nature of course!

Is the object stationary? If so, you more than likely are seeing a star or planet. Common to notice are the planets Venus and Jupiter… and sometimes Mars and Saturn. Venus is very commonly seen at sun rise and sunset and is commonly referred to as the ‘Morning Star’ or ‘Evening Star’. Jupiter is generally seen when skies are slightly darker and appears a bit larger. Mars is a bit harder to pick out and has a red hue to it. Both Mars and Saturn are generally seen with the aid of darker skies. It is beneficial to view the planets under dark skies, but the ones mentioned here can easily be seen under moonlight skies and even from inside
our city limits. During the middle of September, you’ll be able to see Jupiter and Venus follow the Sun as they set in the West after 7:00 PM and as skies darken, you’ll see Mars and Saturn toward the West.

It seems obvious to mention stars as we generally equate stars with the night sky. There are a number of very bright and large ones to note. Some of the most popular are Sirius, Arcturus, Vega, Capella, Rigel, and Betelgeuse. Don’t say that 3 times though!

Other somewhat stationary objects include comets and a few deep space objects that can be slightly visible to the naked eye… primarily the Andromeda Galaxy which would appear as a smudge in the sky and a few star clusters such as the Pleiades which can appear anywhere from a smudge to a small, very close grouping of stars. Less common and therefore highly publicized are the appearances of comets. Comets look a lot like stars with a cloud around them causing them to appear tear drop shaped or with tails.

But you say it’s moving? The first thing to note is whether or not it is flashing… not twinkling as stars do, but the light is pulsating. If so, you probably have an airplane of sorts. If it isn’t flashing you could be seeing a meteor or a satellite… but which is it??? A meteor is an object that is burning up as it passes through the atmosphere, therefore is short lived… you see a little flash of light out of the corner of your eye, and then it’s gone. It is not uncommon to see them last 10 to 15 seconds, especially during meteor showers. Astrophotographers often capture the paths of meteors and satellites as they photograph objects. A white line that goes from edge to edge of the picture would indicate a satellite or the International Space Station (ISS) as lights from these types of objects do not normally flash. An airplane path, as you may have guessed would look like a dotted line. A meteor generally appears as a short streak in the picture as the camera captures its entry into the atmosphere and its abrupt burnout.

So hopefully I have left you with a few questions… ok, it’s probably not ET, but what is it? You also may be wondering if you can see satellites and the ISS during the day… Thanks to the advent of computers and the smart phone, there are a lot of free programs and apps that can help you precisely identify what you are looking at just by aiming your smart phone at the object. A few of the apps that can help identify stars, planets, comets and other deep sky objects include Google Sky Map, Stellarium, Mobile Observatory, SkyEye, Distant Suns, and SkySafari. If you want to see a satellite or the International Space Station, there are apps to help with that as well… they can let you know where and when to look, again by using your smart phone. The apps I use for this include Satellite Safari and ISS Detector.

As always, the Popular Astronomy Club looks forward to seeing you at our public star parties held at the Niabi Zoo beginning at sundown on the third Saturday of each month.

Clear Skies!

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