Guide to the Night Sky An astronomer offers recommendations for watching the winter night sky, from finding planets to viewing the Geminid meteor shower.
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Guide to the Night Sky

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Guide to the Night Sky

Guide to the Night Sky

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You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

And for the rest of the hour, a little guide to the night sky. It's a few weeks before the solstice. Maybe you've got your mind on seeing some meteors. There's really a wonderful meteor shower that happens every year that's coming up next week. Maybe you want to go out and look at that. How should you see that? Or do you just want to know what to look for with that new telescope you think somebody--hint, hint, hint--is going to give you for the holidays?

So joining me now is Derrick Pitts. He's chief astronomer and head of the planetarium program at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia.

Welcome back to the program, Dr. Pitts.

Dr. DERRICK PITTS (Franklin Institute Science Museum): Thank you very much, Ira.

FLATOW: Is a telescope a good idea for a Christmas gift or a Hanukkah gift or any calendar gift?

Dr. PITTS: A telescope is a great idea for a gift. And in fact, there are a number of really wonderful instruments available these days that make it a lot easier for people to use telescopes these days than they did in the past, Ira.

FLATOW: And what should you not be suckered into when you buy a telescope?

Dr. PITTS: Probably the biggest sales tool used is the magnification value of the telescope. And this is really what I think of as an empty value. And I say that because, in fact, what's more important is how much light the telescope can gather.


Dr. PITTS: And that's determined by the diameter of the lens or the mirror. So the way I say it is, you cannot magnify what you can't see. So make sure that mirror or the lens is as wide as you can afford. So if you can buy a 60mm or a 75mm or even bigger--you know, maybe a 100mm or 125--buy the largest you can because you can always buy additional eyepieces to increase the magnification later.

FLATOW: And there's some good name brands out there that...

Dr. PITTS: Yeah, there are some very nice name brands. Meade is a really great name brand that has a lot of different kinds of telescope styles and designs that may fit what your interest level is. Another one is Orion telescopes. They're also a very good supplier of really nice equipment. And there are a number of very good prices available for beginning instrumentation...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. PITTS: ...and if you are really a big aficionado of, you know, all the bells and whistles you can think of, there are even telescopes nowadays that have their own GPS devices in them to identify where north is and they all--almost all of them these days have a computer-driven go-to system that allows you to just click a button on a remote control, for those of us remote control-minded people, and the telescope with drive itself to the next object to view and it will do that all through the night, looking through a list of a hundred, 150...


Dr. PITTS: ...maybe 300 objects in one evening.

FLATOW: My 20-year-old scope never did that and still doesn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It has a motor jar but not the pointing system.

Let's talk about some of the things we could see in the night sky. There is the annual Geminid meteor shower, but it's going to be a bad moon for it this year, right?

Dr. PITTS: Unfortunately, this year it turns out that the full moon is that same night, and because of that it means the sky will be very, very washed out and it'll be very difficult to see the Geminid meteors. The full moon is actually the next night. And so being close to full moon means that there's a lot of extra light in the sky. You might be able to see a few bright ones, but it really doesn't let the shower live up to its great reputation as the most prolific meteor shower of the year. This is one that typically shows us maybe as many as 120 meteors per hour under the best viewing conditions. So most people are guaranteed to be able to see probably 80 or 90, but this year's not a good one. We'll have to wait till next year for that.

FLATOW: So what else should we take a look at while we're in the back yard?

Dr. PITTS: Well, if you go out right after sunset on a nice, clear evening, what you'll find is over in the southwestern corner of the sky, not far above the horizon, and for--I'd say, for the rest of the month is the brilliant planet Venus.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. PITTS: And I'm sure many listeners have already seen this beautiful, bright-white object right after sunset, low on the horizon, over in the Southwest. There's Venus.

FLATOW: It was right next to the moon this week at one point.

Dr. PITTS: Yes, it was.

FLATOW: It was, like, in the same frame. It was just amazing.

Dr. PITTS: Yeah, that's right. It was very close to that. And you know what? We can use the moon again to find another object that's available. Coming up on Sunday night, the 11th, Mars will be stationed right next to the moon. So...

FLATOW: Oh, no kidding?

Dr. PITTS: ...if you go out on Sunday night and find the moon, you'll see that the planet Mars is right next to it. Now Mars is over in the southeastern portion of the sky and fairly high above the horizon. But you can't miss it because it's right next to the moon.

FLATOW: Can you take a picture of it together?

Dr. PITTS: Yes, you absolutely can take a picture of the two together. And if you have a digital camera, here's a good opportunity to try it and see how that works on that. And you can probably get a pretty good shot of that. So give it a try.

FLATOW: Any hints for exposure control or how do you...

Dr. PITTS: Well, since the moon is very bright, as it turns out, you don't need a really long exposure for that. You can use a fairly short exposure, and your camera could compensate for the brightness and automatically set it to do that. So you might give that a try. It could work out pretty well.

FLATOW: Yeah. 1 (800) 989-8255. My brother who's a photographer once told me the moon has the exposure of a concrete pavement in the sunlight. It's that bright.

Let's go to the phones. Let's go to--how about we go to Canton, Ohio? Haven't been there in a while. Hi, Dean. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DEAN (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.


DEAN: I've never got through before. I just had a quick comment on a meteor or a meteorite that I saw on October 3rd over northeast Ohio at 5:45 AM.

Dr. PITTS: Wow.

DEAN: I've never seen anything like it. I was so glad I wasn't the only one to see it. And I didn't see anything on the news. And I wrote it down in my checkbook, but it was absolutely unbelievable.

Dr. PITTS: Well, wait, tell me, was it--did it have a--was it very bright? Did it have a long streak behind it?

DEAN: No, it didn't have too much of a long streak. This thing had the blue and green, like copper in a fire.

Dr. PITTS: Ah.

DEAN: And it was kind of moving slow and it was moving west. And to me it looked low. A couple other people had seen it. When I later got to work, said they thought it was higher. But I could see sparks coming off this thing.

Dr. PITTS: Wow. That's pretty good.

DEAN: It was absolutely unreal.

Dr. PITTS: That's pretty good.

FLATOW: I saw something on the news last week that had actual photos of one. Maybe that was the same one.

DEAN: That was--well, that was Australia, and it got me thinking about it again. It was just the other night I'd seen it, it left a sonic boom and stuff. But I saw this on October 3rd. And I asked all kinds of people and only a few other people seen it. I can't believe there wasn't nothing in the news or anything.

Dr. PITTS: Well, that's--the interesting thing about objects like those--those very large ones are sometimes called either bolides or fireballs because they appear so large and so bright. And the interesting thing is that depending on the time of day, it could be that very few people or a number of people spread over a very wide area--you know, a few people spread over a wide area will see this object. And remember that they do pass through the sky relatively quickly. So even though it may have been only five seconds, that may have seemed like a very long time, but in that five seconds, most people aren't looking at the sky. So it could easily be missed.

But the other interesting thing about that is that typically meteors are only the size of sand grains. And if you remember, Ira, the story about the one in Australia, the comment was that this object was either the size of a very large fruit or half the size of a car, a small car. So when you get things that large, then they appear the way we saw them in the footage from Australia.

FLATOW: Wow. Well, good luck to you. Thanks for calling.

1 (800) 989-8255 is our number.

I guess if you're going to go out in the winter to look, you better be dressed for this, right?

Dr. PITTS: Yeah, you really do have to dress well for this, and the best way to dress for doing astronomical observing is you need to layer your clothing. The layers trap air between the layers, and it's that layer of air that provides the insulation you need. And there are really important parts of your body that have to be covered well--your head, your hands, and your feet--because that's where you'll lose heat the fastest. You know, those macho guys of us who like to go out without hats in the winter are really losing a lot of our heat. And so whenever I'm out observing, I always make sure that I have a really good skullcap that keeps the heat in well.

FLATOW: Yeah. 1 (800) 989-8255.

Gail in Fairbanks. Hi, Gail.

GAIL (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi. You get to see the aurora, too, up there.

GAIL: Yeah. Well, you know, we're really lucky, you know. I mean, there are advantages to being around a place where it's dark a lot.

The reason that I called was I'm interested in starting an astronomy club for some of our junior high kids. I got a Meade telescope a couple years ago and have yet to even know how to use it, but I'm really, really interested. Do you have any pointers on how I can get started in doing that? We have a university here and I think they've got some kind of an observatory there with a big telescope. Now who would I contact? You know, can you lay the groundwork for me?

Dr. PITTS: Sure. You know, one of the things you might do, Gail, to get that started is you might work with that university nearby to create a public observing evening in which you could invite people from the community to come to the event. And then what you could do at the event is you could find out how many people that come might be interested in joining an astronomy club. And there you could have your--you know, the basis of your membership that you could use to actually begin this club.

And you know, the clubs are always organized around that mutual interest that people have to observe or to participate in any of the other associated activities. So you could schedule a few of those in another location, using that telescope that you have, and then find other people who also have telescopes that would come to the university to take a look through that telescope.

FLATOW: You know, Gail, you might also Google `astronomy club' and see all the other ones that would show up and get some hints from them on how they do it.

GAIL: Another question, if I might, is, you know, since we are up here in...

FLATOW: Oop. Are you there? Oh, we lost Gail...

Unidentified Man: Yes? Hello?

FLATOW: We lost her.

Dr. PITTS: We did lose her.

FLATOW: There are lots of astronomy clubs, aren't there?

Dr. PITTS: There are astronomy clubs everywhere. It's amazing how many astronomy clubs are around. And that means that there are people that have tremendous interest and also have tremendous skills at either observing or building telescopes or after photography. So you're right, that's a good idea, Ira. Just Google `astronomy club' and you'll find them everywhere.

FLATOW: What about the other planets? Can we get to see some of the--I remember when Saturn and Jupiter were out pretty bright a while back. Are they still out to see?

Dr. PITTS: It turns out that they are just coming back into the sky to see, and there are two ways to do it. I sort of think about it as the corners of the sky where we can find planets nowadays. We talked earlier about Venus and Mars, and those I identified as evening objects. We can look at Saturn and Jupiter as morning-sky objects. And this does mean pre-dawn, Ira. So it's about 6 AM. But that's not so bad these days.


Dr. PITTS: You'll find Saturn high in the southwestern portion of the sky at 6 AM. It's very easy to see. And if you do have a telescope, if that gift comes through this holiday season, this'll be a great target for that telescope because you can see the rings really easily and the position of the Earth relative to that planet is such that the rings are tilted upward so that we can see the rings in a really nice view. So that works out really nicely.

And then over on the other side of the sky, the southeastern corner of the sky at 6 AM, we can see the largest planet of the solar system, Jupiter. Now Jupiter really is a wonderful target because you can see in a telescope the cloud bands across the surface of the planet that look like different colored stripes. And you can also see easily with a telescope the four brightest and largest moons of that incredibly huge family of moons that Jupiter has.

FLATOW: Right. Talking about the sky this winter on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Derrick Pitts of the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia.

Let's not ignore the moon, because I still find it just amazing even with a pair of binoculars, it's just breathtaking to look at, still to me--I've looked at it hundreds of times--to look at the moon.

Dr. PITTS: I think the moon is a wonderful target for a number of reasons. First of all, it's right there. And there are so many interesting features. One of the best times to look at the moon, Ira, is when you're observing during the first-quarter phase. And that's, you know, just seven days into its cycle. And if we were going to do that this month, we could've been doing this all this past week. And you can observe a bit next week, until we get up to full moon. The moon is really too bright to observe through a telescope unless you have--there's a filter that you can use on a telescope. But with binoculars, it still works out very well.

So what can you see? You can do a little bit of geology really, really easily. The darker areas of the surface of the moon, what we call the maria or seas that are very easy to see, the big crater areas, those darker areas are the youngest areas of the moon because in those areas, the surface has been struck by some meteoritic impact and basaltic lava from inside the moon has flowed out into those craters. And the oldest portions of the moon are the bright lunar highlands. So those brighter regions are the older regions, the mountainous regions, and the gray regions, the seas, are the younger regions. And those are all easy to identify in just a pair of binoculars.

FLATOW: Couple of minutes left. Let's go to Jerry in Winona, Minnesota. Hi, Jerry.

JERRY (Caller): Hi. We're actually getting a five-year-old a 40mm telescope for Christmas. He's been asking for one. And you've given us a lot of good ideas already. What else could we point him out in the sky, say, before 9 PM at night?

FLATOW: How about constellations?

Dr. PITTS: Oh, constellations are always wonderful.

FLATOW: Yeah. Orion might be able to...

Dr. PITTS: Yeah, that's a really good one. In fact, there's a group called the Winter Circle of Constellations that are very easy to locate and have a number of different kinds of stars, stars of different color. And that could be of interest to him to see. Now Orion is easy to recognize because it looks like a big square with three stars going across the middle that are equally spaced and equally bright. And you'll find that easily at 9 PM if you're looking out just a little bit to the east of south. And if you go online, you can actually Google up star maps and you can find a printable star map that'll show you where this constellation is located in your sky. But you can use this also as a guide to find those different colored stars. And Orion is great because it has one corner star that's a bright red star and it has another corner star that's a bright blue star. So you can actually look for stars of different colors.

JERRY: Great for Justin.

Dr. PITTS: Good.

FLATOW: And is your son able to, you know, go out in the winter and doesn't mind staying out there in the cold and--well...

JERRY: I think...

FLATOW:'re in Minnesota, so that...

JERRY: He'll be excited enough to do it.

Dr. PITTS: That's good. That'll be great. The other thing you can do in Minnesota is, if you're someplace where your sky is dark enough, take a look for the Milky Way. You know, the arms of our galaxy that stretch across the sky, that sort of that cloudy band that stretches across the sky?

JERRY: Mm-hmm.

Dr. PITTS: That's a good thing to take a look at also. And you can use that telescope to sort of scan along in the Milky Way and see all the different collections of stars, see the vast number of stars that are out there.

FLATOW: Have you seen any aurora borealis yet?

JERRY: Yeah, we actually did actually in the summer, we went out and saw it. We sat out on the deck.

FLATOW: And your son saw it, too?

JERRY: Yeah. He was pretty tired, though, but we woke him up and took him out and he said, `Looks great, Dad. Please go back to bed.'

FLATOW: And, you know, that's one of the problems you have with being a backyard astronomer. You get so excited about things sometimes and you go yelling and screaming and no one cares. You know, `Come out and see this, you won't believe it!' It's happened to me so many times.

Dr. PITTS: Well, you know, one of my favorite things to do, Ira, is...


Dr. PITTS: ...a very quick kind of astronomy, which I sometimes call driveway astronomy...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. PITTS: ...where you just take a moment--you know, just--and this is something that anyone can do. You don't need equipment for this. No binoculars, no telescope. And, for example, Venus. This is a really good one for Venus. Right after sunset, before you go in for dinner, after you've parked your car or you've come in from chopping wood or anything, take about a minute to just scan around the sky and see what's there. And immediately the first object you'll pick up is Venus. And if you look back over to your left, the next object you'll pick up is Mars. And you can do all that in just a minute.

FLATOW: Right. Well, thank you very much. And we're all going to do that this evening.

Derrick Pitts is chief astronomer and head of the planetarium program at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia.

Thank you for being with us today.

Dr. PITTS: Thank you.


FLATOW: Please surf over to our Web site at SCIENCE FRIDAY. We have podcasts up there, if you missed any of the programs in the past. Also SCIENCE FRIDAY's Kids' Connection is free curricula that we make up for you to take into classrooms. Just click on the `teachers' button on the left.

I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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