Category Archives: Astronomy

Life Intrusions

Life has a way of intruding on an author’s work.  This happens because, as my wife and editor Kathleen is fond of saying, “Your output is derived from your input.” In ways both subtle and obvious, a writer’s background shapes his writing.

In my case, one such influence dates back to my earliest childhood. For as long as I can remember, the universe has beckoned me. Astronomy was my first love. When other boys might have said they would grow up to be doctors or policemen, I wanted to be an astronomer. My father taught me the constellations and the names of the brightest stars.  In junior high school, I bought a cheap telescope from K-Mart and spent time observing the moon, stars, and sun. In high school I expanded my horizons to cosmology and from there to relativity and quantum physics.

I didn’t actually end up as either an astronomer or a physicist, but my interest in those subjects hasn’t flagged. I have a better telescope today, although still a modest one, and subscribe to Sky and Telescope. I’ve even sold them a couple of essays.

My interest in science and particularly astronomy influenced my literary ambitions, too. In the long ago, I principally read and wrote science fiction. My favorite SF stories to both read and write were those involving the exploration of the universe.

Later I became increasingly interested in mysteries and somewhat disaffected with the direction in which the science fiction genre was heading, but astronomy didn’t get left behind. In The Fibonacci Murders, for example, you’ll find Venus shining in the evening sky, as well as references to the moon and light pollution. Light pollution also figures in the opening scene of my forthcoming novel, Ice on the Bay. My in-progress return to science fiction, Space Operatic, takes place in the inner Oort Cloud.

My other key hobby, bonsai, hasn’t yet worked its way into my writing, but then I’ve only been into the art for about ten years. I have, however, pondered some possibilities. Tomio Kaneko, the Japanese-American mathematician who debuts in The Fibonacci Murders, just might have a son with an interest in bonsai, an art that can yield valuable works through the application of, among other things, sharp instruments.

That sounds about right for a murder mystery, no?

 

Suddenly, the Swan!

I’ve had very little time and energy for my astronomy hobby for the past two years or so.  It used to be that I’d take the telescope out at least two or three times a week, weather permitting.  I logged my observations, worked my way through the Messier catalog, reported my observations of variable stars to the AAVSO (American Association of Variable Star Observers), and tried to observe occultations of stars by asteroids for IOTA (the International Occultation Timing Association).  I was never the most accomplished of observers, but I was out there doing things.

Life gets in the way, though, and I’m a bit older than I used to be.  So time and energy are not what they once were.  Enthusiasm has taken a bit of a hit, too, for several reasons.  For one thing, I only have modest astronomical equipment, which limits what I can see.  For another, I live eight miles from downtown Baltimore, and the light pollution is horrible.  That’s an even worse limitation on what I can see.  I also have less interest in going out on cold winter nights than I used to, but that’s at least a seasonal problem.  What I can, or rather can’t, see is the main issue.

Which brings me back the Messier catalog, one hundred and ten objects forming a list that began life as a collection of objects not to look at if you happened to be hunting for comets.  Today, that list is a key focus for many amateur astronomers.  Hunting for and finding Messier objects is one of the first things most amateur astronomers undertake.  For some, drawing these objects at the eyepiece occupies many hours of observation, while others photograph them.  There is even an activity known as the Messier Marathon in which an amateur astronomer attempts to locate all one hundred ten objects in a single (looooong) night of observing.

I’ve never tried the marathon myself, but I have revisited these objects time and again.  The problem is, I can’t see them all.  Some are too faint or diffuse to see using my equipment from my location, and I don’t typically get to travel to darker locations.  I have tried time and again to spot these elusive objects, hoping against hope that with growing experience and maybe the luck of just the right conditions, I’ll be able to catch one.  But that has never happened.

Until last night.

Last night I took the telescope out for the first time in a long time.  I happened to be out when Saggitarius was hanging in the sky at the end of my driveway.  It’s a fairly bright constellation, and it also boasts a special position in Earth’s sky: the center of our galaxy lies in that direction, so the band of the Milky Way is thickest and brightest as it runs through Saggitarius.

But from my house, not so much.  From where I stand with my telescope, that direction happens to be roughly the direction of downtown Baltimore, so the skyglow is brightest there.  Worse, there’s a streetlight in my face, glaring at me from across the street.  The Milky Way is invisible here, and I can’t even see the stars of Saggitarius without blocking the streetlight with my hand.

As you might guess, if I point the telescope at anything in that direction, it’s generally a disappointment.  An object in that part of the sky must be fairly bright for me to see it, so most of the Messier objects in that region are difficult or impossible for me to observe.

That doesn’t mean I won’t try.  I looked for several of them last night, moving from Saggitarius gradually upward from the horizon until I came to M17, a nebula known as the Omega Nebula or the Swan Nebula (and one or two other names, depending upon who’s doing the talking).  There are very few nebulae I can see.  Because they are spread out over the sky, their light is diffuse and their surface brightnesses fairly low.  They have to compete with the human-created skyglow, even in a telescope.   There are only a handful of nebulae I can see without using a filter designed to block the wavelengths of light most typically associated with light pollution.

I have two such filters, one a relatively recent purchase.  Last night, I installed that filter, pointed the telescope at M17, and looked.  Amazingly, there was a smear of light, long and thin, across the view.  At first I thought it was a reflection off the lens from the streetlight.  I moved the telescope a bit.  The smear moved with the stars!  It was real!

After years of not seeing the Swan Nebula, there it was before me.  I tried the older filter and discovered that I could indeed see the nebula with its aid, but it was much fainter.  Had I not known exactly where to look, it’s possible I would have missed it, or at least wouldn’t have been entirely certain that I’d seen it.  Returning to the newer filter, I reveled in the view for some time before moving on to other targets.

What you see at the eyepiece is never what you see in a photograph.  For many people, the smudge of light that greeted my eyes last night would probably have elicited an underwhelmed response.  But for me, after years of not seeing it, suddenly discovering the Swan was a real treat.

Celestial Fireworks

They night sky is a fascinating place, particularly if you live under reasonably dark skies.  If you’re blitzed by light pollution, as are those who live in or near major cities, however, it can seem a pretty barren place, devoid of all but the brightest of stars.  In that case you might almost never look up, because what is there to see?

Sometimes, though, nature puts on a show that cuts through even the worst light pollution.  Such a show is in progress right now.  If you go outside just after sunset and look to the west, you’ll see two bright objects very close together and getting closer each day.

The brightest of the pair is Venus, the most brilliant object in Earth’s sky except for the moon and the sun.  No star and no other planet ever shines as brightly as Venus, so it’s instantly recognizable, even if you don’t know anything about astronomy.  Have a look tonight (or on the next clear night) and you’ll see what I mean.

The other object, roughly to the south (left) of Venus is giant Jupiter.  Aside from Venus itself, no planet is brighter than Jupiter, and no star is as bright.  So it, too, is instantly recognizable.  If it’s brighter than anything except Venus, it’s Jupiter.

JupiterVenus20150624The image above shows the evening sky at about 9:00 PM in Baltimore, Maryland on June 24, 2015, the day I’m writing this.   If you trace a line from Venus through Jupiter you’ll come to Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo, the lion.  Regulus is bright as stars go; it’s the 21st brightest star in the sky.  The two brightest stars in the sky right now are Arcturus, an orange star high up in the sky, and Vega, to the east and one of the three bright stars in the well-known “summer triangle.”  Finding them and comparing them to Jupiter and Venus can be interesting.

But here’s the really neat part: as the month wears on, Venus and Jupiter will grow closer and closer together, until on June 30th they are only about one-third of a degree apart.  How big is one-third of a degree?  Well, the full moon is roughly half a degree in diameter, so on the last day of June, Venus and Jupiter will be closer together than the full moon is wide.

In case you’re interested, this phenomenon–the closest approach of two celestial objects in the sky–is called appulse.  Another term sometimes used is conjunction, but technically conjunction occurs when two objects are at the same right ascension, which is essentially longitude projected onto the sky.  Venus and Jupiter will reach conjunction on July 1st, but they will be slightly farther apart than on June 30th.

By the by, “closeness” in this context is only how the objects appear in our sky.  In reality, Venus and Jupiter are nowhere near each other in space.  They just happen to line up along about the same line of sight from Earth.  Venus is 59 million miles away, while Jupiter is 561 million miles away.  The current positions of the inner planets and Jupiter are shown below.

SolarSystem2015-06-30

An event of this brilliance doesn’t happen too often, so be sure to get outside and have a look as often as possible between now and the end of the month.  And keep looking after that, as Venus and Jupiter continue their dance, gradually separating again in early July.