Friday, December 20, 2013


Taurus the Bull is easy to identify even in light polluted skies. Orion's belt stars make good pointers. Connect the three dots and continue the line of sight up and to the right and you will arrive at a small "V" shape of stars. That is Taurus' face. The brightest star in the "V" is the Bull's Eye, a red giant called Aldebaran. Aldebaran means "the follower," but what is it following? If you continue the line from Orion's belt through the "V" you will see. The Seven Sisters (or Pleiades) is just to the west. As the night goes on Aldebaran follows the Sisters through the sky.
Inside the "V" are a lot of stars. This is called the Hyades star cluster (in Greek mythology five of these were the half-sisters to the Pleiades) ((wait a second... seven plus five... that's a lot of kids for the god Atlas to raise!). The Hyades are the closest open cluster to Earth at only 150 light years distant. You can observe dozens to hundreds of these stars with a good pair of binoculars. Aldebaran is not a Hyade, though. It is much closer to the Earth and just appears in the same neighborhood.
Off the top of the "V", the horns of the bull radiate out to the stars Elnath and Zeta Tauri. Next to Zeta Tauri is one of the most interesting objects in space. Named M1 or the Crab Nebula, this is the remnant of one of the brightest stellar explosions ever witnessed by humans. M1 is the leftover of a supernova explosion that erupted in 1054 AD. The blast was so bright that it was visible during the daytime along with the Sun. Since then we've had two other bright supernovas (1572 and 1604). I think we're due. And maybe, fingers crossed, we'll see Betelgeuse go "KABLOOEY!"


Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Taurus is arguably the oldest constellation invented. Most astronomers and historians agree that the constellation of the Bull is depicted in one of the oldest works of human art - found deep down in a French cave.
Four teenagers and their dog discovered the Lascaux Cave paintings in 1940. There are some 2,000 images (animals, humans, and symbols) painted on the walls of this underground cavern 17,000 years ago. One room called, "The Great Hall of the Bulls," is the one that fascinates astronomers the most. Several large bulls are painted in great detail along with horses and stags. One bull has an interesting orientation. There are spots on the face with the long horns pointing to the left. Just above the bull's shoulder are seven dots... Soooooo?
This picture looks suspiciously like the stars in the constellation Taurus the Bull. Taurus has long horns pointing to the left. The spots in the face correspond to the Hyades star cluster (in the face of Taurus - easily seen with the naked eye). And the seven dots are in the right place and even shaped similar to the Seven Sisters star cluster.

Now I realize that this is just a theory. The artist did not sign his work, "My name is Ug. I paint bull on cave. Bull supposed be Taurus Bull in sky..." But is is an interesting coincidence. Plus there are stars looking like Orion's belt in the proper place too. Our ancient ancestors were definitely into stargazing and Taurus would've made a great place to observe.

Friday, November 22, 2013

PISCIS AUSTRALIS - The Southern Fish

For me, fall means the reappearance of the lonely star in the southern sky with a funny name: FOMALHAUT.  Some people pronounce it, "Foam-a-lot," and others say, "Foam-a-low" but any way you cut it, it's a fascinating star.  Look south after sunset about 1/4 of the way up in the sky and you'll see Fomalhaut.  It's the only bright star in this area.  Check out this star's color very closely.  Most astronomers will say that stars cannot be green in color, but I swear Fomalhaut flickers blue, white, and GREEN. Check it out and see if you agree.

Recently astronomers discovered a planet in orbit around Fomalhaut.  At least we think it is.  Check out the picture to see if you can find it (I know it looks like the Eye of Sauron, but that's the way the instruments have to mask the star to detect very faint objects). 

Fomalhaut means, "The Fish's Mouth," and it is part of a cute, little fall constellation swimming in the southern sky. Piscis Australis (or Piscis Austrinus) is the southern fish, big daddy to the two fish tied together in the zodiacal constellation Pisces. The mythology on these stars is sketchy at best. One account says that a goddess fell into a lake near the Euphrates River and was saved by this fish. In most drawings of Piscis Australis the waters dumped by the constellation Aquarius flow right into his big mouth. Does a fish really need to drink?

Ancient Arabic astronomers called Fomalhaut, "The First Frog," (more evidence in my mind that it is green :).  The Second Frog is a star 25 degrees up and to the left called Deneb Kaitos (the tail of the whale) which rises after Fomalhaut - thus it's second. 

Check out the fish and frogs and star colors tonight.  There's a lot to see!


Friday, November 1, 2013


Whereas the stars for Queen Cassiopeia are bright and beautiful, her husband’s constellation is dim and dull. Cepheus the King is a tough constellation to find if you live in a city, but if you look carefully you just may discover these royal stars.

You can find Cepheus tonight high in the northern sky just to the left of Cassiopeia. His dimmer stars look like an upside-down house.

Once upon a time in ancient Ethiopia… Cepheus the King was enjoying a quiet afternoon nap when the great god of the sea, Poseidon strode in to the castle. In a rage Poseidon said, "King Cepheus! Your wife's vanity has gone too far. She has offended the gods and must be punished."

The King, waking up quickly, stammered, “Wha… what did she do?”

“What did she do?” great Poseidon exclaimed. “Get this. Queen Cassiopeia said, in front of everyone, that she was more beautiful than all the mermaids in the ocean. My mermaids! Hah, don’t make me laugh.” Cepheus laughed nervously. “That old hag can’t hold a candle to my mermaids,” Poseidon continued. “She must be punished.”

Cepheus begged for mercy and even declared that he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if anything happened to Cassiopeia. “I would miss her sweet voice,” the King said. This was a total lie since the Queen, although beautiful, had a voice like a ban-saw.

"Being a fair and angry god," Poseidon considered, "I will have you share in her misery. I banish you both to the skies where you will endlessly circle the pole star. And there you will forever hear her, um, sweet voice. Ha ha ha ha! (menacing god-like laugh).”

And there the couple spins. High in the sky the King is not far from his Queen and he forever hears her sweet voice say, “Oh no, I’m going upside down again. Aaaaah, Cepheus, you stupid, little stickin’…!”

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

THE OWL CLUSTER... or is it?

Last month I wrote about the constellation Cassiopeia the Queen.  September is generally the time where we have most number of clear nights in Cincinnati and I've been seeing a lot of Cassiopeia.  When I aim my telescope or binoculars at the "W" shape I always see more stars than I bargained for.

When you look at Cassiopeia you are really peering into a thicker patch of stars that is really plane of our galaxy, the Milky Way.  From cities, you can't see the Milky Way at all but binoculars and telescopes allow you to cut through the light pollution and see a lot of stars.

One of my favorite little star clusters is there too.  It's informally called the Owl Cluster because so many people can picture a bird in this clump of stars.  The two brightest stars are the eyes, a group of stars make up the body and little claws while another group look like outstretched wings.  Can you see it in the picture?

Other people use their imaginations differently.  They see E.T., the Extra Terrestrial from the Steven Spielberg movie.  And others think the wings give it more of a bat shape.

The cluster was first charted by William Herschel in 1787 but he didn't say what it looked like to him.  So create your own mythology with this little cluster.  

Thursday, September 12, 2013


(This is the short version of the Greek legend.  For the longer version, see Get Ready for the Huge, Fall Sky Saga posted 10/13/11 on this blog)

Cassiopeia was thought to be the Queen of Ethiopia (or the kingdom around Northeast Africa). She had a bad habit of bragging about her beauty. She believed that she was the most beautiful woman in the whole world - the most beautiful woman who ever lived - and the most beautiful woman that would ever live. And she told people these views about every twenty seconds. Like if you visited the palace and rung the doorbell, Cassiopeia would answer and sing-song, “Come on in, I’m so beautiful. Come in, I’m beautiful…” And if you’re with her at the dinner table she’d ask politely, “Can you please pass the salt? I’m beautiful over here.” Her subjects grew weary of this but what could they do? After all, she was the Queen.

One day, the Queen went too far. She proclaimed that she was more beautiful than all the mermaids in the sea, put together... Now this is no big deal to you and me, but to the god of the seas, Poseidon, this was the ultimate outrage. "My mermaids are more beautiful than that ugly old hag," his trident cleaner overheard him say. So Poseidon punished this boastful Queen by placing her up in the sky to sit on her throne. 

Wait a second, that sounds like a great honor! 

The trick Poseidon played was that he placed her near the Pole Star.  As the night rolls on, the stars move slowly around Polaris.  Poor Cassiopeia makes this circle too and spends half the night upside-down, clinging to that throne for dear life.  And so here is the punishment - her ultimate hell - can you be upside-down and beautiful at the same time? 

Cassiopeia is one of the easiest constellations to recognize in the sky.  You can find her 5 moderately-bright stars making an "M" shape in the northern sky after sunset.  I know this looks nothing like a Queen sitting on her throne, but I usually think of these 5 stars as her crown.  Since one of the stars is a little off line, I always think her crown must be bent from when she hits her head on the ground every time she circles Polaris.   

Friday, August 23, 2013


August evenings are the best time to find part of this constellation low in the southern skies.  Sagittarius represents Chiron the Centaur, who is half man, half horse. Chiron was a great teacher of just about everyone in ancient Greece including Hercules.

Just after sunset you should see medium-bright stars that resemble a tea pot or coffee pot.  That's his body, out-stretched arm, bow and arrow.  Let you imagination figure that one out!

The constellation can be broken up into two smaller sections. The four stars that make up the very tiny dipper are also called the Milk Dipper because they lie in a thick patch of the Milky Way. Unfortunately, we have to go way out in the country to see this dipper scooping up milk. When you peer at Sagittarius, you are looking at the center of our galaxy. Imagine being in the center of the Milky Way - there would be so many stars nearby that night might be as bright as day.  And you might have to watch out for black holes!

The other part of Sagittarius is his bow and arrow. Three stars curve to form the bow and one sticks out to the right forming the arrow. Look at what he’s aiming that arrow at! It is aimed directly at the Scorpion’s heart, the red star Antares. But I still think the whole thing looks more like a coffee pot than a Centaur.

Try to find Sagittarius’ second brightest star. It was named Nunki about 5000 years ago by the Sumerians, but today we have no idea what Nunki means. Since the translation is lost to history you should invent your own for this blue-white, mystery star.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Hercules Part II

The ancient Sumerians who began studying and charting the heavens thousands of years ago thought this kneeling figure represented Gilgamesh, their version of Superman. The epic of Gilgamesh the warrior is one of the oldest surviving texts.

The Greeks had a Superman of their own named Hercules. Hercules started early. At only eight months of age, he strangled two serpents that tried to mess with his teddy bear. He was taught by the greatest teacher in Greece, Chiron the centaur. Chiron can be seen in the constellation Sagittarius low in the southern sky during the summer.

Hercules (or Heracles in Greek) was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Alcmene. His name was a slap in the face to Zeus' wife Hera (Heracles means, "Glory of Hera"... ouch), and she did everything she could to make young Herc pay. Hera drove him stark raving mad - mad enough to kill his wife and kids. As punishment Hercules was forced to do twelve labors for king Eurystheus. At the completion of these labors, Hercules would achieve immortality. But these labors were not like taking out the garbage and mowing the lawn. Hera made sure they were the most impossible things imaginable.

Hercules’ first job was to slay the terrible Neamean Lion represented by the constellation Leo (see Leo). Another labor involved the slaying of the fierce and deadly Hydra. Hercules was rewarded for his valor and obedience by the god Zeus and was taken up to heaven where he lived happily ever after shining down on us.

Adding to his legend, Hercules was also married four times (once after death).

Monday, July 29, 2013

Hercules Isn't Too Bright

This month is all about the guys in the sky. First we'll talk about Hercules and later in the month we'll explore Ophiuchus the Serpent Wrestler.
As strong as Hercules was, he sure has some dim stars in the sky. Hercules is not an easy guy to find up there - his brightest stars being only of third magnitude. The best way to find Hercules is to look for the keystone, or four sided figure that makes up his body. Hercules is said to be kneeling. Unfortunately for him (and our imagination), he is kneeling upside-down. Look for the brighter constellations around Hercules - Draco is above, Lyra to the left, Corona Borealis to the right, and Ophiuchus the Serpent Charmer below him.

The brightest star in Hercules is Ras Algethi which means, in ancient Arabic, "Head of the Kneeler." This must be some acrobatic kneeler standing on his head! The star is a red supergiant 600 times the diameter of our sun. that varies in brightness. Aim a small telescope at Ras Algethi and you will discover that it is really two stars in one.

The most interesting feature in the figure of Hercules is fuzzy area in the sky called M 13. M 13 is a globular cluster - a cluster of around 300,000 stars - the brightest of its kind in the northern skies. M stands for Messier object, and these are nebulae and galaxies charted by the French astronomer Charles Messier. This cluster is number 13. You can see M 13 with the naked eye but try viewing it through some binoculars to achieve a sparkling effect.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Korean Star Myth with Aquila and Lyra

Once upon a time a cowherd fell deeply in love with a woman weaver. They would see each other so often that the cows were neglected and the spinning wheel scarcely turned. The father of the weaver became so enraged by this slacking off (even in the name of love) that he banished the couple into the sky.

Their love was so strong that they fell into the sky hand in hand as if gravitationally attracted. It looked as if they would finally be together until a flock of magpies flew in between the two. Their hands separated and their bodies glided slowly but surely away from each other.  The lovers struggled to reconnect but it was no use. When they stuck to the heavens, the weaver was on one side of the great river in the sky (The Milky Way) and the cowherd fell on the opposite shore. The cowherd turned into the stars Altair, Tarazed, and Alshain in the constellation Aquila - the weaver turned into Vega and stars in Lyra.

According to this Korean legend, the couple could meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month. Only then could they cross the river because of the magpies. Magpies in Korea flocked like crazy in July - and to atone for their role in separating the lovers, flew up to the stars to build a bridge across the river.  Only then could the couple meet on the backs of the magpies.  In Korea, children were taught to stone any magpies they saw not helping build that bridge.

When the meeting occurs on the seventh day of the seventh month, Altair and Vega shine in 5 colors to symbolize their happiness. Unfortunately, if it rains on July 7th, the couple fails to meet at all. 

Look for Vega high in the east and Altair lower in the southeast after dark.  And check out the lovers on July 7th to see them shine happily.  


Monday, June 17, 2013


Not all moons are created equal.  The full moon on Saturday June 22, 2013 will appear bigger and brighter than any other moon this year.  But the question is, “Can you tell the difference?”

As the Moon orbits the Earth, it slowly changes its distance from us.  It varies from about 252,000 miles at its farthest, to around 220,500 miles at its closest.  When you combine the night when the full moon is also closest to us, that is called a SUPERMOON.

The Moon’s distance changes very slowly.  You can’t tell the difference from night to night.  But if you compare Saturday’s Supermoon to the farthest full moon, the so-called Wimpy Moon of January 15, 2014, the difference is dramatic.  The Supermoon is over 31,000 miles closer, appears 14% larger in diameter and 30% larger in surface area than the Wimpy Moon.  Open the picture above in a new window to see more details.

The best time to see the Supermoon is just as it rises.  In the Cincinnati area, the Moon will rise over the eastern horizon at 8:20pm.  You may have trouble seeing it right away since the sky won’t be completely dark.  Keep looking because as the Sun sets, the full Moon will rise.  The Moon always looks larger near the horizon but it’s merely an illusion.  Technically, the Moon will be over one thousand miles closer around 1:30am on Sunday morning when it will be higher in the south.  That would be the Super-est Moon.       

Since the changing Moon distance is a slow process, Sunday night will provide an encore.  The full moon rising at 9:20pm on June 23 will be less than 1% farther than that of June 22. 

Look for the Supermoon(s) this weekend and see if you can spot the difference.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


The planetary conjunction isn't over yet.  Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury will be hanging around in the west-northwestern sky for a few more days.  Last night I saw them less than 10 degrees above the horizon but could follow them all the way to sunset.  On the night of May 26th they made a perfect equilateral triangle as shown by the picture below.

Over the next few days, Venus and Mercury will appear higher at the same time of night while Jupiter sinks lower.  Venus is the brightest of the three, followed by Jupiter, and then Mercury.  Over the next few days Venus will slide between the other two turning the former triangle into a planetary lineup.  May 31 and June 1 they will be best aligned.  Jupiter will be at the bottom, Venus in the middle, and Mercury at the top.  Both Mercury and Venus and Venus and Jupiter will be separated by only 4 degrees.  On June 1, Mercury will be the closest of the three at about 95 million miles away, Venus is on the other side of the Sun from us still so it's about 151 million miles distant, while Jupiter is way out as usual - 567 million miles away.

Jupiter will be heading off into the sunset soon so don't miss it.  Mercury will hang around for a few more weeks and make a close conjunction with Venus on the night on June 18 and 19.  But Venus will be low in the evening skies for the next several months.  In fact, she'll be there even as you ring in the New Year 2014.

To see the planets you will need an extremely clear view to the west-northwest horizon.  No trees, buildings or anything can be in your way.  And you have to be there right after sunset.  Once the Sun sets you only have 30 minutes to catch the planets pop out from the sky glow before they set.

Happy Planet Hunting!

Friday, May 24, 2013

COMA BERENICES - Berenice's Hair

So what is the deal with the Mop of Hair that was in the picture next to Bootes (see post from May 7)??? That's Berenice's Hair, a small, faint constellation visible in the spring and summer from really dark skies.

In Greek mythology Berenice was the beautiful Queen of Egypt known for her flowing tresses. When her husband went off to war, Berenice asked Aphrodite to protect her beloved in battle. In return, if he returned to her safely, she would cut off her long hair as a gift to the goddess. When the king returned unharmed to her side, Berenice stayed true to her word and lopped it all off. The hair was placed in the temple where it mysteriously disappeared. What cur took the Queen's beautiful hair? Who dared?

Heads were going to roll (not to mention hair), if the culprit was found. Luckily a court astronomer came to the rescue - he found the missing locks. The hair was such a pleasing sacrifice to Aphrodite that SHE took it and placed it in the sky for all to see. So now the glory a Berenice's hair has reached new heights and lives on in the stars.

You can best find this constellation in a very dark sky.  If you're far from city lights you can't miss the tangles of stars just to the right of Bootes and above Virgo.  Binoculars help too.  Scan the sky to the right of the bright star Arcturus and you should see a mass of stars.  Lots of locks!

Friday, May 10, 2013


You may have noticed a lone bright star in the east after sunset. This is Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation Boötes. This kite-shaped constellation first appears in the spring sky looking like a wide tie hanging from the invisible neck of an invisible businessman. Boötes is no yuppie bustling through traffic but a Herdsman, Bear-Driver, or Inventor of the Plow.

First let's talk about how to pronounce this constellation. It is a 3-syllable name; "Bo-oh-teez," not "Boots," and please never call him, "Booties."

One myth portrays Boötes as an inventive man who overcomes adversity. Once upon a time Bootes was walking through the woods - on his way to grandma’s house - when he was robbed by his brother. Not only that, when he returned home, he discovered that his good-for-nothing, thief-brother had taken possession of everything he owned. House. Land. Wife. Everything. Undaunted, Bootes finds a new place to live but is dead broke. He can’t rub one nickel together. As a poor farmer, he invents a plow that can be pulled by oxen. His invention spreads around the globe, and after patenting it, Bootes can afford anything. This story fits in extremely well with the old English view of the Big Dipper as a Big Plow. Boötes can be seen right behind the plow pushing it around the pole.

The easiest way to find Boötes is to find his brightest star, Arcturus. Nothing could be easier. First, find the handle of the Big Dipper and use it as a pointer. Follow the arc of the handle and continue this arc until you run into Arcturus. Remember the catchy saying, "Follow the arc to Arcturus," and you'll find Boötes.

This is Boötes as a Herdsman with his dogs. Next time I may tell you about the mop of hair under the dogs in this picture.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Ursa Minor - The Baby Bear

Part II: The Bear Strikes Back!
(See the April 10th blog below for Part I)
"What happened next? What happened next?" the kids asked the ancient shaman.

The storyteller stared up from the fire, stroked his beard, sat up straight, and said, "After the hunter threw the momma bear up into the sky (becoming the constellation Ursa Major), he continued on down the path. Soon he passed some bushes on the edge of a great forest. The hunter heard a strange noise coming from the bushes that caused him to stop. The bushes were making a pathetic whimpering noise (insert whimpering here). Now normally bushes don't make whimpering noises so his curiosity made him part the branches to see... the saddest, most pathetic-looking Baby Bear.

"The Baby Bear had lost his mommy. 'Oh boy,' thought the hunter. 'I think I know where mommy might be...' After all, he just threw her up in the sky 10 minutes ago and there she was shining down on everyone. The hunter could not climb up to the sky to bring momma back so he decided the only thing to do was to... Throw the Baby Bear up in the Sky!

"So the hunter grabbed the Baby Bear by his short stubby tail and swung him around over his head. And soon the Baby Bear's tail began stretching and stretching until the hunter let go ----- whoosh! The baby bear flew up and stuck - SPLAT! - to the sky not far from his momma."

And that is how the Big and Little Bear got into the sky.
Look for the Big and Little Bear in the northern sky tonight.  The Big Bear is easy to see since it's very high in the northern sky during spring and summer and full of pretty bright stars.  The Little Bear is fainter so you might only be able to see a few its stars.  But one of these is the most important star in the sky...

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Big Dipper - Rutila Major (my bad Latin translation)

For the next few weeks we will be focusing on the northern sky and the stars that are up most of the year. This is a great time to find the Big Dipper. The seven unmistakable stars hang high in the northwest after sunset (upside-down). If you locate a dipper which one is it? Big or Little? If you live in or near a city - no need to fear. You can only see the Big Dipper. Four of the seven stars of the Little Dipper are too faint to see in a light polluted sky.

Different cultures imagined quite different pictures in these stars. In medieval Europe it was a death cart or wagon. Some Native American groups called it the "Thigh of an Ox" while others used it as a eye test (see if you can see an extra star hovering just above one of the seven). Egyptians called it a coffin. African Americans called it the "Drinking Gourd". In England they still call it The Plow.

Here is a very famous painting by Vincent van Gogh called "Starry Night over the Rhone". It's pretty obvious where the Big Dipper is. Van Gogh included stars in several of his paintings including Starry Night and Cafe Terrace at Night.
If you have trouble seeing any of those things in the Big Dipper, try to modernize it. Maybe to you it will look like a lawn mower, shopping cart, or question mark. Don't ask me why that shopping cart is in a jacuzzi...

Monday, March 4, 2013

Canis Major and Canis Minor, Orion's Sky Dogs

Sirius A and B
The winter southern sky is ablaze with the brightest stars in the sky.  8 of the top 20 brightest stars can be found there awaiting your wishes.  The brightest of them all is Sirius, the nose of Orion's bigger hunting dog, Canis Major.  Sirius is about 23 times brighter than the North Star and scorches the winter sky with a stark white light.  Sirius definitely isn't the biggest star up there - it's just one of the closest.  At about 8.6 light years away, it's really two stars - a faint white dwarf star called Sirius B orbits the main star every 50 years.

Creepy Lookin' Dogs
Up higher and not quite as bright is the little dog star, Procyon.  Procyon weighs in as the eighth brightest star in the sky becuase it's a close one too.  In fact Procyon bears a lot of similarities with Sirius.  At about 11 light years away, this white sub-giant star has a white dwarf star orbiting it as well.

Canis Major, is easy to find.  Use Orion’s belt as a guide.  Connect the dots of the three belt stars and continue the line down and to the left and you will run smack into Sirius.  With a little imagination you can use the semi-bright stars around Sirius to picture the big dog, but with the little dog… it only has two stars in it.  That’s right, it’s a real hot dog! 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Moon Transits Earth

Check out this video made by the Deep Impact spacecraft.

These images were taken in 2008 when the spacecraft was 50 million kilometers away.  It's a loop of one day - one rotation of the Earth - and the Moon crosses right in front.  This is called a transit (just like when Venus transited the Sun in June 2012).  Since the Moon is 240,000 miles away from the Earth, Deep Impact had to be in exactly the right place to see this alignment.  Although the pictures aren't crystal clear, you can make out the African continent in there.  For more moons transiting planets in our solar system check out Emily Lakdawalla's Planetary Society blog:

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Asteroid Coming - Earth Safe

On February 15 at 2:25pm EST, a 150-foot long asteroid will zoom harmlessly by the Earth.  Let me repeat -
it will NOT hit the Earth.
But it will be wicked-close to us!

For a brief time on Friday, Asteroid 2012 DA14 will be the closest thing to Earth.  The Moon is, on average, about 240,000 miles from Earth while this asteroid (I will nickname Dan) will pass just 17,200 miles above our atmosphere – the closest pass by any asteroid known in advance.  That’s definitely a close shave, but it has absolutely no chance of hitting the Earth.

Astronomers can track the positions of asteroids with amazing accuracy. The Cincinnati Observatory was in charge of collecting data on asteroids and comets from 1947-1978. Dr. Paul Hegret ran the internationally recognized Minor Planet Center out of the Cincinnati Observatory in Mount Lookout.

Unfortunately Dan (Asteroid 2012 DA14) will not be visible from the Cincinnati area when it makes its closest approach (we’ll be facing the other way and it'll be daylight).  It’s so small that even at its closest it will be a 7th magnitude object - so dim that observers in Europe, Asia, and Australia will still need binoculars or a telescope just to see it.  
For more coverage on Dan, go to:  There'll be a link to a live webcast on February 15.
I can't wait to see the video amateur astronomers make of it!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Orion Myth Part II...

We left off our myth as the Pleiades, now doves, flew into the sky to escape Orion and turned into stars. Orion's love was scorned but he was not humbled. Orion was a great boaster which angered some of the gods. They thought it would be ironic for a tiny creature to slay the great hunter so they sent a scorpion, Scorpius, which dealt Orion a fatal bite on his heel.

For his greatness, Orion was allowed a place in the sky. He asked the gods to placed as far away as possible from the Scorpion that killed him. So the Scorpion is best seen in the summer while Orion reigns over the winter near the Pleiades. This way, Orion never sees Scorpius and at the same time he can try more pick-up lines on the Sisters.

The Sisters hated this so much that the gods placed a protector in between the two. That's where you can find Taurus the Bull. Now the Seven Sisters are riding safely on the bull's back while Taurus tramples poor Orion every night. That's what you get for asking seven sisters to marry you!

To find these stars, use Orion's belt stars.  Connect the dots and continue the line to the right.  When you do, you'll pass through a "V" shape of stars (that's Taurus' face).  If you keep going you'll run into the Seven Sisters.

But wait, there's more!  Not only is there a giant hunter being trampled by a bull with 7 women on its back... Orion asked the gods if he could have some help with the Bull.  The gods agreed and allowed him to bring his two best hunting dogs up to become stars. 

Next week, I'll show you where to find the dogs AND the Unicorn, AND the bunny rabbit, AND the river.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Orion Myth Part I

Orion the Mighty Hunter is one of the most beloved and easiest to recognize constellations in the night sky. Cold, crisp winter nights are the best time to observe the "belted one" in the southern sky. Over the course of the next few weeks I'll share some Greek myths that show Orion does not stand alone in the winter sky.  If you use your ancient Greek imagination when looking at the stars, you may see him surrounded by a bull with seven women on its back, while two hunting dogs chase unicorn and a bunny rabbit down by the river... SAY WHAT!

Let's start with Orion. According to Greek myths he was a big, strong, tough guy. One day he was out hunting. When he took a break on this hilltop, he beheld a sight that took his breath away. There were seven women dancing in a clearing while a huge crowd cheered them on. These were the Seven Sisters, or the Pleiades. Orion fell in love... with all of them.

Now, Orion was very brave in battle but not very courageous when it came to talking to women. So he needed to work up all his courage just to even speak to the sisters. One day he finally met them and asked for their 14 hands in marriage. The sisters were so outraged that they rejected him and strode away. Orion didn't know much about dating, but he heard somewhere that women respond well to a man who is persistent. So he kept meeting the sisters at awkward times and asking them again and again to marry him. After a week of this, the sisters couldn't take it anymore. They asked for divine intervention. The gods listened and promptly turned the Pleiades into doves. They immediately flew away from Orion - as fast as they could - and headed higher and higher into the sky. Eventually they decided to stay in the heavens and became stars.

You can find the Pleiades high in the south after sunset. We'll learn more the rest of the story in Part II. So tune in!

Monday, January 7, 2013


It's time to talk with Alan Alda.  I interviewed the actor, director, science TV show host, and now Science Communicator for WVXU 91.7 FM in a new segment called "Looking Up." 

Last year Mr. Alda issued a challenge: Come up with a description of a "flame" that would make sense to an 11-year old.  His goal was to get scientists thinking about how to communicate their subject material to a general audience.  This is something Alda is passionate about and led him to found the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.  He still has the same enthusiasm for science as that 11-year old who voraciously wanted to know what a flame was.  The new challenge for us in 2013: describe the concept of TIME.

He mentioned that scientists don't necessarily need to be actors to get their message across.  But it made me think that sometimes we too often play the role of "scientist" that was handed down to us - stuffy, know-it-all types.  I think that scientists of today need to create a new persona, to be more accessible and approachable with our message and vocabulary.  Maybe an actor can help us with that.

You can listen to the interview at: 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Seven Sisters in Other Cultures

Most myths relate the Seven Sisters star cluster to young maidens or boys playing, dancing, and just being young and wild. "Like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a sliver braid."

In Chinese mythology they were the "Seven Sisters of Industry"

Australians considered them to be young girls playing music for the dancing young men (the stars in Orion's belt).

Various Native American legend equate them with seven young men guarding the holy seed of agriculture and seven young children told to stop all their dancing.

In Borneo they were a mother hen and six chicks

And in early Christian lore they were the six daughters and wife of the baker who gave Christ bread when he was hungry.

This association with youth is very interesting in that astronomers now consider them young, hot stars. They are large, fiery blue stars burning through their fuel very rapidly and have a quick, bad end - burning the candle at both ends so to speak. What is it about these stars that make them appear so youthful to the ancients?