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.