In these days of electronic gadgets, multiple apps and go-to telescopes it is easy to forget that the best observational devices we have are our eyes. They have a large field of view, can change direction almost instantaneously but can focus in on detail as well. They don’t involve additional cost, need little preparation and no tidying away after you have finished your observations! But do treat them well. Give yourself fifteen minutes to get accustomed to the dark and avoid the use of bright white lights outside. Red LED lights are readily available if you need them to avoid obstacles or read documents and this will enable you to maintain your night vision. Having said that many people find a pair of binoculars very useful for picking out fainter stars when light conditions aren’t optimum.
The objective of this series of articles is to help people find their way around the night sky using only their eyes so there will not be lots of detail on individual stars or planets as that can be found elsewhere. If a star has a number after it that tells its rank in the order of brightness of stars in the northern hemisphere. The idea is that constellations and asterisms (star patterns) are like addresses and signposts for where you want to go. There are 88 constellations in all so only the main ones which are easily recognised will be looked at. As well as this it is hoped that it will be possible to highlight any unusual phenomena which may occur as the year progresses such as planets in good observational positions, planetary conjunctions, special Moon effects, meteor showers or comets.
The Celestial Sphere
Before we venture outside let us recall some helpful facts. It is useful to think of the sky as a hollow sphere which has the Earth at its centre and to which all the heavenly objects are attached. This sphere is known as the celestial sphere. Just like when you visit a planetarium. Far away objects such as stars and galaxies are in more or less ‘fixed positions’ on the celestial sphere whereas the Sun, Moon and planets continually shift their positions but stay close to a circular path on the sphere’s surface called the ‘ecliptic’ which is tilted to the celestial equator because the Earth’s axis is tilted by 23.5 degrees to the plane of its orbit. In reality of course the Earth revolves round the Sun and the ecliptic is where the plane of the Earth’s orbit cuts the celestial sphere. This makes sense because when we observe the Sun we are looking along the radius of the Earth’s orbit and hence in the plane of its orbit. The celestial sphere also has north and south poles directly above the corresponding poles on Earth and a celestial equator directly above the Earth’s equator.
For us in the northern hemisphere we see the stars rotate about the north celestial pole. Don’t worry about some of the additional information on the diagram. The yellow line is the ecliptic and it shows the signs of the zodiac (representing the constellations) and how the Sun appears to pass in front of them as the Earth revolves around the Sun. Remember we are using a model for what we see and this is governed by the movement of the Earth. The Earth spins about its axis from West to East once a day (ie 360 degrees in 24 hours or 15 degrees per hour) and that is why we see the Sun move across the sky daily from East to West. It may not be so obvious that the stars are doing the same thing at night and they move across the sky from East to West at 15 degrees per hour as well. Of course, they also do it during the day, but we cannot see them for the glare of the Sun.
The Earth also revolves about the Sun once a year (ie 360 degrees in 365 days or about 1 degree per day or 15 degrees in 15 days) which is why the sky at 10.00pm one day will look like the sky at 9.00pm 15 days later. If you wait till 10.00pm again the celestial sphere has moved on by 15 degrees or 1 hour and all the stars have moved that amount further west.
Okay, it is time to look at the stars. We have to start with the planet Venus because it has given a brilliant display over the past two months and continues to do so. Venus is breaking records at present because it reached its brightest on the 28th April and is nearest to the highest altitude in the sky at sunset that it can be. It is well worth observing in twilight when there is nothing else in the sky. Just go outside and look westwards and provided the sky is clear I defy anyone not to see it! After a cup of coffee you can go back out when the sky has darkened. Those of you with telescopes may want to observe Venus as a crescent before it enters inferior conjunction (passes directly between the Earth and the Sun). Make the most of it because by the end of May it will have ceased to be an evening star as it passes between the Earth and the Sun but it won’t be gone for long, reappearing as a morning star by mid-June.
While facing Venus turn southwards and trace a path back along the ecliptic, the path that the Sun took earlier in the evening, until you see two bright stars. You will have to go about 35 degrees ( see Lilli’s article on measuring Angular Size). These two stars are Castor (17) and Pollux (12) the dominant stars in the constellation Gemini- the Twins. The other stars are much fainter and may not be visible if lighting conditions are poor.
Now continue backwards along the ecliptic about another 35 degrees and you will find another bright star, Regulus (15), the brightest star in the constellation Leo- the Lion, which unlike many constellations does look like what it represents, a crouching lion. Above Regulus and representing the lion’s mane is theasterism known as the Sickle, looking like a backwords question-mark with Regulus the dot at the bottom.
For the final star hop all you have to do is raise your head till it is looking upwards at the zenith, the point on the celestial sphere directly above your head. You will immediately recognise the Plough, not a constellation this time but probably the best known asterism. ‘Pan’ would be a better name in modern times and in the USA it is known as the Big Dipper.
The Plough is part of the constellation Ursa Major- the Great Bear. But like many constellations it takes a lot of imagination to see a bear. In the diagram there are two stars named on the Plough, Merak and Dubhe, and these are called the pointers. A line from Merak to Dubhe continued onwards leads to Polaris- the Pole Star. The distance is about x5 the distance between Merak and Dubhe. Polaris is very close to the celestial north pole and easily found because although not very bright it is the only star visible in that area.
Now let us retrace our steps. Follow a line from Dubhe through Merak downwards and you come back to Leo. Now go westwards along the ecliptic and you come to Gemini again. Then how could anyone resist taking another look at Venus! Hopefully this hopping about the sky from one known star group to another will give you confidence to continue on the journey to other constellations in the weeks ahead. The next article will be on the website ready for the beginning of June and we’ll be starting from the Plough so you will know where you are. The same pattern will be adopted for the following months.
Something to look out for
There is a chance to see Mercury just after sunset at the end of May. Its orbit lies between the Earth’s orbit and the Sun and it will be at half phase (dichotomy) on the 29th May, so shining brightly. However it will be tricky to see as it is close to the horizon with an altitude of 16 degrees at sunset. Sunset is at 9-09 pm BST and Mercury sets at 11-17 pm BST but it is losing altitude all the time after sunset. Mercury will be located in the west to the bottom right hand side of Gemini. There is a chance to identify it more easily between the 22nd and the 24th of the month when it will be close to Venus but not so bright and both near the horizon.
How big objects look in the night sky is often described by their angular size. But what exactly does this mean and how is it measured?
The angular size of an object tells us how big something looks in the night sky. If you have two objects which are identical but at different distances away from you, the one which is furthest away will have a smaller angular size. Bigger objects will have a larger angular size than smaller objects at the same distance away.
Luckily most celestial objects are roughly spherical so they look like a circle in the night sky. This means 1 angular size is enough to describe the size of the object. Otherwise we would need one for the object’s width and one for its height!
You are probably familiar with angle being measured in degrees, with 360 degrees to make a full a circle. In astronomy they work in the same way, with the night sky being 180 degrees - that’s with completely clear horizons.
If we divide each degree up into 60 equal slices, each slice represents an angle that is 1 arcminute across. If we then divide an arcminute up into 60 yet smaller evenly spaced slices, those slices each represent an angle that is 1 arcsecond across.
We can measure angles by specifying the number of degrees, arcminutes, and arcseconds that they span. An arcsecond is an extremely tiny angle, it’s 1/3,600th of a degree!
Here is a handy trick that you can use to estimate the angular size of something. All you need to know is that if you hold your hand at arm's length, the distance across the end of your pinky finger spans an angle of about 1 degree.
Have a go by looking at the moon. You should gets an angular size of about 30 arc minutes.
A question often asked is “what is dark matter?” The answer touches all our understanding of physics - from the very large, at the scale of galaxy clusters; down to the very small, at the level of fundamental particles. Our best answer: we do not know. We know something of what dark matter does. But we don’t know what dark matter is.
To be concise, I’ll call dark matter ‘DM’ from now on. “Normal matter” interacts with gravity, and particularly with electromagnetic radiation. In everyday terms, if we heat up normal matter, it will emit electromagnetic radiation. If it shines in the visible region, we can see it with our own eyes. This is exactly what we see when looking at the night sky. In complete contrast, DM does not appear to interact with electromagnetic radiation at all. We see only its gravitational effects. So, what kind of evidence do we have pointing to the existence of DM?
Let’s look at just three of the many pieces of evidence for the existence of DM.
Clue 1: Motion of galaxies in galaxy clusters
The first person to postulate the existence of DM was Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky, in 1933. Zwicky spent most of his life at Princeton and his observations showed that the gravitational attraction between all the visible matter in the Coma galaxy cluster could not account for the observed velocities of the individual galaxies.
The galaxies are moving so fast that they would exceed the escape velocity of the system (as shown in the inset equation) and would therefore fly apart. The cluster of galaxies would not exist, whereas we can see it plainly using telescopes. Zwicky concluded that there must be much more mass than could be seen visually.
Since this missing mass is invisible, Zwicky called it “dunkle materie”- DM. And it was not just a little missing mass – it was a massive amount, many times the mass of the visible matter. At the time, many scientists were openly sceptical of this idea.
Clue 2: Rotation Curves of spiral galaxies
In the solar system with its eight planets orbiting the Sun, the innermost planet Mercury orbits faster than the second planet, Venus. In turn, Earth orbits slower, Mars slower still and so on. This is called Kepler’s second law, or Keplerian motion, after Johannes Kepler, and it was confirmed later by Sir Isaac Newton. Theory indicates that any system where the majority of the mass is at the centre – as with the solar system – will have a rotation curve like this:
In 1975, Vera Rubin, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and her colleague Kent Ford announced the surprise discovery that most stars in spiral galaxies orbit at roughly the same speed, rather than showing Keplerian motion - these galaxies showed a so-called flat rotation curve. The implication of this is that galaxy mass is distributed approximately linearly with radius well beyond the location of most of the stars. The results suggest that at least 50% or more of the galaxies mass is contained in a DM halo around the galaxy extending to a radius of 100kpc or more. The diagram below shows the rotation curve of our own Galaxy, the Milky Way:
From this data, at least out to 8.5kpc, where our Sun lies, the rotation curve is flat, rather than Keplerian; evidence for DM.
Clue 3: Gravitational lensing
Gravitational lensing – the bending of space time due to large masses, which causes light rays to appear to bend was predicted by Einstein’s General Relativity in 1917.
The blue arcs in Figure 4 show the gravitationally lensed image of a galaxy 10 billion light-years away as it appears through the gravitational lens around the galaxy cluster RCS2 032727-132623 about 5 billion light-years away. However, the amount of lensing is too strong to be accounted for by the mass of normal matter in the foreground galaxy. The mass required is much larger: further evidence for DM.
So what is DM? Come back in a couple of weeks for a possible answer......