Learn the Night Sky—Orion Video

Click on the image to go to the video on YouTube .

Check out the new video on the constellation Orion—including how to recognize it, where and when to look for it, and some good targets there. The eight-minute video then shows how to use Orion as a springboard for finding other constellations surrounding it, making this part of the night sky easy to learn!

Orion is a great landmark for beginners learning their way around the night sky, because its main stars are so bright and the pattern they make is so distinct. The famous Great Orion Nebula, Messier 42 (M42), is here too—along with double stars, you could spend an evening with a telescope in Orion alone!

In North America, Europe and and Central Asia, Orion is visible high in the south around 9 PM in January and February. It’s also visible in the same part of the sky around 8 PM in March, and low in the west after twilight in April. (The constellation then disappears into the Sun’s glare until late summer, when it reappears in the eastern sky just before dawn in August, around 3 AM in September, 1 AM in October, 11 PM in November, and so forth, starting the yearly cycle anew.)

Telescope and Observing Tips for the 2020 Mars Opposition

If you’ve got a telescope, you’re likely excited for the Mars opposition occurring now—here are some quick tips to make sure you see everything as clearly as possible.

First, make sure you’ve got good “seeing” conditions—that is, that the skies are steady. If the stars are twinkling noticeably, it’s not a good night.

In October, try looking between midnight and 2 AM to get the sharpest, clearest image. Mars is visible low in the east after twilight, but if you aim your telescope at it then, you won’t get as sharp a view as you would if you looked later. That’s because looking near the horizon causes your telescope to peer through many more miles of our atmosphere than if you were looking straight up—in effect, a cause of poor seeing, even in a steady sky.

Give your scope adequate time to cool down to the outside temperature (at least 30 minutes—more with a big scope). You might not imagine that this could make a difference, but it does!

Avoid using magnification greater than your telescope can realistically provide—though it’s easy enough to create huge magnification by putting stronger eyepieces on your scope, the resulting image will get blurry after a certain point, worsening as the power is boosted further. As a guide, keep your magnification to around 25-30x per inch of aperture (so no more than 100-125x on a 4-inch scope, or 200-250x on an 8-inch, and so forth). These numbers assume your telescope is cooled down and you’ve got good seeing conditions (as discussed above); if not, you’ll have to set your power lower to get a reasonably sharp image.

And of course, ensure your telescope is collimated correctly (that is, your optics are well-aligned), and your eyepieces are clean.

Finally—relax! In spite of all the click-bait about “Mars Opposition on October 13th,” you’ll get similar views all the way into November—the exact date of opposition is just the “high water mark,” give or take, for this event, and you have much more time to enjoy the view than you think.

Latest Astronomy Video!

Click on the image to go to the video on YouTube .

I’m delighted to share my latest video, “Tour of the Constellation Scorpius,” a 7-minute mini-film that will show you how, where, and when to look for this brilliant constellation.

Our view of Scorpius as we see it from Earth looks toward the very center of our own Milky Way Galaxy, in much the same way that an inward-looking view from a metropolis’s suburbs takes in the city’s downtown. Instead of the bright lights of big buildings, we have great numbers of fascinating nebula and star clusters—of several types—and an astonishing swath of stars from the galaxy itself.

The video will get you oriented and help you begin to understand the scale of what we’re really looking at out there, while taking you on a mini-tour of some of these objects—get ready for a great trip “downtown,” to the Milky Way!

How to See Comet C/2020 F3

Comet C/2020 F3 as seen July 6, 2020.
Comet C/2020 F3 as seen through an 8-inch telescope from Denver, July 6, 2020. Image by Zachary Singer.

In early July, we’re lucky to have a visit from the comet C/2020 F3, which is visible to the naked eye. If you don’t mind getting up at 4 AM, you can see it yourself! Such comets are relatively rare—and they’re both beautiful and fascinating to look at, especially if you know what they’re all about. Here’s the scoop:

You can think of a comet as a (temporarily) gleaming “snowball” in space. These ancient masses of rock and ice, dating from the beginning of our solar system, spend most of their time in our system’s far reaches, where it’s both dark and cold—but when a comet’s orbit brings it close to the Sun, it becomes brilliantly illuminated, like comet C/2020 F3 is now.

Under this much radiation, part of the comet’s material gets vaporized and blown off the comet, resulting in a tail that streams “downwind,” away from the Sun—this is what gives comets their familiar appearance. (If you watch C/2020 F3 day by day, you may even notice the angle of the tail shift as the comet arcs past the Sun.) Since this is currently a pre-dawn comet, the tail points away from where the Sun will rise.

Path of comet C/2020 F3 in early July skies.
Path of the comet C/2020 F3, as seen from 40° North around 4 AM in early and mid-July. (Click for enlarged view.)

As currently seen from suburban locations, comet C/2020 F3 appears somewhat more than a thumb’s width in length, when your fist is held straight out in front of you. Around 4 AM, it’s just high enough to get over a single-story dwelling across the street from you—about a fist’s width above the northeastern horizon (hold your arm in front of you, with the bottom of your fist at eye level, while making a “thumb’s up” sign). The comet still looks good around 4:30, but by 4:45, twilight is definitely washing it out, and the comet will fade into the sunrise before 5 AM. Continue reading “How to See Comet C/2020 F3”

A New “Constellations” Playlist!

The newest (as of June ’20) addition to the “Constellations” playlist.

A while back, I wrote that I’d be taking a breather from writing about astronomy and other subjects to focus on creating videos. Some of my results are now up on the web–the link above is for the latest video, about the constellation Boötes.

There are currently two others as well–Leo and Virgo–in the “Constellations” playlist–they’re meant for mostly for beginners, but I hope my more advanced friends in astronomy will enjoy them, too. More are on the way soon!

Check out the link above, or go the Constellations playlist here, or the channel. (As they say, “if you like the videos, ‘like’ them and subscribe!”) See you there!

VIDEO: March 2020 Planetary Conjunction

Still Image from "Touring the Night Sky" Conjunction video.
Still image from a four-minute video showing you how to see the beautiful planetary alignments in late March. –Click image to go to the video on YouTube.

In spite of nasty viruses and all kinds of other misbegotten issues, the sky still performs its celestial dance–and we now have an opportunity to see the planets embrace as they perform a pre-dawn planetary conjunction–that is, two or more planets will line up closely from our point of view here on Earth. Mars and Jupiter will draw close on the morning of March 19, and even closer on Friday, the 20th. After that, they’ll continue to dazzle early risers–especially since Saturn is also nearby, and for part of the dance, at least, our Moon makes a cameo as a beuatiful crescent…

I have created a video covering the next several days’ planetary action, so you can see how these events will look–and which planet is which! It’s a little over four minutes, and I hope it inspires you to get out and look for yourself–here’s the YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0zqeHokQCs8