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See Saturn (CosWatch Blog 8)24/07/2020

Welcome to the eighth of Fun Science‘s CosWatch blog posts, which you can read through with your young scientist and learn how to see Saturn.

What is CosWatch?

There’s so much to see in the night sky! You may have seen Brian Cox on TV describing the “wonders of the universe”, or Carl Sagan talking about the “awesome machinery of nature”, and they’re absolutely right. But while huge rockets and observatories can help, space isn’t just for people with expensive equipment. You can see amazing things from millions of miles away from your very own back garden. Each week, I’m going to talk about one of these incredible objects, and how you can find them.

This beautiful footage from Voyager 2 is a timelapse showing the probe’s approach to the Saturn.

This time, we’re going to be talking about how to see Saturn, the second-largest planet in the Solar System!

Tell me about Saturn

Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun, and takes 29 years to orbit it. This makes sense; it’s further (and therefore has a greater distance to travel) than Jupiter, which takes 12 years, and much closer than Uranus, which takes 84 years. Like those two planets, it is a gas giant, meaning it is mostly made of gas. Also like those two, it has a short day of only ten hours and forty-two minutes.

“Saturn as seen from Mimas” by Chesley Bonestell is credited by some as inspiring the post-war appetite for space that fuelled the race to get the moon.

Saturn is most famous for its colossal rings. These rings aren’t solid objects as they may appear, but a collection of lots of tiny bits of ice, and a small amount of rocky material. These ice-lumps range from the scale of microns (smaller than a human hair) to metres (bigger than a car).

This image from NASA allows us to see Saturn in transit – that is to say, passing in front of the sun. This helps illustrate the size and majesty of its rings.

The Moons of Saturn

Some kids get all of the toys. As well as the biggest rings, Saturn has 82 moons, the most of any planet in our solar system. We discover them so quickly, only around 50 of them have names!

The most famous of these moons is Titan. Titan is a very exciting moon; much larger than ours, it’s the only other place in the solar system where we’ve found still bodies of liquid, which may be necessary for life. We’ve also landed a probe on its surface; the image to the right is really from the ground of Titan itself!

On the right, Titan from space. On the left, Titan from its surface.

There are of course many other moons of note. Pan, for instance, is shaped like a sherbert UFO sweetie. Methone, meanwhile, is shaped like a pebble.

On the left, the pebble shaped Methone. On the right, the sweetie-shaped Pan. Both from NASA.

Saturn has been observed since prehistoric times, and represents many different Gods in many different mythologies.

However, its rings and moons weren’t known about until much later. Galileo, who discovered four of Jupiter’s moons, observed Saturn in 1610. He thought the rings were two moons on either side of Saturn, and described them as “Saturn’s ears”; based on this sketch he drew, it’s easy to see why!

Phineas L. MacGuire Series | Book awards, Saturn, Children's books

How can I see Saturn?

As said, Saturn has been observed since ancient times, which means that it can easily be seen with the naked eye. Most modern telescopes will easily highlight the rings; if you’re lucky, you’ll see some moons too. You can buy special filters to observe more detail, but these aren’t necessary.

As ever, the website timeanddate.com is very helpful for this – using their “night sky” function, you can choose your location and planet, then simply test visibility for each of the nights. Currently, Saturn is hanging around “with” Jupiter in the South – though of course they’re over a billion miles apart in real life.

Saturn has inspired art, religion and scientific discovery for thousands of years, and will pretty much always be visible. I hope you enjoy observing it!

In conclusion:

  • Saturn is the magnificent sixth planet from the Sun, and the second gas giant.
  • It has huge rings made of tiny pieces of ice (and a little rock), and over 80 moons.
  • We have landed a probe on the surface of Titan, the largest of those moons.
  • Saturn has been observed since ancient times, but we only worked out it had rings about 400 years ago.
  • You can easily see Saturn with the naked eye, and its rings and moons with a telescope.

What’s next for CosWatch?

This is the last of the CosWatch blogs for now, but who knows what’s in store for the future? I hope you’ve been able to learn some interesting facts, and perhaps see some of these beautiful objects for yourself. I’ve been Electron Edward, and it has been a pleasure to share the delights of the cosmos with you.

Notes:

Fun Science recently created a “Planets and Space” home kit, pre-orderable now for only £5.00. Check it out here!

In this article I explain that a further a planet is from the Sun, the longer it takes, generally, to orbit it. This is briefly touching on Kepler’s laws of planetary motion; however, this is fairly complex maths, and you don’t need to focus on this until at least year 12.

Younger scientists, or older ones with good taste, may want to check out The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System in the (sadly late) Joanna Cole’s Magic School Bus series to help them remember and learn about the different planets – though note that this book has Pluto classified as a planet, which is of course out of date..

See NEOWISE (CosWatch Blog 7)13/07/2020

Welcome to the seventh of Fun Science‘s CosWatch blog posts, which you can read through with your young scientist and learn how to see the comet NEOWISE.

This comet is visible for about the next week, but then will be absent for thousands of years. Unless you’re immortal or a ghost, don’t delay!

What is CosWatch?

There’s so much to see in the night sky! You may have seen Brian Cox on TV describing the “wonders of the universe”, or Carl Sagan talking about the “awesome machinery of nature”, and they’re absolutely right. But while huge rockets and observatories can help, space isn’t just for people with expensive equipment. You can see amazing things from millions of miles away from your very own back garden. Each week, I’m going to talk about one of these incredible objects, and how you can find them.

This time, we’re going to be talking about how to see NEOWISE, a comet visible this month!

Tell me about NEOWISE

Comets are balls of ice that move around the solar system, which is why they’re sometimes referred to as “dirty snowballs”. NEOWISE is one of these comets.

Comets move around in strange oval orbits. When they move close to the Sun, they begin to melt, and large amounts of their ice are torn off in the form of bright gasses. This is why they have long tails.

This image from Wells & Mendip Astronomers shows us NEOWISE’s tail.

NEOWISE has a strange name because it was discovered by the NEOWISE space probe. The “WISE” stands for “Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer”, while the “NEO” stands for “Near-Earth Object.”

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/94/WISE_artist_concept_%28PIA17254%2C_crop%29.jpg/1280px-WISE_artist_concept_%28PIA17254%2C_crop%29.jpg

The probe in question. This is just concept art, but gives us a good idea of what the probe looks like in space.

Where do comets come from?

There are two types of comet – “short period” comets, that orbit the Sun in less than 200 years, and “long period” comets, that take much longer than that – sometimes many thousands of years.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/10/C_2020_F3_NEOWISE.jpg/800px-C_2020_F3_NEOWISE.jpg

As this diagram demonstrates, NEOWISE is a long period comet; it takes about 4500 years to reach us, and another 6800 to get back to where it started from.

Short period comets are thought to originate from the “Kupier Belt”, a ring of asteroids past Neptune. Long period comets probably come from the “Oort Cloud”, a great cloud of gas and rock that surrounds the Solar System.

https://space-facts.com/wp-content/uploads/oort-cloud.png

A diagram by Lorine Moreau showing the incredible size of the Oort Cloud – you can also see the Kupier Belt.

We have tried to land some space probes on comets, ocassionally successfully. However, because of the relatively small sizes (often about that of a city) and extremely high speeds involved, mistakes do occur. A lander from the Rosetta spacecraft managed to reach a comet, but unfortunately bounced underneath a cliff; this meant that its solar panels were uesless, and the batteries ran out before many results could be acquired.

How can I see NEOWISE?

NEOWISE will be very, very difficult to see after the 19th, and will disappear soon afterwards. There’s also the risk of it breaking up into pieces too small to see at any point. Don’t delay! Make plans!

I managed to see NEOWISE at 3:15am on the 12th. Yes, unfortunately this CosWatch will involve some early morning rising or late nights – but for such a rare spectacle, isn’t it worth it?

https://cdn.discordapp.com/attachments/698261768455061535/731684347039580170/unknown.png

This photograph was taken by my good friend James in London, and should give you some idea of what you’ll be seeing.

Some people have reported seeing NEOWISE as early as 11:30pm, but for security’s sake, 3am – before it starts to get dark – is your best option. Find somewhere with a clear view of the North-East horizon. It should be fairly difficult to miss, but if you’re having trouble finding it, locate the star Capella using the internet or star charts, then look further down.

NEOWISE is visible with the naked eye, but in areas with considerable light pollution, it’d be worth using a binoculars or a telescope; unlike shooting stars, comet, though extremely fast, look like they’re moving very slowly aross the sky, and are easy to focus on as a result.

In conclusion:

  • NEOWISE is a comet visible for the next week or so.
  • It is a “long period” comet, meaning it takes thousands of years to move around the solar system.
  • It probably originated in the Oort Cloud.
  • Its tail is simply ice melting as the comet approaches the Sun.
  • You can see NEOWISE easily – but not for long!

What’s next on CosWatch?

Next time, I’ll be talking about Saturn, the iconic ringed gas giant. Have fun observing NEOWISE!

Notes:

Fun Science recently created a “Planets and Space” home kit, pre-orderable now for only £5.00. Check it out here!

See Andromeda (CosWatch Blog 6)10/07/2020

Welcome to the sixth of Fun Science‘s CosWatch blog posts, which you can read through with your young scientist and learn how to see Andromeda, our galactic next-door neighbour.

What is CosWatch?

There’s so much to see in the night sky! You may have seen Brian Cox on TV describing the “wonders of the universe”, or Carl Sagan talking about the “awesome machinery of nature”, and they’re absolutely right. But while huge rockets and observatories can help, space isn’t just for people with expensive equipment. You can see amazing things from millions of miles away from your very own back garden. Each week, I’m going to talk about one of these incredible objects, and how you can find them.

Today we look for Andromeda, a place far distant from any of our other CosWatch blog focusses.

APOD provides us with this ethereal picture of Andromeda.

What is Andromeda?

We live in a galaxy – a collection of stars, usually in a disk shape – called the Milky Way. Andromeda is simply another such galaxy.

Though perhaps the most well-known galaxy other than our own, the Andromeda galaxy isn’t technically the closest; this is because the Milky Way and Andromeda both have “satellite” galaxies, a bit like the moons of a planet. It is, however, the largest galaxy in a big nest of galaxies of which we are a member; this is called the “local group”.

Andromeda is sometimes called “M31”. This means it is the 31st entry in something called the “Messier catalogue”. This is a list started by French Astronomer Charles Messier of fuzzy, difficult-to-identify objects in the night sky, including nebulae and star clusters. Andromeda’s satellites have similiar entries in the catalogue – M32, for instance.

The past and the future

Despite being larger, Andromeda is more like our galaxy’s little brother than older sister; it is ten billion years old, some three billion years younger than the Milky Way. It was formed from the collision of several protogalaxies, which you can think of as galaxy babies.

Andromeda was first recorded as being observed by human beings in 964 AD. However, it and other spiral galaxies were thought to be nebulae into the 1900s. There was a great debate by two scientists as to whether these “spiral nebulae” were just nebulae or “island universes”. It was settled when Edwin Hubble observed a flashing star, which he was able to use to measure the distance to Andromeda. It became quickly apparent that this object was further away than anything else we had observed, and was probably another galaxy.

An article by Ella Alderson provides this demonstration of a galactic collision.

The Milky Way and Andromeda are heading towards each other at over 68 miles a second – incredibly fast from our perspective, but for objects as big as galaxies, really rather slow. In about 4.5 billion years – when Earth will be twice as old – they will collide and combine into one galaxy, dubbed “Milkdromeda”. This may result in the solar system being ejected from the galaxies. Don’t panic, though; humans as we know them will be long-gone, and any still-existing lifeforms will probably be alright, as Earth will still orbit the Sun.

Visiting Andromeda

Since it was discovered to be another galaxy, Andromeda has featured in many science fiction stories. It is the main setting for the game Mass Effect: Andromeda, as well as the film Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s also the setting of Andromeda, a series by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

The game map of Mass Effect: Andromeda. The various locations of this game are no match to the actual population of Andromeda, which is estimated to have something like a trillion stars!

Unfortunately, in real life, we probably can’t visit Andromeda. The laws of physics seem to say that we can only travel as fast as the speed of light; even if we did manage to match light with a probe or space ship, it would still take us 2.537 million years to reach the place. Fortunately, there’s plenty we can learn about it from simply observing it in the sky.

How can I see Andromeda?

The Andromeda galaxy is the only galaxy visible with the naked eye, albeit on moonless nights; despite being so far away, the brightness of its collected stars makes it very powerful. It forms part of the conveniently named Andromeda constellation.

To find it in the night sky, you need to find the “Mirach” nearby; think of it like using a sign post to choose the right lane on the motorway.

This diagram from WikiHow eloquently demonstrates how to find Mirach (and thus Andromeda) between the Cassiopeia and Pegasus constellations.

Fortunately, Mirach doesn’t move erratically in the way the planets do (there’s a reason “planet” is Greek for “wanderer”), so you should always be able to find it in this spot. Just use a star chart (or website like timeanddate.com) to work out when those constellations will be visible in your area, and you’ll be set!

There are some benefits to observing Andromeda with a telescope. You may be able to see some of Andromeda’s twenty dwarf satellite galaxies. The image below was taken in 1899; imagine what you could do from your own garden with a whole century of technology on top!

In conclusion:

  • Andromeda is another galaxy, bigger than the Milky Way but younger.
  • It is the largest galaxy in our galactic “local group”.
  • Sometimes people call it “M31” because it is part of a record of space things called the “Messier catalogue”.
  • It has been observed since the 900s but was only determined to be another galaxy in the 20th century.
  • It will collide with the Milky Way in several billion years.
  • We probably can’t visit it, but we can certainly learn lots about it from observation.
  • It can be seen with the naked eye near the Cassiopeia and Pegasus nebulae.
  • Telescopes can reveal smaller galaxies next to it.

What’s next on CosWatch?

Next time, we’ll look at Comet NEOWISE, a rare Astronomical opportunity this month. Don’t miss it!

Notes:

Fun Science recently created a “Planets and Space” home kit, available now for only £5.00. Check it out here!

If your young scientist is interested, they may like to hear about blue-shifting. Because Andromeda is heading towards us, its light waves are being compressed, which makes them bluer; if it was moving away, they would be being stretched, making it appear redder. It’s quite well-explained in this gif shared on the Fun Science Twitter page.

See Uranus (CosWatch Blog 5)01/07/2020

Welcome to the second of Fun Science‘s CosWatch blog posts, which you can read through with your young scientist and learn how to see Uranus.

What is CosWatch?

There’s so much to see in the night sky! You may have seen Brian Cox on TV describing the “wonders of the universe”, or Carl Sagan talking about the “awesome machinery of nature”, and they’re absolutely right. But while huge rockets and observatories can help, space isn’t just for people with expensive equipment. You can see amazing things from millions of miles away from your very own back garden. Each week, I’m going to talk about one of these incredible objects, and how you can find them.

This beautiful shot from Voyager 2 captures Uranus’ colour… but that might be the least interesting thing about this mind-blowing planet.

This time, we’re going to be talking about how to see Uranus, the second-to-last planet in the solar system!

Tell me about Uranus

Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun, and takes a staggering eighty-four years to go around it; for every “month” of Uranus’ year, seven years have passed on Earth! Like Jupiter, it is a gas giant, meaning  it is mostly made of gas. Also like Jupiter, it has a short day of only seventeen hours and fourteen minutes.

I love this art by Stefan Blaser, which shows us how an astronaut would see Uranus from the surface of its moon Umbriel.

There’s something absolutely fascinating about Uranus which makes it totally unique. If you look at art of photos which show Uranus’ rings, you’ll notice they seem to be upright, rather than sideways. There’s a delightful reason for this – the entire planet is sideways! Nobody is quite sure why Uranus is this way.  Research suggests that when the Solar System was forming, the early Uranus was hit by an object larger than Earth, which pushed it over.

Uranus: The Ringed Planet That Sits on its Side | Space

This more distant image of Uranus demonstrates its tilted axis, and some of its moons.

Uranus has at least 27 known moons, mostly named after Shakespearean characters such as Ophelia, Cressida, Margaret and Puck.

Discovery and name

Uranus is even more distant than the first six planets. It wasn’t even identified as a planet in ancient astronomy, only as a star. That changed in 1781, when William Herschel discovered it – from the city of Bath, no less. Not only that, but its orbit helped Astronomers realise that there must be an eighth planet – Neptune was discovered sixty years later!

William Herschel working at his telescope, from which he’ll see Uranus. His sister Caroline would go on to make many discoveries of her own.

Astronomers didn’t agree on a name for almost seventy years. Rather than continuing the trend of naming the planets after Greek/Roman Gods, Herschel wanted to name the planet “George’s Star”, or Georgium Sidus, after his King. People from other countries didn’t want a planet named after an English King, and called it other names. One of the more popular names was Herschel, after its discoverer.

Unfortunately for Herschel (but fortunately for people who like good names for planets), Astronomers eventually settled on “Uranus”, after the Greek god Ouranos. Now, many people mock Uranus’ name because “anus” is another word for bottom, but most agree it’s a better name than George’s Star.

How can I see Uranus?

Uranus is more difficult to see than the more well-known first six planets, which is why it wasn’t recognised by astronomers for so long. It can be seen with the naked eye on a moonless night, but you’re better off setting up a telescope or binoculars. It will appear as a blue-green smudge; if you’re lucky, you’ll see some moons too. You can buy special filters to make it more visible, but these aren’t necessary.

Uranus will spend all of 2020 “in” the constellation of Aries the ram. It’s being shy at the moment, spending a lot of time hiding under the horizon where you won’t be able to spot it. I like the website timeanddate.com for this – using their “night sky” function, you can choose your location and planet, then simply test visibility for each of the nights.

Sadly, Uranus has chosen to hide from us tonight – but will be visible soon!

Uranus is my favourite planet without life, and I can’t wait to observe it soon. Stargazing is the perfect lockdown activity. It’s relaxing, it’s best done far away from people other than your family/housemates, yet it connects you to everyone on Earth. I hope you enjoy it!

In conclusion:

  • Uranus is the unusual seventh planet from the Sun, and the third gas giant.
  • It is flipped onto its side, with vertical rings.
  • Uranus has 27 moons, mostly named after Shakespeare characters.
  • Uranus was discovered in the 1700s in Bath, and Astronomers argued over its name for nearly 100 years.
  • You can see Uranus with the naked eye if you’re lucky, or fairly easily with a telescope.

What’s next on CosWatch?

Next time, I’ll be talking about the Andromeda galaxy, the most distant and large object so far on CosWatch. See you soon!

Notes:

Fun Science recently created a “Planets and Space” home kit, pre-orderable now for only £5.00. Check it out here!

In this article I describe Uranus as a gas giant. In fact, along with Neptune, it is a special type of gas giant called an “ice giant”. All that means is that it has lots of gasses other than Hydrogen and Helium.

Younger scientists, or older ones with good taste, may want to check out The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System in Joanna Cole’s Magic School Bus series to help them remember and learn about the different planets – though note that this book has Pluto classified as a planet, which is of course out of date..

Moon Phases (CosWatch Blog 4)23/06/2020

Welcome to the second of Fun Science‘s CosWatch blog posts, which you can read through with your young scientist and learn the phases of the Moon.

What is CosWatch?

There’s so much to see in the night sky! You may have seen Brian Cox on TV describing the “wonders of the universe”, or Carl Sagan talking about the “awesome machinery of nature”, and they’re absolutely right. But while huge rockets and observatories can help, space isn’t just for people with expensive equipment. You can see amazing things from millions of miles away from your very own back garden. Each week, I’m going to talk about one of these incredible objects, and how you can find them.

This time, we’re going to be talking about the Moon, and why it changes shape!

This amazing shot from NASA shows the Moon creeping up behind some trees at the US National Arboretum in 2018. A large number of the Earth’s beings would have looked upon sights like this all through their evolution.

Tell me about the Moon

The Moon is the Earth’s only natural satellite. Satellites in nature are objects that orbit planets and minor planets. The Earth is a planet, which makes the Moon, which goes around the Earth, a natural satellite! It takes just under a month to orbit around the Earth, and it takes about 1.28 seconds for light reflected off of it to reach our planet.

It’s a solid, rocky mass, like the first four planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars). It does technically have an extremely thin atmosphere, but nothing substantial. Scientists believe the Moon may exist because an early version of Earth collided with a planet the size of Mars, and the remaining rocks formed into the Earth and the Moon. This is called the “Giant-impact hypothesis”, and has a fair bit of evidence. Scientists really developed results that suggests that the Moon may be much older than this, but this doesn’t necessarily contradict the “giant impact” idea.

This graph shows us roughly what scientists imagine might have happened.

Because The Moon is visible from Earth, it has been an object of fascination for human cultures since the dawn of civilization. The Moon has been described by various peoples and races as a female God, a male God, a rabbit, a Buffalo, and countless other unusual and interesting interpretations. This is probably because of the different colours of the Moon; the darker parts, or “Maria”, look like shapes compared to the brighter “Highland” parts. These areas aren’t actually any particularly different; “Maria” simply reflect a few percent less light, which makes them appear darker.

This lovely art from Matthew Meyer demonstrates how people – or rabbits! – may have seen likenesses of themselves or stories they’d heard in the Moon.

It is the only celestial body other than Earth that humans have  visited; between 1969 and 1972, twelve astronauts have walked on the moon, collecting samples and enjoying the reduced gravity; anything on the Moon weighs about six times less than on Earth. This is because the Moon is roughly six times smaller than the Earth.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=az9nFrnCK60&w=560&h=315]

Why does the Moon change shape?

The Moon is tidally locked with the Earth, which also means it is in “synchronous rotation”. What that means, simply, is it moves around the Earth just as fast as it turns on its axis. Or, even more simply, the same side is always facing the Earth.

However, the Moon also doesn’t produce its own light, and only reflects that of the Sun. That means that as it moves around the planet, the half of it that is lit by the Sun moves around but the actual Moon doesn’t. This is difficult to visualise, but this image shows it quite well.

There are eight “phases” of the Moon. They are either “waxing” phases, when it appears to be getting bigger, or “waning” ones, where it appears to be getting smaller.

Waxing or waning? Shape Appearance
New Moon This phase is barely visible, because no light can reach it!
Waxing Crescent

More about this image…

Quarter

(or “first quarter”)

More about this image…

Gibbous

More about this image…

Full Moon

More about this image…

Waning Gibbous

More about this image…

Quarter

(or “third quarter”)

More about this image…

Crescent

More about this image…

The Moon’s visibility, age, and regular changes make it one of the earliest clocks in the world. Early human beings would use it to keep track of time, just like the seasons of the Earth.

How can I see the Moon?

As you might imagine, it isn’t too difficult to spot the Moon when it isn’t in its “New Moon” phase. It is the brightest object in the night sky; in fact, it reflects so much of the Sun’s light it can be seen quite often in the day.

The speed of the Earth’s rotation relative to the Moon’s orbit means that it rises about fifty minutes later every evening.  Like the Sun, it rises in the East. As with Jupiter, your best course of action for working out when it will appear is using the National School Observatory‘s website; unlike Jupiter, you’re unlikely to mistake it for anything else!

In conclusion:

  • The Moon is Earth’s only large, long-term natural satellite.
  • It has been observed by humans since time immemorial, and the different-coloured areas (“Maria” and “Highlands”) look like shapes.
  • The Moon moves around the Earth as fast as it turns around, meaning the same “face” is always looking at us, and light moves around it, causing the different phases.
  • It can be seen easily with the naked eye, except during “New Moon” phases.

What’s next on CosWatch?

Next time, I’ll be talking about Uranus, the third gas giant, and the seventh planet in our Solar System. Somerset residents will be particularly interested in this one!

Notes:

Fun Science recently created a “Planets and Space” home kit, pre-orderable now for only £5.00. Check it out here!

See Orion’s Belt (CosWatch Blog 3)17/06/2020

Welcome to the third of Fun Science‘s CosWatch blog posts, which you can read through with your young scientist and learn how to see Orion’s Belt.

What is CosWatch?

There’s so much to see in the night sky! You may have seen Brian Cox on TV describing the “wonders of the universe”, or Carl Sagan talking about the “awesome machinery of nature”, and they’re absolutely right. But while huge rockets and observatories can help, space isn’t just for people with expensive equipment. You can see amazing things from millions of miles away from your very own back garden. Each week, I’m going to talk about one of these incredible objects, and how you can find them.

This lovely shot from Universe Today shows Orion’s Belt clearly – the three blue stars in a diagonal line in the middle.

Orion’s Belt is the focus this week. You’ll learn what this celestial location is, and learn how to see Orion’s Belt.

What is Orion’s Belt?

Orion’s Belt, sometimes titled “The Three Kings” or “The Three Sisters”. refers to three stars in the constellation of Orion. Constellations are shapes in the night sky, that ancient people compared to mythogical figures or pictures of stories. Constellations are specific to whiever planet you’re on, and don’t refer to an actual “thing” in space; the stars in Orion are millions of miles apart, and not “aligned”.

This drawing by Johaan Bayer demonstrates how Ancient Greeks interpreted their view of the stars, and this image from EarthSky.org shows how we see it today..

In mythology, Orion was a giant hunter. You can see in the image above how the Greeks might have intepreted the stars as reflecting his shape; certainly his right “arm” looks as if it’s holding an arrow, and the three stars do look a little like a belt on a dainty torso. Admittedly, it’s quite difficult to see it now, but perhaps the Greeks had better imaginations than us, without TV to distract them.

What is in Orion’s Belt?

Again, describing something as being “in” Orion is a bit misleading, as Orion only looks like a flat shape from our planet; as this video shows, it’s actually a complex 3D shape with something like 1000 light-years between the different “dots” of light.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lD-5ZOipE48&w=560&h=315]

What I can do, however, is describe the different stars and objects that make up the “belt” of the constellation you can see.

I’ve labelled this image from the Hubble space telescope to help you identify the different stars.

1. Alnitak

Alnitak is actually a triple star system, three stars that orbit around each other. The three stars are blue super giants, far larger than the Sun.

A size comparison between one of the Alnitak stars and our Sun. The Sun is millions of times larger than the Earth – Alnitak is almost frighteningly colossal!

2. Alnilam

Alnilam is also a blue supergiant. Within the next million or so years, this star may explode as a supernova!

3. Mintaka

Like Alnitak, Mintaka is another system of three stars. Once again we have some blue supergiants; because these perform nuclear fusion more powerfully than the Sun, they “die” more quickly and become beautiful nebulae or supernova.

 

It’s a bit like that bit in Star Wars where there are two Suns. In this case, rather than orange and red star, the Mintaka system is made up of three blue supergiants, which are extremely hot and far bigger than the sun.

4. Orion nebula

The last part of Orion’s Belt to talk about is perhaps the most exciting. Just below Orion’s Belt is the Orion Nebula. A nebula is the gaseous remains of a star that has stopped necular fusion; the ghost of a star is a fun way to imagine it. In the Orion Nebula, there is a “Stellar Nursery”, where protostars (new, baby stars) are forming – about 750 of them. What’s more, many of them have “protoplanetary disks”, huge circles of dust and gas where planets like ours may be created. To put it another way, the Orion Nebula is pregnant with hundreds of new Solar Systems.

The video below shows what it might look like to travel through this beautiful nebula – though it’s travelling much faster than we think is physically possible.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCFg5udYbAg&w=560&h=315]

How can I see Orion’s Belt?

Orion’s Belt can be seen fairly easily if you look in the South West sky during the evening (or North West in the Southern Hemisphere). View with the naked eye for the bigger picture, or with a telescope to examine individual stars; unfortunately, they are simply too far away to see anything like planets or moons.

Trying to see Orion’s nebula is more complex. Nebulae are, as a rule, difficult or even impossible to see with the naked eye. For that reason, if you have a telescope, try aiming that at the Orion nebula. Once you’ve located it, increase magnification to get a better view, and try different filters to make it more vibrant.

The Orion Nebula as seen by Marian McGaffney.

However, while I can’t make any promises, some people have been able to observe the Orion Nebula without equipment – you’d just have to find an area with very low light pollution, on the night of a New Moon.

In conclusion:

  • Orion’s Belt consists of three stars in the Orion Constellation; a constellation is a shape made of stars viewed from Earth.
  • The three stars – Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka – are blue supergiants.
  • Two of those supergiants are triple systems, with three stars orbiting each other. Thus, the three stars of Orion’s Belt are actually seven stars!
  • Just below the belt is the Orion Nebula, with hundreds of new Solar Systems being formed inside it.
  • Orion’s Belt is easily visible on clear nights in the South-East.
  • Seeing the Orion Nebula usually requires a telescope.

What’s next on CosWatch?

Next time, I’ll be talking about the Phases of the Moon, and why it appears to change shape. Have a good week!

Notes:

Fun Science recently created a “Planets and Space” home kit, pre-orderable now for only £5.00. Check it out here!

See Jupiter (CosWatch Blog 2)08/06/2020

Welcome to the second of Fun Science‘s CosWatch blog posts, which you can read through with your young scientist and learn how to see Jupiter.

What is CosWatch?

There’s so much to see in the night sky! You may have seen Brian Cox on TV describing the “wonders of the universe”, or Carl Sagan talking about the “awesome machinery of nature”, and they’re absolutely right. But while huge rockets and observatories can help, space isn’t just for people with expensive equipment. You can see amazing things from millions of miles away from your very own back garden. Each week, I’m going to talk about one of these incredible objects, and how you can find them.

This amazing shot of Jupiter was taken with the Hubble Space Telescope that orbits the Earth.

This time, we’re going to be talking about how to see Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system!

Tell me about Jupiter

Jupiter is the fifth planet from the Sun, and takes just under twelve years to go around it. It is a gas giant; unlike our planet, which has a solid surface and a relatively small atmosphere, Jupiter is almost nothing else but atmosphere. Like all the gas giants, it has rings, though unlike Saturn’s, they’re very faint.

This amazing image from the spacecraft Juno is useful for two reasons; we can see the swirls of Jupiter’s atmosphere, and we can also see the shadow of one its moons!

Jupiter is a powerful planet; it is the third-brightest thing in the night sky after the Moon and Venus, and, despite being so large, it is the fastest-spinning planet, with its days only ten hours long. It also has a huge magnetic field, fifteen times bigger than the Sun’s! You may have heard of the great red spot, which is a storm in Jupiter’s atmosphere that has been raging for four centuries, and is very slowly diminishing. You could fit three Earths inside it, such is its size.

There are many, many moons of Jupiter. The human race has confirmed at least 79, but there could be quite a few more. The most famous are the four “Galilean” moons: Callisto, Europa, Ganymede, and Io. These are much larger than Earth’s moon, and are named after the Astronomer who first spotted them, Galileo Galilei. They have many interesting qualities; Io is teeming with volcanoes because its surface is torn apart by the gravity of the other planets, while Europa may hold life in its Icy oceans, twice the volume of Earth’s!

The Jupiter mystery

A photo from NASA of the four Galilean moons, edited so they sit together. From top to bottom: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.

When scientists look at planets that go around stars that aren’t our sun, the largest gas giants – that is to say, the ones like Jupiter – tend to orbit very close to their star. They aren’t quite sure, then, why Jupiter orbits from so far away, past four solid planets. They think a young Jupiter may have collided with several other early planets, then been catapulted back to where it is now – this theory is called the “Grand Tack”.

The eight planets that make up our solar system. What this graph from NASA doesn’t show is at least five dwarf planets and thousands and thousands of other objects, including satellites we’ve made outselves. To get a model of the Solar System, check out the link to Fun Science’s home kit in the notes at the bottom of this CosWatch!

How can I see Jupiter?

As I mentioned, Jupiter is at times the third brightest object in the night sky. This means that, like the ISS, it can be observed with the naked eye, and indeed it has been; people as far back as the Ancient Egyptians tracked its movements across the sky.

However, unlike the ISS, which is simply too fast to catch with most equipment, you can see Jupiter with any telescope or pair of binoculars if you’d like to. You don’t necessarily need any special filters or lenses, and you may be able to see the Galilean moons in your device!

A handy graph from SchoolsObservatory.Org shows UK stargazers how to spot Jupiter, next to Saturn, Mars and the Moon, in the south this month.

You can try to memorise the movements of all the planets, but given that this is quite complicated, I like to use the National Schools’ Observatory, which provides a daily forecast for the UK sky at night. To see Jupiter at the moment you’d need to be up at 2-6am – but there are plenty of times in the year where it is visible much earlier, so don’t be disheartened!

In conclusion:

  • Jupiter is the powerful fifth planet from the Sun, with a huge magnetic field and a fast spin.
  • A gas giant, very little of Jupiter is solid, instead mostly being liquid and gas.
  • Jupiter has at least seventy-nine moons, of which four are very famous. One of these may hold life!
  • Jupiter is in an unusual place for a planet of its size, and scientists still aren’t certain why.
  • You can see it with the naked eye, but get an extra-special view through equipment.

What’s next on CosWatch?

Next time, I’ll be talking about Orion’s Belt. See you soon!

Notes:

Fun Science recently created a “Planets and Space” home kit, pre-orderable now for only £5.00. Check it out here!

Younger scientists, or older ones with good taste, may want to check out The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System in Joanna Cole’s Magic School Bus series to help them remember and learn about the different planets – though note that this book has Pluto classified as a planet, which is of course out of date..

See the ISS (CosWatch Blog 1)03/06/2020

Welcome to the first of one of many Fun Science‘s CosWatch blog posts, which you can read through with your young scientist.

What is CosWatch?

There’s so much to see in the night sky! You may have seen Brian Cox on TV describing the “wonders of the universe”, or Carl Sagan talking about the “awesome machinery of nature”, and they’re absolutely right. But while huge rockets and observatories can help, space isn’t just for people with expensive equipment. You can see amazing things from millions of miles away from your very own back garden. Each week, I’m going to talk about one of these incredible objects, and how you can find them.

A beautiful view of the International Space Station, at 73 metres long and 419,725kg in mass.

This time, we’re going to be talking about the International Space Station, and how you can see the ISS without any equipment!

What is the International Space Station?

The International Space Station (or ISS, which is much easier to say) is just what it sounds like; a space station that is owned by different nations across the world. It was created for the purpose of science experiments; the astronauts on board can run experiments in a vacuum, which is a rare opportunity.

In this image, astronauts from many different backgrounds work together on the ISS. The American space agency, NASA, has even worked with the Russian space agency many times – unthinkable during the 60s!

They can also observe what happens to their own body; astronauts are usually there for four to six months, which means that their weightlessness will begin to have an effect on their bodies. Most astronauts grow taller, but also have to exercise a lot – the lack of gravity makes everything easy, so their muscles have less work to do.

It was “launched” in 1998, but that makes it sounds like one single craft, which isn’t really right. It’s more like a huge LEGO set, with big chunks that can be taken on and off of it whenever. These chunks include:

Zarya, the first bit of the ISS created.


More about this image of Zarya...
Destiny, America’s laboratory module.


More about this image of Destiny...
Cupola, like a big “window” that the astronauts can look out of Earth at.


More about this image of Cupola...

How can I see the ISS?

The International Space Station has an orbital period of 92.86 minutes – in other words, it whizzes round the Earth every hour and a half. This means that, quite often, it is visible in the night sky! It doesn’t produce much of its own light, but reflects light from the Sun off its solar panels, a bit like the Moon reflecting the Sun’s light.

The International Space Station simply appears as a point of light in the sky, because it’s far away!

The best way to see the ISS is to use NASA’s Spot the Station website. This site will send you a video or text every time it flies over your local area – or you can simply check the times as a list. There’s also a map that show you where the International Space Station is at any moment.

From that point, you can see the ISS with the naked eye! Don’t worry, that isn’t as rude as it sounds – it just means you don’t need a telescope or binoculars. In fact, it’d probably be more difficult with them, because it moves so quickly across the sky! It usually takes the ISS about five minutes to reach one end of the sky from the other.

In conclusion:

  • The International Space Station, or ISS, is a place where astronauts from lots of different countries work together in space, carrying out experiments.
  • The weightlessness has an effect on astronauts’ bodies, but they’re prepared for it.
  • The ISS has lots of modules that can be added or removed.
  • It orbits the Earth every hour and a half.
  • You can see it with the naked eye.

What’s next on CosWatch?

Next time, I’ll be talking about Jupiter, the largest of the eight planets. See you then!

Notes:

I say that the ISS orbits the Earth every 92.86 minutes in this post, but curious children may be interested in hearing about something called Atomic Oxygen, or AO. The ISS is close enough to the Earth that tendrils of Oxygen, influenced by cosmic radiation and solar energy, brush against it. This creates a pulling force, about equal to that of an AA battery – very tiny, but enough that the ISS sometimes has to blast itself further away from the Earth to counteract its accumulated drag. Cool, right?

People of a LEGO persuasion like myself may be interested in this Twitter thread, which explains the history of the ISS using the LEGO set based on the station.