More Great Star Patterns I Have Known

June 30, 2013


Snarky birds, not angry.Lyra, Aquila, Cygnus, and Sagitta
Respectively they are The Harp, The Eagle, The Swan, and The Itty Bitty Arrow. The first three are all birds being shot at with the arrow. Well, two birds and a musical instrument, but the harp used to be a pigeon. Hey, it was a simpler time. Meanwhile the brightest star in each of the celestial birds form the Summer Triangle, which are the very first stars you see when it starts getting dark after sunset all summer long, and the only stars you see all night if you live in a big city. The three bright stars are Vega, Altair, and Deneb.

The brightest star in the triangle is Vega and that’s the star that Jodie Foster goes to in the movie Contact (1997). Spoiler Alert…… (to see her dad). I love Carl Sagan and I love many parts of this film’s horribly twisted indecent and grotesque corruption of his book, but her dad? Really Carl? The alien looks like Jodie Foster’s dad? Most of the movie is great but it gets a bit preachy at the end. Oh well. At least they didn’t release the kraken, or cut off a wolf’s head and sew it on to her lifeless body.
Tell us how you control the VLA with a mobile laptop.
In the eyepiece it's about the same width as Jupiter.Vega is at the very top end of the Lyra constellation and at the bottom end is M57, the Ring Nebula. It’s an oxygen-rich planetary nebula. M57 is easy to find, midway between two of the big bolts holding the harp together. In a scope it looks like a ghostly Cheerio. On a good night, with a big scope, and depending on whether you remembered to bring your overpriced O-III filter (that’s O3 but we didn’t want to confuse any Romans), it looks kind of green. Green is the color of oxygen, which is the O in O-III. The greenishness is subtle so star hoppers always ask “Does it look green?” “I don’t know, maybe, does it look green to you?” Always answer “Yes, yes it looks green to me.” But if they ask if you see the central star, say “No, no I don’t see the central star” because any star you see in the nebula is not the star that they are talking about and telling the truth about the central star will make you seem more credible on the green thing.

The southern point on the Summer Triangle is Altair which is in lots of movies. I’m guessing that’s because the name sounds like a typical star name. It means Flight of the Eagle which itself sounds like it might be the name of a movie or at least it oughta be. This is the star system that the horny male chauvinist crew goes to in the classic sci-fi film, Forbidden Planet (1956), starring a strangely stoic Leslie Nielson and the virgin-ish Anne Francis. They should definitely remake this one. Nielson and Francis are gone now but I think Quentin Tarantino would direct it if they could get Samuel L. Jackson to sign on. “I’m tired of these MF’ing monsters on this MF’ing planet!” Robbie the Robot is still around but he’s probably stuck in some back-lot warehouse downloading Adobe updates.
The robot had a respectable career path in shoe sales.
Blue and gold Albireo is a favorite for small refractors.Deneb is the tail feathers of Cygnus the Swan. Nobody goes there in a movie. It’s thousands of light years away for criminy sakes. The interesting star in Cygnus is way down at the other end of the bird, the tip of this nose, Albireo. The name Albireo is the result of the time-honored tradition of totally screwing up names as they are passed down and around for centuries. It is probably a combination of various words meaning the beak, and don’t stick your finger in this end, something like that. The star is actually a two-fer, one topaz colored and the other azure colored. Most color in the eyepiece is rather subtle but these star colors are reasonably intense. The two stars might orbit each other we’re not sure, but then it’s not as if they have anything more important to do.

A star’s color has everything to do with its surface temperature which, relative to the star’s stage of life, largely has to do with the star’s mass. Just about everything about a star depends on the mass. If you have a test in astronomy, and there is a question you don’t know the answer to, write “It depends on the mass” and you will be right most of the time. How hot is a star? It depends on the mass. How long do stars live? It depends on the mass. What do Catholics do in church? You get the idea.

Near Deneb on the north end of the summer triangle is the North American Nebula which coincidentally is pretty much shaped like North America with the east coast being attacked by a giant pelican.
Very large diffuse nebula, better for photography than casual viewing.
It's the simple things.Near the south end of the summer triangle is the Coathanger. I don’t know why I do, but I really like the Coathanger. It is just an asterism which means “an easy to recognize group of stars.” It can be a bit tricky to find though, this is real star hopping, but once you see it you will know it. Maybe that’s the appeal, it’s the “Aha there you are” moment. It really does look like a tiny coathanger in binoculars. But as my astrophoto mentor RL.Dietz once pointed out, “In space you can hang your clothes anywhere.”

Another mess left behind by a careless star.It’s an endearing little arrow. Start here to find the Coathanger which is near the feathered end of the arrow but technically located across the border in Vulpecula (the fox that ate the goose). Meanwhile near the pointy end of the arrow, but also in Vulpecula, is M27 the Dumbbell Nebula, so named because it is totally shaped like an apple core. Ah just go with it.

First light in almost every scope I've owned.Oh good, another tragic hero. We wouldn’t want to run out of those would we? No sir, where would HBO be without that trope? He’s depicted as he looked on one of his better days at least, stomping on the dragon’s head while he clubs the crap out of some of the local fauna. His torso is a keystone-shaped thing which astronomers call “The Keystone-Shaped Thing.” If you look very carefully on his right side, which is actually his left side but you are leaning back and looking at him upside down, you will see a faint fuzzy blob. It is M13 and it is amazing in a telescope where it will appear as a slightly brighter fuzzy blob.

M13 is the best globular cluster north of the Mason-Dixon line, I think, not really sure that’s still a thing. Those folks down south have some nice juicy globulars, we’re all aware of that. But M13 is nothing to snicker at. It has 300,000 freaking stars, all living in a small suburban farmhouse with one bathroom. It’s like the Brady Bunch after all the kids have had kids, who then had kids, who had kids etc., and none of them die for about a hundred billion years. There are two brighter stars, one on either side, that are not really part of the cluster. They are like the maid and the butcher. Nobody knows if they will eventually get together.

AstropornographyIn 1974 Carl Sagan orchestrated an effort to send a radio transmission towards M13 that cryptically describes the Earth’s location and the nature of human biology. The message will reach any intelligent aliens living there in about 25,000 years. Then they will know precisely how big of a cooking pot they need to bring when they come to eat us. Haha the joke’s on them because by then we’ll be mostly refined carbs and cholesterol. Meanwhile Carl also convinced NASA that they should include porn on space probes.

After the Big Dipper, Orion is easily the most known and the most pointed out by the people who want to appear to recognize at least some of them. There is the obvious belt, although Orion lived BP (Before Pants) so he wears a short skirt, or kilt or such, and below that hangs his big, um sword. Maybe it’s just a dagger, or possibly it’s a sword, not that it matters.

Hey buddy, why the long face?Just below the left-most star of the belt is the Horsehead Nebula. You can’t see it in a telescope, unless you are a member of the liar’s club, which I am. I’ve seen it twice. Yes I know there is a picture of it on the telescope box at Costco. You still won’t see it unless you know that guy with a telescope the size of a studio apartment, and the night is perfect, and you are so high up in the mountains you need oxygen, and you have a fancy ass expensive filter made especially so some smug smartass can swear they saw the Horsehead. But it’s totally worth it. First you stare and stare and stare into the eyepiece. The cone-rich fovea of your retina has a sharp focus but it is less light sensitive, so you have to use averted vision, or perverted vision, whatever works. Eventually an ethereal faint glow with a tiny crooked notch in the middle seems to appear for a second or two and then fade away. The glow and the notch are both pretty much the same intensity as the background of the sky. That’s the problem. That’s a huge problem. After a couple of minutes of trying, just say “Oh. Wow” and then let someone else have a try.

It's mostly physics, but there is a fair amount of chemistry going on here as well.Orion’s handy sword – dagger – butter knife – whatever, looks like a jumble of stars to your naked eye. But it is mostly M42, the world famous Orion Nebula, as well as M43, a colorful adorning accessory to the more famous nebula. M42 is probably the most favorite thing of all for a young kid to aim a small telescope at, other than the moon, and the neighbor kid’s big sister. That’s because it looks great in practically any telescope. This is the object whose pic should be on the Costco box, even though they would use the Hubble version. The nebula glows in the dark because there are are several brand new baby stars screaming their ultraviolet heads off in this crib. We call it an emission nebula but what we really mean is screaming baby heads.

Orion is surrounded by lots of friends each with their own constellation, and all of them are characters in his many adventures. He has two dogs, Canis Major, which is definitely a major dog, and Canis Minor, which only has two stars. He’s like one of those sassy little wiener dogs I guess. A lot of people do that, I don’t know why. But I notice when my neighbors walk their dogs by my house, a lot of them have a main dog, and then they have a little auxiliary back-up dog. That’s what Orion has going on. The little dog is like one of those spare tires that are not as tall and it makes a funny noise if you go too fast.
Orion and Taurus, photo by Brad Snowder.
Carpe noctem my friends, carpe noctem.

Great Star Patterns – Part 1

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