Now that the sun sets around 7pm (and with daylight saving ending soon) there’s plenty of time for pre-bedtime star-gazing with your kids. And, with the new moon (Oct 27, 2019) and a couple clear nights in the forecast (before the snow!), now is a perfect opportunity to brush up on fall constellations in view in the Northern hemisphere.
A few of my favorites are viewable around 7pm this time of year: Draco the Dragon, Cygnus the Swan, and Pegasus.
Draco’s long tail snakes across the northern sky, whipping between the big and little dippers. There are many mythological tales based on Draco but the most consistently found version involves Athena flinging the dragon into the sky during the battle between the Olympians and Titans. It is a “circumpolar” constellation which means for many viewers it remains above the horizon year round. Find out more, including the main stars, double stars, and nebulae found in the constellation from Space.com.
Cygnus the Swan’s brightest star, Deneb (the swan’s tail), is a part of the “Summer Triangle” which is still visible this time of year in the early hours of darkness. The story of Cygnus, as told by Chet Raymo in his book “365 Starry Nights,” goes as follows:
The constellation Cygnus has its origins in the story of Phaethon, the child of the sun god Apollo. Phaethon boasted to his friend Cygnus that Apollo was his father. To back up his boast, he took the reins of the chariot in which his father drove the sun each day across the sky. The child was not yet man enough to control the four fiery steeds that pulled the chariot. The results were disastrous. Driving too high or too low, Phaethon wreaked havoc on the earth below. Creatures alternately froze or fried as Phaethon went carrening across the heavens. To stop the chaos caused by the impetuous youth, Zeus struck him dead with a bolt from Olympus. Phaethon’s body fell into the river Eridanus. The boy’s companion, Cygnus, dove repeatedly into the river in a vain attempt to retrieve the body of his friend. He looked like a swan diving for food. At last, the exhausted Cygnus died of grief. Taking pity, Zeus transformed the boy into a swan and placed him among the stars.
The swan still dives each night into the western horizon as the evening progresses.
Lastly, Pegasus, the flying horse, was once described to me as a “window” for peering deeper into the universe. Four bright stars – Alpheratz, Scheat, Algenib, and Markab – make up the corners of the “Great Square of Pegasus.” On a typical night in city light, the square will appear empty. But on a clear night and with binoculars, you can sight many stars inside the “window.” And with a sizable telescope you can see beyond the Milky Way to other galaxies, including The Little Sombrero (NGC 7814) and a barred spiral galaxy (NGC 7741) (both of which are 40 million light years away).
Nature Net News Flashback from 2006
Most people refer to meteors as shooting stars. But meteors are much, much smaller than a star – in fact, most are no larger than a pebble! Considering their size, and that meteors are made simply of metallic or stony matter, you can imagine there are many more meteors than we actually see. Only when a meteor enters the Earth’s atmosphere and the resulting friction heats the meteor – now called a meteoroid – do we see the resulting glow and shining trail of gases and melted meteoroid particles. Meteoroids become visible between 40 and 75 miles above Earth. And most disintegrate from the extreme heat and pressure (they’re flying up to 44 miles per second) at about 30 to 60 miles above earth. The occasional meteor that does reach the planet, is called a meteorite.
Upcoming Meteor Showers:
- Orionids – Peak Oct 21-22, 2019
- Northern Taurids – Peak Nov 11-12, 2019
- Leonids – Peak Nov 16-17, 2019
- Geminids – Peak Dec 13-14, 2019
Find out more from the American Meteor Society.
To Do This Month:
- Go visit the MMSD Planetarium for an immersive way to learn about constellations!
- Attend one of the Science Dabblers workshops at the Madison Children’s Museum to encourage your children participate in small science experiments.
- Checkout Brain Pop’s movie and activities about constellations for an interactive way to learn alongside your kids.
- Enjoy the cooler weather as you hike the trails at our Nature Net sites. You can still fill out your Nature Passport, so check the website to see hours for each place.
- Fill your schedule with fun, nature-based and family-friendly events happening this fall by visiting the Nature Net calendar.
The Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education annual conference is coming up, November 15 and 16, 2019 in Madison. The event will take place at the UW Union South with a theme of “Connect, Explore, Engage” – which is also the focus of the new Wisconsin Standards for Environmental Literacy and Sustainability.
A keynote address from the newly appointed Department of Natural Resources Secretary, Preston Cole, kicks off the event on Friday morning and offers an opportunity for the general public to attend.
The two-day conference includes speakers and presenters from across the state who focus on “proven practices, pushing the leading edge of the profession, and motivating the pursuit of excellence.”
Hope to see you there. More info and register at WAEE.org.
Heading out to do your own star-gazing? Our family likes to check the DarkSiteFinder.com map before we head into the night to ensure the best possible viewing experience. And this time of year, we take advice from UniverseToday.com on how to stay warm while we’re out there.
- Dress in layers and take advantage of hand-warmer packets. Warm, insulated boots and mittens are a must.
- Plan your star or planet wish list in advance. If you have something specific you want to see, make sure you know where and when to find it before you head out into the cold. And keep your visit short.
- Keep moving. Run in place between views through the scope.
- Pre-chill your binoculars or telescope to avoid condensation on your lenses – just set equipment outside about an hour before your set out.
Wondering what to look for in the night sky? Check out Beckstrom Observatory’s “What’s Up In Tonight’s Sky” monthly vlog – see below for the month of October: