Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die: The Guide to Extraordinary Curiosities of Our Universe

Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die: The Guide to Extraordinary Curiosities of Our Universe

by Bob King


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Do you enjoy looking at the night sky but aren’t sure how to keep track of what you’ve seen? Maybe you’re looking to take your night watching to another level and find more incredible sights?

Bob King’s bucket list collection of 57 must-see night sky wonders and darky sky destinations will fill your nights with adventure and the ability to see some of the incredible phenomenon of the sky. Learn how to find and all about the brightest and best stars, planets, meteors, comets and constellations using the naked eye, binoculars, telescopes and apps. Complete with background information, sight-seeing activities, technological resources and a comprehensive checklist to keep track of your travels, this is the ultimate pocket resource for any sky watcher.

This book will feature 57 different activities and 60 photos.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781624144929
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Publication date: 04/24/2018
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 774,501
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Bob King is the writer of the blog Astro Bob and author of Night Sky with the Naked Eye. He is an avid skywatcher both night and day and a member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers. Bob writes for Universe Today, Sky & Telescope magazine and the Duluth News Tribune, where he is also the photo editor. He lives in Duluth, Minnesota.

Read an Excerpt


Magnificent Saturn

Don't let life slip by without seeing one of nature's most remarkable sights, the quintessential emblem of all things outer space. Ignore all the rest if you must, but see Saturn.

You'll be hard-pressed to find anything else like it: a ball surrounded by levitating rings. Thousands of them nested one within the other and composed of dusty water–ice, ranging in size from sand grains to boulders. The planet averages about 800 million miles (1.3 billion km) from Earth, a distance so great, their gritty texture blends into a creamy smoothness.

In a pair of binoculars with a magnification of 10x, Saturn looks oval-shaped because the rings blend with the ball of the planet. But any small telescope magnifying 30x or higher will clearly show the globe of Saturn nestled within its rings, like a baby in a mother's arms. The most common reaction to seeing Saturn for the first time is that it doesn't look real. Photos of the other celestial bodies taken with large telescopes rarely resemble what you can see with your eye, but that's not the case with Saturn. The view, while on a smaller scale, uncannily resembles what the camera sees. No wonder we can't quite believe it's real. Yet there it is. Real as rain.

Higher magnification may reveal the most prominent gap in the rings called Cassini's Division, which has less ice than some of the other rings and so appears dark in contrast. Cassini's separates the wide B ring from the narrow A ring.

Saturn orbits the Sun once every 29.5 years, and its axis is tilted 27°, much like Earth's. This causes the rings to change orientation over time. Sometimes we see the north face, other times the south, and for a brief time every thirteen to fourteen years, the rings are edgewise and almost disappear from view.

Disappear? Yes! The main rings extend 180,000 miles (290,000 km) end to end, so the planet would comfortably fit between the Earth and the Moon with 60,000 miles (96,000 km) to spare. But, as wide as they are, they're incredibly thin — only about 30 feet (10 m) thick if you don't count warps and ripples.

How thin is that? A sheet of 81/2 x 11 inch (21.6 x 27.9 cm) U.S. writing paper has a thickness-to-length ratio of 0.00036. To scale, Saturn's rings are 10,000 times thinner! Much thinner than the thinnest razor blade.

All of that dirty ice may once have belonged to small moons that collided in the relatively recent past; their fragments spreading out to form the rings. Or an icy comet may have struck an orbiting moon and blasted it to pieces. The origin of the rings remains a mystery, but their beauty can be enjoyed by anyone with a small telescope. Dig yours out of the attic, then use one of the free apps or home planetarium programs listed here to find out when and where Saturn will shine in your night sky.

Careful, though. One look at the planet could change your life forever, so do not go gently to that eyepiece. You might get bitten by the astronomy bug and soon find it hard to get to bed at a decent hour on clear nights. I speak from experience.

How to find Saturn

The diagram shows Saturn's location one month past opposition — closest approach to Earth — when it's conveniently placed for viewing in the evening sky. Saturn is bright and stands out from all of the stars in the half-dozen constellations it will pass through between now and the late 2020s.

Even easier, download a star chart app for your phone, point it skyward and let the app do the finding. When to look? Through the mid-2020s, Saturn will be best visible during evening hours from July through November.

How about a telescope?

A telescope is a must for appreciating the unique beauty of Saturn and several of our other must-sees. If there's an astronomy club in your area, chances are that the members would be more than happy to let you know when they're holding their next public observing night.

If you decide that Saturn alone is reason enough to finally invest in a telescope, I recommend an affordable 4- to 6-inch (100- to 150-mm) reflecting telescope on a Dobsonian mount. The name comes from John Dobson, who devised a mount that was simple, stable and sturdy. You push and pull the scope up and down then right and left to center your target. Easy, right? Many inexpensive telescopes come with wobbly mounts and tripods. Not a Dob.

That said, even junky scopes will show the rings, but why get junk? Invest a little cash and you'll be able to tour the universe in comfort and style! In the resources section (here), I've listed several telescope options and online shops where you can buy with confidence.


• To find where Saturn is in the sky, Google "Star Chart app." There are many fine programs for both iPhone and Android that will pick up on your location and show the sky any time of day or night. Several are free, including Star Chart:

• FOR IPHONE: itunes.apple.com/us/app/star-chart/id345542655?mt=8

• FOR ANDROID: play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.escapistgames.starchart&hl=en

• You can also try the versatile Stellarium app ($2.99).

• FOR IPHONE: itunes.apple.com/us/app/stellarium-mobile-sky-map/id643165438?mt=8

• FOR ANDROID: play.google.com/store/apps/ details?id=com.noctuasoftware.stellarium&hl=en

• Or download Stellarium for free on your laptop (Mac or PC) from stellarium.org.


Moon–Planet/Planet–Planet Conjunction

Some things in life are inevitable. It will snow in Duluth, Minnesota, in January. People will disagree about politics. And given time, two planets will come together in conjunction to make a pretty diadem in the night sky.

A conjunction occurs when one or more celestial objects lines up above another. We say they have the same celestial longitude. Remember longitude? Those are the vertical lines on a world map. A city with the same longitude as yours is located either due north or due south of your location. For instance, St. Louis's longitude is nearly identical with Jackson, Mississippi, though the two cities are almost 500 miles (804 km) apart. You could say they're in permanent conjunction. In contrast, celestial alignments last only a day or two.

Planets never get stuck in the same place in the sky because they're always on the move, orbiting the Sun. They also travel at different speeds depending on their distance from it. Mercury, closest to the Sun, completes one lap every 88 days, Venus every 225 days and Jupiter every twelve years.

Further, each planet's orbit is tipped somewhat with respect to Earth's. Mercury's inclination is the greatest of the eight planets at 7° (a stack of about fourteen full moons), but most are closer to 2 to 3°. In the big picture, these variations are slight: All the planets travel within a narrow band through the twelve constellations of the zodiac. We'll always find them there and nowhere else. Never in Orion, never in the Big Dipper, never in the Southern Cross.

Their restricted movement stems from the very origin of the solar system. The Sun and planets originated from a large cloud of stardust and hydrogen gas dubbed the solar nebula. Gravitational collapse of the cloudlet 4.6 billion years ago led to a hot, concentrated core that became the Sun. The remainder of the mass spun out into a disk that coalesced into the familiar planets, asteroids and comets.

If you start with a gas–dust cloud with just a little bit of spin, something fascinating happens as it becomes compressed by self-gravity: It spins faster and faster! Physicists call it the conservation of angular momentum. You can see the principle at work during an ice-skating competition. When a skater goes into a spin, she pulls in her arms and a leg — becoming more "compact" as it were — and starts spinning so fast it makes you dizzy just to watch. When this very same process happened in the solar nebula, the energy of spinning flattened out the cloud into a pancake-like disk where the planets formed.

That relic remains with us to this day. Because Earth also resides in the same plane as the other planets, when we gaze into the sky, the planets cycle around the sky in the same narrow belt. Coming and going, they appear to pass near one another in close and awe-inspiring conjunctions.

Moon–planet conjunctions are fairly common because the Moon is close to Earth and moves across the sky much faster than the distant planets. Over the course of a month, the Moon "drives by" all eight planets, spending a night with each. Some of the most striking conjunctions occur when the lunar crescent passes near the brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter. The sight of two brilliant celestial objects side by side can get the attention of even those who don't routinely watch the sky.

Planet-planet conjunctions are uncommon and happen over several nights because the planets are so much farther away and appear to move much more slowly across the sky. They gradually grow closer until the night of conjunction, when they're closest and most pleasing to the eye.

No planet stands still. As they come together, so they part. For the more distant planets, which take longer to orbit around the Sun, they don't meet up again for years. Mercury and Venus, being much closer to Earth, zoom back and forth from morning to evening, often crossing paths with each other or with the more remote planets.

Not surprisingly, the most visually compelling conjunctions involve the brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, or one of these paired with Mars, when that planet is close to Earth and brilliant.

Conjunctions are the sky's magic tricks. Two planets as distant from one another as Venus and Neptune can briefly look like close neighbors when they happen to fall within the same line of sight even though they're more than 2.5 billion miles (4 billion km) apart.

Not only are planet pairings wonderful to look at, we can use them to help us identify planets invisible to the naked eye, such as Uranus and Neptune, both of which require binoculars.

While Uranus can be glimpsed with the naked eye from a dark sky, having Jupiter or Mars lined up nearby in conjunction makes finding it no trouble at all. Otherwise, you'll need a fairly detailed map and knowledge of the zodiac constellations to spot them.

Very rarely, planets pass so close they overlap or occult one another. I've listed several below — they're few and far between, so pass the news to your kids and tell them to pass it on to their kids.

You may hear or read online that planetary alignments are responsible for everything from plagues to earthquakes. Don't believe it for a minute. While there is additional gravitational attraction on Earth when two or more planets line up, it's negligible because they're so far away. Venus briefly comes closest to the Earth at 27 million miles (43.5 million km) when it swings between the Earth and the Sun. That's 113 times farther than the Moon. The tides caused by the combined tugs of the Sun and Moon are much stronger than Venus's minute contribution, and there is no correlation during those approaches with earthquakes and other natural disasters.

How to see two planets line up

There are lots of ways to find out when two planets are in conjunction. The Old Farmer's Almanac, published annually since 1792, lists all planetary conjunctions in its monthly calendar section. You can also download a free star program such as Stellarium to thumb through the sky days, weeks and months ahead and see for yourself when planets approach and recede from each other.

Or you can use the table on the next page, prepared through 2223, listing the best and brightest conjunctions. If you're looking for bright–faint planet pairings, please turn to the Uranus and Neptune entry here.

Moon-planet conjunctions

This sample for 2018 will get you started. For a more complete listing, check the resources section at the end of this chapter (here).

Separations between the Moon and planet are given in degrees. One degree is equal to two full moons or the tip of your little finger held at arms length against the sky. Dates and separations are what North American observers will see.

• June 27, evening: Saturn 0.75° south of the Moon

• July 14, dusk: Mercury 2° south

• July 15, dusk: Venus 1° south

• July 24, evening: Saturn 1.5° south

• September 13, dusk: Jupiter 3° south

• October 11, dusk: Jupiter 2.5° south

• October 14, evening: Saturn 1.5° south

• November 15, evening: Mars 2.5° north of the Moon

• December 3, dawn: Venus 5° south

• December 14, evening: Mars 3.5° north

Planet-planet conjunctions

2018 TO 2019

• December 21, 2018, dawn, low in the southeastern sky: Mercury 1° north of Jupiter

• January 23, 2019, dawn, low in the southeast: Venus 2.5° north of Jupiter

• February 18, 2019, dawn, low in the southeast: Venus 1° north of Saturn

• November 24, 2019, dusk, low in the west: Jupiter 1.5° north of Venus

• December 11, 2019, dusk, low in the west: Saturn 1.75° north of Venus

Planet occultation table

These are rare!

• Venus occults Jupiter on November 22, 2065, but they'll be too close to the Sun to observe for most telescopes.

• Venus occults Jupiter again on September 14, 2123, but it occurs over the Pacific Ocean. Get your cruise booked early!

• Mercury occults Mars on August 11, 2079, seen from the Middle East at sunrise.

• Mars occults Jupiter on December 2, 2223, in the early morning hours across the Americas.


Old Farmer's Almanac: (available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble) and published in late summer prior to the upcoming year

• List of upcoming conjunctions: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ List_of_conjunctions_(astronomy)#2018

• Stellarium or a phone app like Sky Chart described for Saturn here. With these programs, you can advance the time to scan the future (or past) and find out what's in store.


Three-Planet Conjunction

While two-planet pairings aren't uncommon, seeing three glimmering together in a small corner of sky is as rare as winning big in Vegas. But if you're prepared, I guarantee this jackpot's attainable. Because the movements of the planets are known with great precision, it's simply a matter of keeping track of upcoming conjunctions and making sure you get outside during the several nights the planets will be close together.

I should be honest at the outset and say that the chances of three planets lining up exactly one atop the other is, well, astronomical. That's why we'll call a spade a spade and identify these triple events as exactly what they are — dual- pair conjunctions. These occur when three planets gather so closely together that two close conjunctions occur within days of each other. For instance, in 1991, Mars was in conjunction with Jupiter followed four days later by a Jupiter–Venus conjunction with Mars still close by. The planets practically tripped over each other's feet.

When three planets gather, typically at dusk or dawn with Venus or Mercury involved, their individual motions create an ever- changing series of triangular groupings that are delightful to watch as they shape-shift from night to night.

One of the last really nice triple-planet conjunctions occurred in mid-June 1991. On June 17 that year, Venus, Mars and Jupiter crowded into just 1.8° of sky, an amount easily covered by an extended thumb. Two nights prior, the crescent moon joined the scene for a memorable evening twilight sight. Little did I know at the time that the previous triple crush had happened 90 years earlier when Mars, Jupiter and Saturn banded together on November 28, 1901. Holy cow, even my grandparents were too young to see that one!


Excerpted from "Wonders Of The Night Sky You Must See Before You Die"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Bob King.
Excerpted by permission of Page Street Publishing Co..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 6

1 Magnificent Saturn 7

2 Moon-Planet/Planet-Planet Conjuction 11

3 Three-Planet Conjunction 17

4 Summer Milky Way 20

6 Andromeda Galaxy 24

7 Ursa Major the Great Bear 31

8 Total Lunar Eclipse 34

9 Total Solar Eclipse 38

10 Awesome Aurora 43

11 Southern Cross 46

12 Alpha Centauri 49

13 Orion Nebula 53

14 Carina Nebula 57

15 Pleiades in Binoculars 61

16 Moon Occultation 65

17 Moon Dogs 69

18 Distorted Moons 72

19 Light Pillars 75

20 Bright Meteor Shower 78

21 Jupiter's Galilean Moons 83

22 Jupiter's Great Red Spot 87

23 Mars's Polar Caps 90

24 Eight Planets in One Night 95

25 International Space Station 98

26 Iridium Flare 103

27 Vesta, Brightest Asteroid 106

28 Zodiacal Light 110

29 Best Double Star 113

30 Ring Nebula 117

31 Perseus Double Cluster 120

32 Great Globular in Hercules 123

33 Slender Moons 127

34 Supermoops 131

35 Lua's "Dark" Side 136

36 Uranus and Neptune 139

37 Crescent Venus 143

38 Cygnus Star Cloud 147

39 Magellanic Clouds 150

40 Magical Mira 154

41 Bright Comet 157

42 Airglow 161

43 Earth-Grazing Meteor 164

44 Sparkling Sirius 167

45 Supernova 170

46 Nova 174

47 All of Those other Satellites 177

48 Stars on Water 181

49 Crab Nebula 183

50 Barnard's Star 186

51 Eta Aquilae, Heartbeat Star 190

52 Reddest Star 194

53 Mercury Transit 197

54 Orion's Belt 200

55 Ursa Major Moving Cluster 204

56 Top 10 Lunar Wonders 207

57 Galactic Duo, M81 and M82 211

Epilogue 214

Resources 216

Checklist 218

Acknowledgments 219

About the Author 219

Index 220

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