The Moon, Jupiter and Spica

This past Memorial Day Weekend, we had some clear skies and some rainy ones. On one clear evening in Paradelle I was able to see a very bright “star” near the moon. It looks like a star, but it is Jupiter.

Venus sets in the west not too long after the sun sets, and the Moon and Jupiter were the two brightest objects in the sky.

I knew to look for a fainter true star. It is fainter but still one of the brightest stars, even in the moon’s glare. This is Spica. It is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo the Maiden. I’m not very knowledgeable about the zodiac, but I know it is a key star in that study.

Spica is a first-magnitude star, but it appears much fainter than Jupiter. That is because Jupiter is relatively close (or at least nearer)to Earth. This is what draws me to gazing at the night sky is my semi-knowledgeable way: the idea that Spica is about 262 light-years away, and I am looking at its light.

The universe makes me think about the original meanings of words like WONDERful and AWEsome.

Spica is the easiest star to spot in Virgo. There is a saying to find Spica you can “follow the arc of the Big Dipper to Arcturus and speed on to Spica.” But that probably doesn’t make it any easier for the average Earthling to find because most people know very little about the night sky.

Besides Spica, other bright stars in Virgo include many I had never heard of: β Virginis (Zavijava), γ Virginis (Porrima), δ Virginis (Auva) and ε Virginis (Vindemiatrix). Other fainter stars that were also given names are ζ Virginis (Heze), η Virginis (Zaniah), ι Virginis (Syrma) and μ Virginis (Rijl al Awwa).

Again, the wonder and awe of all this is discovering that one of the stars, 70 Virginis, has one of the first known extrasolar planetary systems and it contains a confirmed planet 7.5 times the mass of Jupiter. I can’t even really grasp the size of my own Earth. And the star Chi Virginis has one of the most massive planets ever detected, at a mass of 11.1 times that of Jupiter. And there are 35 verified exoplanets orbiting 29 stars in Virgo.

All this makes me feel like such a small part of the universe. But i also makes me feel part of the universe.


This first appeared on One-Page Schoolhouse

Hello Ceres

Not all visitors to this website probably share my fascination with celestial things like stars, planets and our Moon. But I like to pay attention to that vast and still unexplored space beyond.

Here is a current example. Ceres will be closest to Earth for 2018 on February 1. To ask what Ceres is would make a good trivia question for HQ. (* If you sign up to play this currently hot trivia game app – IOS or Android –  put my username in – ronkowitz – so I get a much-needed extra life!) 

Dwarf planet Ceres. The color is added to highlight differences in surface materials. Photo: NASA

Ceres is a tiny world, but the largest body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and the only dwarf planet located in the inner solar system. It was the first member of the asteroid belt to be discovered back in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi.

Ceres became the first dwarf planet to receive a visit from a spacecraft, Dawn, in 2015.

It was classified as asteroid for many years, but it is so much bigger and different from its rocky neighbors that scientists classified it as a dwarf planet in 2006. Remember all the outcry when Pluto got pushed to dwarf planet status and out of the planet list we all learned in school? Ceres is sometimes compared in size to the state of Texas, but Pluto is still 14 times more massive than Ceres.

Ceres hasn’t been this close since 2009 and on February 1, 2018 it will shine its brightest. But it still won’t be visible with the naked eye. A telescope or even good binoculars will bring it into focus. But the Moon will also be bright that night, so it is suggested that if you are going to look for Ceres, you try tonight or at the end of next week.

I don’t plan to look for Ceres tucked inside the constellation Cancer. I am quite happy to know that it is up there in the asteroid belt. That belt consists of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of tiny worlds circling the sun in between Mars and Jupiter.

This is the kind of thing that is truly awesome and wonderful to me. Knowing that all of this is out there, and also not knowing so much of what is out there.

The stars appear fixed relative to one another, but Ceres will move moving noticeably westward in front of the stars that make up the constellation Cancer. That movement was how that Italian monk, Giuseppe Piazzi, discovered it. He saw it in front of the constellation Taurus the Bull, but because it moved relative to the backdrop stars, he knew it was a solar system object and not a star. he thought it might be a comet.

Piazzi originally suggested the name Cerere Ferdinandea for his discovery, after the goddess Ceres (Roman goddess of agriculture and where we get our word cereal). She is Cerere in Italian and was believed to have originated in Sicily where the oldest temple for her was located. Added to that was a nod to King Ferdinand of Sicily, but “Ferdinandea” was not acceptable to other nations and was dropped. Ceres was called Hera for a short time in Germany, and in Greece, it is called Demeter, who is the Greek equivalent of the Roman Cerēs. there is also a asteroid called 1108 Demeter.

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A Shower from the She-Bear

Ursa Major - Ursa Minor - Polaris.jpg
“Ursa Major – Ursa Minor – Polaris” by Bonč – Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

The annual Ursid meteor shower peaks near the time of the winter solstice. They are generally easier to see in the more northerly latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. Unfortunately, it will have to compete with city lights and the Moon this year, so I’m not sure his year I will see any meteors.

Meteor showers take their names from the constellations hat they appear to come from (radiant point). The Little Dipper asterism is in the constellation Ursa Minor, the smaller She-Bear or Lesser Bear, gives us the Ursid meteor shower name.

These are not prolific showers and that waxing gibbous moon all night makes the predawn hours better than night. The peak is predicted to be before dawn on December 23.


Sidney Hall - Urania's Mirror - Draco and Ursa Minor.jpg
Sidney Hall – Urania’s Mirror – Draco and Ursa Minor” by Sidney HallThis image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3g10050.
This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information. Lic
ensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Born Under a Forgotten Sign

In both astrology and historical astronomy, the Zodiac is a circle of twelve 30° divisions of celestial longitude that are centered upon the ecliptic. The ecliptic is the apparent path of the Sun across the celestial sphere over the course of the year.

Although the zodiac remains the basis of the ecliptic coordinate system in use in astronomy besides the equatorial one, the term “zodiac” and the names of the twelve signs are today mostly associated with horoscopes and  astrology.

The paths of the Moon and visible planets remain close to the ecliptic, within the belt of the zodiac. They are regular divisions and do not correspond exactly to the twelve constellations after which they are named. We commonly call these twelve divisions “signs.” You can say that you were born under the sign of Libra, or take the scientific path and see the zodiac as a celestial or ecliptic coordinate system, which takes the ecliptic as the origin of latitude, and the position of the Sun at vernal equinox as the origin of longitude.

The term “zodiac” derives from Latin zōdiacus, which in its turn comes from the Greek zōdiakos kyklos, meaning “circle or pathway of animals.” Half of the signs of the classical Greek zodiac are represented as animals (plus two mythological hybrids).

You may think that you were “born under a bad sign”  (which is really a  blues song by Albert King) and that “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all” but what if you were born under a forgotten sign?

The 12 signs of the Zodiac that are familiar to us from astrology and horoscope advice (Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer…) does not include the 13th or “forgotten” constellation: Ophiuchus.

If there is a “bad sign” I would guess it might be Ophiuchus with its number 13 and forgotten status.  The sun moves in front of Ophiuchus from about November 30 to December 18 each year but I doubt that you have ever heard someone say they were born when the sun was in Ophiuchus.

Every year at this time, I notice a post from to look for this faint constellation, also known as the Serpent Bearer, as it appears in the southwest sky on late August and September evenings. It is above the bright ruddy star Antares, which is the brightest in the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion.

Dipping Into the Stars

Many people learned about the Big Dipper when they were children. Perhaps a parent pointed it out, or it was in school or at a planetarium show.  Lesser known is the Little Dipper.

Are they constellations? No. They are asterisms which are star patterns.  These Dippers are part of the constellations of the Big Bear and Little Bear (Ursa Major and Minor).

In all my years of stargazing, I still can only see those constellation shapes on a chart or planetarium show when someone connects the dots – and even then it is a stretch of the imagination!

But the shape of a dipper (once used to get a drink of water from a larger vessel or well) is pretty easy to see. This month you can find the Big Dipper high in the northern sky. The two outer stars in its bowl are referred to as pointer stars because they point to the North Star (Polaris) which is the end of the Little Dipper’s handle.

In Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, it says that the ancient Greek writers (like Homer) didn’t mention Ursa Minor or the dipper shape.  I always marveled at seeing the stars and planets as a child thinking that I am looking at the same sky that ancient people saw.

This group of stars became the “wings” of the constellation Draco the Dragon. When, around 600 B.C., the Phoenicians showed the Greek philosopher Thales how to navigate by the stars, he supposedly used the Dragon’s wings to create a new constellation. This might have been to make it easier to show them how to locate the north celestial pole.

Ursa Minor was one of the 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy, and remains one of the 88 modern constellations. The Bears’ tails are the dippers’ handles.

Further falling away of my childhood star knowledge came when I learned that our Polaris,  which marks the north celestial pole in the sky, was not the star those ancients would have used to navigate. Kochab and Pherkad at the end of the Little Dipper were closer to the north celestial pole in 600 B.C.

Learning how our sky view of the heavens has changed over the centuries isn’t at all disappointing to me, but rather a reminder that everything is changing.

The Liitle Bear with The Dragon looping around it, as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c.1825


UrsaMinorCC.jpgUrsaMinorCC” by Till CrednerOwn work:
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Geminid meteor showers tonight

shooting star
A shooting star—part of the Geminid meteor shower—lights up California’s night.
Photograph by Wally Pacholka, TWAN – via

The Geminid meteor shower is a very prolific annual cosmic fireworks show that peaks tonight. It’s actually increasing in intensity because astronomers believe that Earth is deeper every year into an ancient debris stream left behind by a mysterious three-mile-wide (five-kilometer-wide) asteroid-like object orbiting the inner solar system.

Most meteor showers are generated by melting icy comets approaching the sun that shed material. But scientists aren’t sure whether the Geminids’ parent object, called 3200 Phaethon, is an asteroid or a nearly dead comet.

It’s a New Moon tonight, so there will be real moonlight to ruin the view. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the shower will seem to originate in the constellation Gemini which is rising above the eastern horizon as I type this in Paradelle. But from 10pm to 5 am works with 2 am being the peak.

And for the bonus round, west of Gemini is the brilliant planet Jupiter (looking like a star to most people) and just before sunrise, Saturn, Venus, and Mercury appear above the southeastern horizon.

Look up!

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