January 15, 2008 at 8:30 PM MST
Save our starry night skies
Be a considerate neighbor: Reduce nighttime glare.
Shield your outside lights downward so no glare goes up to dull
the night sky (or in your neighbor’s bedroom windows) and
enjoy the beautiful, stars above.
January 2008 Night Sky
I want to thank the students and faculty of Placitas Elementary
School for inviting me to speak at the school on December 19. It
is just amazing how smart the kids were. They even surprised me
with knowledge about planets, stars, and even newly-discovered exoplanets
circling distant stars. I really enjoyed interacting with the students
and will be much better prepared next time I talk with them.
SEA MONSTER OF THE NIGHT SKY
During January, a sea monster patrols the southern night sky: Cetus.
Many stories of sea monsters are evident in older cultures. It is
no surprise that some of the larger constellations refer to these
In ancient times, Cetus was seen as the whale monster about to
devour Andromeda. The story is that Nereids overheard Cassiopeia
boasting about her beautiful daughter, Andromeda, and became very
jealous. Nereids complained to Poseidon, God of the Sea, and demanded
that Cassiopeia be punished. Poseidon agreed to help her by calling
upon a terrible sea-monster, Cetus. He told Cetus to go to Cassiopeia’s
land and kill everything.
Cetus, taking the form of a monstrous whale, started his mission
of destruction. The people were frightened. They went to their king
and asked him to save them. The king consulted the magical oracle
for advice. The oracle told the king that there was only one way
to stop the killing. The king would have to offer his daughter Andromeda
as a sacrifice. She was to be chained to the rocks near the coast
and left for Cetus to eat.
When Cetus discovered Andromeda chained near the coast, he stopped
and began swimming toward the ledge where Andromeda was chained.
But, a distant hero figure appeared in the sky. Perseus, the brave
son of Zeus, was just returning from killing the dreaded Medusa.
Seeing Andromeda chained by the shore, he was overwhelmed by her
beauty. Andromeda told him the story of her boastful mother and
the advice the oracle had given her father.
Perseus confronted the king and offered to save her from the sea-monster.
His reward… Andromeda’s hand in marriage—oh, and
a kingdom. The king agreed and Perseus returned to the sea, where
he plunged his sword deeply into the monster’s evil heart,
Cetus’s stars are somewhat faint, but there are a few well-known
stars to be observed—UV Ceti, which is actually a pair of
red dwarfs a mere nine light years away from Earth, and Mira, the
most well-known variable star.
UV Ceti is the prototype of a classification of variables known
as flare stars. Every ten hours or so, UV Ceti suddenly jumps in
brightness. In just a few seconds, it will increase by three or
four magnitudes. Then over the next five to ten minutes, the star
settles back down to its former dim self. This pair of stars is
normally very dim, and you will need binoculars to find it.
Mira, “The Wonderful,” is the prototype of long-period
variables. This star brightens and then dims every 331.96 days on
average. It only maintains its maximum for a few weeks, before rapidly
losing its brilliance. At its brightest, it is visible with the
naked eye, but disappears to a very dim target even with binoculars.
If you have a good telescope, look for M77, a small spiral galaxy
seen face-on. It is classified as a Seyfert galaxy. Seyfert galaxies
produce radio noise when observed by a radio telescope. M77 is about
fifty million light years away, and can be found one degree southeast
of Delta Ceti.
THE PLANETS AND THE MOON
• Look for Mercury about thirty minutes after sunset on the
9th. Use binoculars to look for the setting thin crescent Moon near
the southwest horizon. Mercury will be about three degrees to the
lower right of the Moon.
• Venus is still a morning planet. Look about forty-five
minutes before sunrise on the 5th in the southeast. Venus will be
nine degrees above the crescent Moon. The star Antares, the heart
of the Scorpion, will be two degrees above the Moon.
• Mars is just past opposition, directly opposite the Earth
from the Sun. It will be big and bright for a few more weeks in
the night sky. On the 19th, about one hour after sunset, find Mars
just to the right of the Moon with the bright stars Aldebran above
and to the right, Betelgeuse and Rigel (in Orion) below and to the
right, and Procyon near the horizon directly below the Moon. Capella
will be above and to the left of the Moon. Sirius will be low on
• Jupiter is a morning planet. Locate Jupiter near the waning
crescent Moon in the pre-dawn glow of the sunrise on the 7th. Six
minutes before sunrise, you might find Jupiter five degrees above
the Moon if you use binoculars. (Never look at the Sun using binoculars.)
• About four hours after sunset on the 24th, look for Saturn
rising above the eastern horizon. The Moon will be following behind
the planet by three degrees. Regulus will be the bright star above
• Feeling lucky? Try using a small telescope to spot Neptune
about fifty minutes after sunset in the west-southwest on the 22nd.
Neptune will be a small, faint, greenish-blue dot to the left of
• The Moon will be new at 4:37 a.m. on the 8th and full at
6:35 a.m. on the 22nd.
If you have a question or comment for Charlie, you may email him