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  Night Sky

Placitas Star Party—October 18

The Placitas Star Party, free and open to the public, will take place at the Placitas Community Library on October 18. It will begin at dusk (sunset is at 6:29 p.m.) and continue into the night. This annual event is sponsored by the Albuquerque Astronomical Society (TAAS), Rio Rancho Astronomical Society (RRAS), Las Placitas Association, and the Placitas Community Library. It will feature twenty, or more, telescopes of various types and sizes to guide you to the wonders of the night sky.

The members of TAAS and RRAS are enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge about the sky, all the things you will be able to see through the scopes, and about the scopes themselves. Star parties are a wonderful opportunity to share astronomical information and plant interest about our place in the Universe.

Arrive before dark for parking and to witness the set-up of the scopes. Remember to dress warmly and only use red flashlights or headlamps in the observing area to preserve night vision. For more information, go to,, or call 867-3355.

Enjoy the
starry night skies
Be a considerate neighbor. Reduce nighttime glare.
Shield your outside lights downward.
Let the stars light up the night.

October 2014 night sky

—Charlie Christmann

Summer Triangle

It may be fall, but with the October skies getting dark earlier in the evening, there is a chance to get outside to see the sights of late summer before bedtime. At about 7:30 p.m., look straight up to explore the Summer Triangle, composed of the stars Altair, Deneb, and Vega.

Start by finding bright Altair due south and about sixty degrees above the horizon. This is the brightest star in the constellation Aquila, the Eagle. In 2007, Aquila’s surface was imaged using multiple telescopes by astronomers at the University of Michigan. As expected, that image showed the star to be squished at the poles and fat at the equator. This star is a fast spinner, taking only ten hours to make one revolution, causing the equator to buldge under the centrifugal force. That equates to a surface velocity of 638,000 m.p.h. at its equator. By contrast, our sun takes about thirty days to make one rotation. This nearby star (16.5 light-years from Earth) is hotter and younger than the sun and nearly twice its size. If Altair were placed into our solar system in place of the sun, life on Earth would be cooked. Altair shines 11 times brighter and is 1500 degrees hotter than our sun.

Altair’s name is Arabic meaning “Eagle.” In mythology, this is the eagle favored by Zeus. One myth has Altair kidnapping the young Ganymede and whisking him off to Mount Olympus to become the cupbearer of the gods. In India, Altair and the two stars on either side, Tarazed and Alshain, are thought to be the footprints of Vishnu, an Indian god. For SiFy fans, “Forbidden Planet” takes place in the Altair system.

Deneb is the northernmost star in the Summer Triangle. Look in the north-northeast and about seventy degrees above the horizon to find the 19th brightest star in the night sky. A blue-white supergiant star, it shines more than one hundred thousand times brighter than the sun. Being so large, it is expected that Deneb will go super nova in a million years or so. Fortunately, Earth is located 1500 light-years away and should be safe; but, that event should put on quite a light show.

It is said in Roman mythology, that Cygnus (home constellation of Deneb) is identified with the figure of a swan placed in the sky by Jupiter in gratitude for its form, which he took to seduce the unsuspecting Leda. Another claims is that the constellation is Orpheus, placed after death next to his favorite Lyre, which lies nearby in the northwest.

Deneb is mentioned several times in Star Trek: “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (1966), “I, Mudd” (1967), “The Trouble With Tribbles (1967), and “Encounter at Farpoint” (1987). Babylon 5 and Blake’s 7 also made mention of Deneb.

The final point of the Summer Triangle is brilliant, blue-white Vega, in the constellation Lyra, the harp. At a bright magnitude 0, Vega is found seventy degrees above the horizon in the west-north-west. Also a fast rotator, Vega takes only 12.5 hours to make one revolution, leading to a squashed appearance, like Altair. Being more than twice as heavy as the sun, Vega should swell to become a red giant in about five hundred million years. Vega will expand to engulf several of the planets suspected to be orbiting the star. Our Sun will expand to a red giant in around ten billion years.

In Roman mythology, Lyra is said to be the harp played by the Greek musician Orpheus. When he played this harp, neither god nor mortal could turn away. Vega is called the “Harp Star.” In Japan, Vega is called Tanabata and represents a celestial princess or goddess. When she falls in love with Kengyu, represented by the star Altair, her father forbids her to see this mere mortal. The two lovers are placed in the sky, separated by the Celestial River, known to us as Milky Way. Each year, on the seventh night of the seventh moon, the sky gods take pity upon the lovers and create a bridge of magpies spanning the Celestial River to reunite the lovers.

In fiction, Vega was featured in the movie “Contact” (1997), Babylon five series, “Spaceballs” movie (1987), and the Star Trek episodes “Mirror, Mirror” (1967) and “The Cage”(aired 1988).

In about 12,000 years, Vega will shift in the night sky, as the Earth wobbles on its axis and Polaris slowly moves away from its current polar position, to become the North Star.

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