Good Afternoon, Stargazers! In this newsletter issue, I have a handful of minor but interesting events for you to watch for in the coming weeks, plus a couple of big personal announcements. I'll start with the announcements.
Astronomy for Makers ... and a New Constellation Course
As a teacher, I designed a number of paper creations for students of astronomy to use, and I've been playing around with trying to make some of them into wooden or plastic versions. The "Maker Space" (community workshop) that I use to make my stuff recently hosted their first "Maker Faire" (large public show-and-tell), and I submitted a few videos of my creations as my entry into the Faire. (Such Faires are usually held in person and are loads of fun ... except that because of the pandemic all recent Faires have been canceled or moved online. This one was online, hence the videos.) My videos were compiled into one large master video, but I also posted them separately myself. I have one showing off my Sundials, one on Celestial Planispheres, and one on Solstice Roses.
And now for the really big news. I've just launched my first video course! I've been putting together a course on "Constellations for Kids" for a few months, and it's now live! If you sign up within the next week, it will be free, but I'll be raising the price after that. (This is my first attempt to make videos, and I'm hoping the initial free period will give me a chance to get some feedback, and to get some reviews and build up a reputation.) If you've been following this newsletter for awhile, you've already learned some of what I offer in the course, but the course is a complete tour of all the important "landmark constellations" that you can see in the northern hemisphere. If you're interested in such a course, here's the link: Constellations For Kids.
If you make a habit of stargazing in the evenings, you will have noticed that the Winter Hexagon is no longer high in the south. As winter has passed into spring, the Winter Hexagon has migrated towards the west, and now follows the sun down into the sunset. The winter stars are now being replaced by spring stars — and in particular Leo the Lion.
If you face southeast in the evenings, or south near midnight, you will be facing Leo. To find the lion, start by finding a backwards question mark, a sickle-shaped curve of stars, with an especially bright star punctuating the bottom. The star is Regulus, the curl is the Sickle of Leo, and you can see it near the center in this picture:
Using the sickle as the mane of a lion facing to the right, you can find a triangle to the left that can serve as hips and a tail. By connecting them, you make a lion facing the Winter Hexagon, with the Big Dipper above him (not visible in the picture), and Arcturus behind him. Perhaps we can think of Leo as chasing away the stars of winter?
If you have very dark, moonless skies (maybe a week from now?), try searching the space between Leo and Gemini for anything interesting. You may find an odd fuzzy spot of haze. If you examine that spot with binoculars or a telescope, you may find that it's full of dim stars. That's the "Beehive Cluster", and it's one of the better "treasures" you can hunt for in the sky without a telescope.
(For more details about the spring constellations, you can download my "Leo the Lion" worksheet, or sign up for my new Constellations For Kids video course.)
Sunrise Scene: In about a week, we will have an especially pretty sunrise scene to look for. Jupiter and Saturn continue to rise ever higher at dawn, and on the mornings of the 6th and 7th, a crescent moon will add itself to the scene, positioning itself below Saturn on the 6th, and below Jupiter on the 7th.
(The moon looks full in this picture, but that's the fault of the software, not the moon. Unless you zoom in very far, the program I use exaggerates the moon to make it easier to see in the picture.)
Moon-Mars Conjunction: On the 17th, the moon will pass within a moon's width of Mars, but unfortunately for those of us in the Western Hemisphere, this will occur while the moon and Mars are down, below the horizon. On the other hand, if you just happen to live in certain parts of Southeast Asia, you will be treated to a lunar occultation of Mars. For you, the moon will not just pass alongside Mars, but will pass right in front of it, blocking it temporarily from view!
Nova in Cassiopeia: If you follow astronomy, you may have heard in the news about a "nova stella" or new star in Cassiopeia. On March 18th, a Japanese astronomer was taking pictures of the Cassiopeia region, and found a star that didn't used to be there. Astronomers find such new stars from time to time, and call them "novas". These aren't like normal stars — they usually disappear again after a few weeks or a few years. They are apparently some kind of "flare-up". A few times in history, there has been a "flare-up" that was so bright that the new star was visible in the daytime! Sometimes, after one of these "super novas", if we point a powerful telescope at the place where the temporary star appeared, we find a mysterious cloud in space, as if something exploded there. When we saw the "new star" in the sky, we were apparently witnessing the explosion of a star we couldn't see before! The "nova stella" in Cassiopeia is still too dim to see without a telescope, but it is getting brighter. Maybe it will continue to brighten, or maybe it will die down again. We'll just have to wait and see.
Lyrid Meteor Shower: The Lyrids will peak in three weeks, on the 22nd of this month, but they have modest rates (one every few minutes), and this year's Lyrids have the misfortune of competing with a nearly full moon. The Lyrids do tend to leave "persistent trains", which means they leave glowing streaks in the sky that last for a second or several. But these streaks will probably be very hard to see with the gibbous moon in the sky. If you happen to be on a camping trip at this time, you may enjoy lying back and staring at the sky, but I wouldn't recommend going to any special efforts to see this one.