The beginning of the southwest monsoon season offers another summer’s entertainment – storm watching. I enjoy sitting on the portal on a summer evening, watching lightning flash from the clouds miles away. Last night, we were treated to an early storm spectacle, while receiving not a drop of rain, at least in my neighborhood.
About an hour after the Sun had set, I noticed a rain curtain developing over Santa Fe. Despite the growing darkness, the rain curtain seemed to be more, rather than less visible from my vantage point, about ten miles south of town. This was due to the lights of Santa Fe lighting the veils of rain from below.
Not a pretty sunset. The lights of the Santa Fe area reflect off of rain veils and storm clouds to the north. The Sun had set about 50 minutes before this photo was taken. Light pollution illuminated the rain veils and left a dirty red ‘stain’ on the clouds above.
What began as a sporadic lightning display became quite active as twilight gave way to night. Numerous bolts appeared to descend to Earth. However, it was weirdly quiet from my location (not to mention dry).
Lightning appeared to ‘pound the ground’ to the north, again and again, but nature’s artillery barrage was profoundly silent. According to my weather app, the lightning was about 20 miles away.
Hopefully, this monsoon season will produce more storms and rain than last year’s season. If so, enjoy the evening light shows.
The Moon and Venus made a nice pair in the WNW twilight on the evening of June 11th. Here are a few photos of the event.
The Moon was only 2.3% illuminated as it passed Venus (upper left) after sunset on June 11th.
As the twilight deepened, a faint Earthshine was visible on the Moon’s night side. Many of the dark lunar maria and lighter highlands can be seen on the Moon’s surface. Mebsuta (epsilon Geminorum) is the star one lunar diameter to the Moon’s upper left.
The Moon was poised to set behind the Jemez Mountains.While the Moon is a slim crescent, just past new moon, Venus is almost full since it’s on the far side of the Sun, as seen from Earth.
The clear, relatively light pollution-free WNW horizon allowed us to observe the Moon-Venus conjunction to the very end.
It takes a clear, dark sky to see the night side of the Moon after the day side had set. Third magnitude Mebsuta would soon follow the Moon behind the Jemez (Venus was still visible, but was beyond the left side of the frame).
I’ve been watching the skies for 50 years and somehow an easy-to-observe fact eluded me.
Evening twilight is sunlight from the recently set Sun, scattering in the Earth’s upper atmosphere and spreading laterally along the horizon. Twilight continues until the Sun is 18 degrees below the horizon, at which point the sunlight is no longer visible and night officially begins.
I always thought of evening twilight as occurring above the western horizon, spreading into the northwest and southwest (‘twilight’ occurs in the morning, too, but many of us refer to morning twilight as ‘dawn’).
Last evening, I observed that my understanding of evening twilight wasn’t exactly correct. Since we’re now only two weeks from the summer solstice (the northernmost point that the Sun appears to travel — the apparent motion of the Sun is due to the Earth’s rotation and the Earth’s orbit around the Sun), the location of sunset has shifted well to the north of west. Because of this, and because the Sun at this time of year sets at a shallow angle with respect to the horizon, twilight has shifted toward the north, as well.
The photo below was taken last evening (June 8), looking northwest (West is beyond the left side of the frame). As you can see, evening twilight spread far into the northwest — so far, in fact, that it passed true north and could be seen along the north-northeast (NNE) horizon. Evening twilight in the NNE???
Before last evening, if someone told me that they’d seen something in the evening twilight above the NNE horizon, I’d have tried to correct them. Now, I’m the one who stands corrected.
Unbeknownst to me (until now), for several weeks before and after the summer solstice, evening twilight can be seen in the NNE from our vantage point on Earth. The proof is in the pudding — well, it’s in the photo, anyway.
The springtime constellations are well-placed in June’s evening skies, but begin to give way to the summer constellations that follow. Scorpius is the first summer constellation to rise, its head popping up above the ESE horizon at sunset in early June. Venus emerges from the twilight into darker evening skies, lighting up the WNW. Summer solstice occurs on June 20th, the Sun appearing above the Tropic of Cancer on that date. After the solstice, the Sun begins its six month trek south. On June 24th, we’re treated to a full supermoon.
At the beginning of the month, Mercury is still an evening object, albeit a difficult one, requiring binoculars to see as it moves back toward the Sun. Our innermost and fastest planet passes the Sun and becomes a morning object in late June, gracing the constellation Taurus.
Bright Venus and dimming Mercury (slightly below and to the left of Venus) made a close pair in the sunset sky on May 28th.
Venus starts June above Mercury, in Gemini. The brightest object in the evening sky, our ‘sister planet’ moves higher above the WNW horizon all month, ending June near Mars, in Cancer.
Mars continues to fade in the WNW as it recedes from Earth, moving from Gemini into Cancer. At the end of June, the Red Planet sets about 10:20pm MDT, just after twilight ends.
Saturn starts June as a morning object, rising in Capricornus about 12:25am MDT. At the end of June, Saturn is an evening object, rising in the ESE about ten minutes after Mars sets on the opposite side of the sky.
About an hour after Saturn rises, Jupiter chases Saturn into the ESE. Our solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter, in Aquarius, moves from the morning to the evening sky during June, by far the brightest object in the neighboring fall constellations.
Jupiter (left) and Saturn (2 o’clock from Jupiter, just above the cloud) rise to the east of the Milky Way in late April.
The constellation Scorpius, the scorpion, is the first of the summer zodiac constellations to appear in June’s skies. In Indonesia, the constellation is known as ‘kalapa doyong’ (‘the leaning coconut tree’). Ancient Hawaiians called the constellation ‘Ka Makau Nui o Maui’ (‘the Big Fishhook of Maui’), Maui being a Polynesian demi-god. In Navajo mythology, the stars of Scorpius form ‘Altse Etsoh,’ the ‘First Great One’. The star we call Antares marks the heart of Altse Etsoh.
Our constellation maps tend to follow Greek and Roman mythology. Located in the heart of the scorpion, the brightest star in Scorpius is Antares, ‘the rival of Ares,’ Ares being the Greek equivalent of the Roman god of war, Mars. The name is due to Antares’ similarity to the planet Mars, in terms of color and brightness. Because Antares is located near the ecliptic (the invisible path that the Sun and planets follow, as seen from Earth), every few years, Mars passes close to its anti-namesake, allowing us to easily see their similarity.
The core of the Milky Way runs through the constellation Scorpius, seen right of center. Antares is the bright red star above and right of center. You can see the dark dust clouds of the Rho Ophiuchi Cloud Complex, just above Antares.
On June 3rd, Antares is at opposition to the Sun, rising in the ESE at the same time the Sun sets in the WNW. Because of this, the star is visible from twilight to dawn during the month of June.
Antares is a red supergiant star, its diameter is 700 times that of our Sun. Earth would not exist in the Antares solar system since the star is so massive, Earth’s orbit would be well inside the star. In fact, the star is wider than the orbit of Mars, so Mars wouldn’t exist, either – I guess the anti-Mars wins…
Antares is a variable star, its brightness fluctuating between magnitudes 0.6 and 1.6. It’s also a binary star, meaning that it has a companion star, the two stars revolving around a common center of gravity. The companion star is called Antares B. It’s blue-white, a marvelous contrast to Antares’ red, and at magnitude 5.5, is much dimmer than the primary star.
Antares appears to sit within the Rho Ophiuchi Cloud Complex, an area of dust and gas that gives birth to stars. About 425 light years distant, the Cloud Complex is one of the closest stellar nurseries to our solar system. Antares is 550 light years away, so while it appears to be part of the Rho Ophiuchi Cloud Complex, it’s actually well behind and shining through it, as seen from Earth.
The Rho Ophiuchi Cloud Complex. Antares is the bright star below and left of center. The globular cluster Messier 4 is to the right of Antares. A second, smaller globular cluster, NGC 6144, can be seen above and to the right of Antares.
Photo credit: Adam Block, Steward Observatory, University of Arizona.
June Night Sky Events:
June 10: New moon.
June 11: A thin crescent moon and Venus make a close pair in the evening twilight.
June 13: The Moon passes Mars in Cancer.
June 20: Summer solstice occurs at 9:21pm MDT when the Sun is at its northernmost position in the sky, as viewed from the northern hemisphere.
June 24: A full supermoon occurs at 12:40pm MDT. The Navajo people call a full moon, ‘haniibaaz.’
May’s full supermoon rises before the sun sets, giving it an indistinct appearance until the sky darkens.
Today’s total eclipse of a supermoon occurred in the WSW, under partly cloudy skies, as dawn grew on the opposite side of the sky. Despite less than optimal conditions, totality was visible until the Moon disappeared in the cloud deck amassing near the horizon.
Here are a few shots of the supermoon rising on Tuesday evening (May 25) and settng in total eclipse this morning (May 26).
Spring migration is in full swing in New Mexico. Thousands upon thousands of birds migrate through our state each spring and fall. In our area, migrating birds follow the Central Flyway, using the Rio Grande and the Rocky Mountains to guide their north and south travels. Many birds migrate at night, some species using the stars to navigate by.
A Wilson’s Warbler visited our yard last fall as it migrated from its breeding grounds in the Pacific Northwest and Canada to its winter grounds in southern Mexico and Central America.
Unfortunately, lights distract and disorient night-flying birds. There are too many stories of migrating flocks slamming into well-lit buildings, many of the birds succumbing to their injuries. We can help migrating birds safely pass through our area by reducing our own lighting.
The lights of Santa Fe and nearby communities reflect off low clouds, lighting up the sky for miles around.
While change is difficult, it’s not impossible. Below is a link to a story published on cnn.com this week, describing efforts by people in downtown Philadelphia to reduce the danger to migrating birds in their area. It’s worth a moment to read.
A photo in today’s Philadelphia Enquirer shows a few of the estimated 1,500 birds that flew into a well-lit skyscraper.
We don’t have any tall buildings in the Santa Fe area (there are three five-story hotels and two four-story hotels), but we have plenty of disorienting lights to confuse migrators.
Our beautiful, unshielded holiday lights go on right after Thanksgiving, while fall migration is still in progress. Turning off lights earlier in the evening can help night migrators safely pass through our area.
While our buildings are low, our town is sandwiched between the Rio Grande to the west and the base of the Rocky Mountains immediately east, so our lights can still disorient migrating birds who can crash into natural obstacles.
The lights of the Santa Fe area create a light dome (left of center) that can disorient birds migrating at night. The Rio Grande is in the distance at the far left; the Rocky Mountains can be seen on the right.
Keeping unnecessary lights off or turning them off early can help our feathered friends safely migrate. By working together, we can reduce our cumulative light footprint and provide a measure of safety to the thousands of migrating birds that pass overhead and visit our yards.
If you’re hoping for a discussion of UFOs, you can stop here…
Not uncommonly, two celestial objects appear close to one another in the sky. These events involve the Sun, Moon, and/or the planets (and, once in a while, comets), since all of these objects appear to move in the sky against the background of the distant stars, as seen from Earth.
With the exception of comets, all objects that move in our sky, relative to the background stars, closely follow an invisible line called the plane of the ecliptic (the path that the Sun appears to travel as the Earth orbits it). When two objects have the same right ascension (essentially, when they are due north or south of one another), they are said to be in ‘conjunction.’
Technically, two objects can be in conjunction and still not appear to be as close as they can get to one another. The term for when two objects are closest to one another is an ‘appulse.’ The difference between when two objects are in conjunction and when they are an appulse is slight. Conjunction is the term most commonly used to describe two objects appearing close together in the sky, so I’ll use that term here.
Most conjunctions we observe in the night sky involve the Moon since the Moon makes an entire circuit of the ecliptic in only about 28 days. The Moon’s high apparent speed against the background stars causes the Moon to frequently approach and pass other celestial objects (sometimes the Moon actually passes in front of another object, ‘occulting’ it). Less commonly, one planet will be in conjunction with another planet or nearby star.
In the half year, we’ve been treated to a number of close conjunctions. The highly anticipated conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn occurred in December, when the two largest planets appeared so close to one another that they could be captured in the same field of view in a telescope or, as in the photo below, the zoom lens of a camera.
Jupiter (below) made its closest approach to Saturn on December 21, 2020. This photo was taken with a camera and telephoto lens. In my telescope, not only could I see the two planets in the same field of view, but I could see the four Galilean Moons of Jupiter and the two brightest moons of Saturn. That’s eight solar system objects in one field of view!
This is what Jupiter’s close encounter with Saturn looked like with the unaided eye. Jupiter is below and to the left of the more distant, dimmer Saturn, as they set together between the Sandia Mountains and Grand Central Mountain in the Cerrillos Hills.
Below are several examples of other close encounters that have recently occurred in our skies.
An almost full moon is in conjunction with the planet Mars (top right) in October 2020. Seeing conditions were particularly excellent that night.
As Jupiter pulled away from Saturn (after their December conjunction), Mercury joined the action, to the left of Grand Central Mountain (partially obscured by the house) and Cerro de la Cosena.
In March, the red planet Mars (lower left), had a close encounter with the blue-white Pleiades star cluster in Taurus.
This past Wednesday (May 12), the Moon and Venus made a nice pair in the west, above Tetilla Peak (left foreground) and the Jemez Mountains. The waxing crescent moon was only 1.5% illuminated.
The following evening (Thursday, May 13), the Moon passed Mercury at a somewhat greater distance than the Moon’s recent close encounter with Venus.
Since celestial objects visible to the unaided eye that appear to move against the background of the distant stars can be counted on two hands, conjunctions and appulses are not every night occurrences.
However, if you have binoculars or a telescope, the opportunities to observe close encounters increase substantially since there are many asteroids orbiting the Sun that can be in conjunction with another object. And, if you include man-made satellites in Earth orbit, conjunctions of one kind or another are virtually nightly events.
FYI, tonight (Saturday, May 15), the Moon will pass close to the planet Mars in the constellation Gemini. There’s always something happening above us in our silent night skies.
Mars is twice the size of the Moon, but appears as a mere dot near the left edge of the photo since it’s currently about 200 million miles farther from Earth than the Moon.
Please avoid unnecessary lighting, so we can all enjoy the show.
In April, I posted the blog, ‘Two Novae,’ describing novae occurring in the constellations Cassiopeia and Sagittarius. The nova in Cassiopeia, V1405 Cas, continues to brighten.
When the nova V14405 Cas was discovered on March 18th, it was a faint magnitude 9.6. When I photographed the nova on April 8th, it was visible in binoculars and telescopes at magnitude 7.6.
The nova’s brightness increased slightly during April, but on May 6-7, it spiked by almost two magnitudes. Now, the nova’s magnitude is 5.4, currently visible to the naked eye in clear, dark skies, if you know exactly where to look. Before dawn today, Cassiopeia was in the northeast, rising out of the Santa Fe light dome, as seen from my location. I couldn’t find V1405 Cas with the unaided eye, but it’s easily seen in the photos I took.
Here are two comparison photos, showing how the nova has brightened between the first photo, taken April 8th (top photo), and today’s photo (May 13th). The change in brightness relative to the background stars is obvious.
Changes in a nova’s brightness are unpredictable and, while models suggest V1405 Cas is at about its brightest, we’ll need to continue to observe this nova to confirm that. It’s worth noting that novae themselves are uncommon — novae bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye are rarer still.
To learn more about novae, please see the blog, ‘Two Novae,’ posted on April 9th.
For countless centuries, people of different cultures gazed at the glowing band of stars that bridged the sky and wondered what to make of it. While their stories are unique, there are many commonalities. Here are a few examples of how ancient cultures around the world explained the existence of the Milky Way:
Greece: Let’s begin with the ancient Greeks’ creation myth since it’s said to have led to the name, ‘the Milky Way,’ which has been in use for more than 2,500 years:
Zeus, the sky god and king of the gods on Mount Olympus, had a son, Heracles, with a mortal woman. To give Heracles godlike qualities, Zeus had the baby suckle at the breast of his sleeping goddess wife, Hera. Hera awoke, found an unknown baby sucking her breast, and pushed it away. Milk squirted from her celestial tit, creating the river of stars the Greeks called ‘galaktikos kyklos’ or ‘milky circle.’ A later Latin translation of the Greek was ‘via lactea’ or ‘milky way.’ Note that ‘galaktikos’ is the root of the much later term, ‘galaxy.’
China: According to ‘The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl,’ a folktale more than 2,500 years old, Zhi Nu, seventh daughter of the Jade Emperor, and Niu Lang, overseer of the celestial cattle, fell in love. When the Jade Emperor found out, he made Zhi Nu weave clouds every day and banished Niu Lang to Earth, as a cowherd.
One day, Zhi Nu descended to Earth and bathed in a river. Niu Lang happened upon her and their love rekindled. The two lovers married and had children.
Eventually, the Jade Emperor learned of his daughter’s marriage and demanded that her mother, the goddess Queen Mother of the West, return Zhi Nu to heaven. Niu Lang was distraught that he’d been separated from Zhi Nu for a second time.
Niu Lang’s ox (this ox was once the God of Cattle, but that’s another story) built a special vehicle, so that Niu Lang and his children could travel to heaven to find Zhi Nu. Zhi Nu’s celestial mother caught wind of Niu Lang’s plan to find his wife and created the Silver River — a river of stars that split the heavens, permanently separating the lovers. As a result of the couple’s exile from one another, Zhi Nu became the star, Vega; Niu Lang became Altair.
Zhi Nu (Vega) and Niu Lang (Altair) gaze upon one another from opposing banks of the Silver River.
A flock of magpies was moved by the purity of spouses’ love and they built a bridge of birds over the Silver River where the two lovers could meet. The Emperor of Heaven was likewise moved by the couple’s love and he allowed them to reunite on the magpie bridge every year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. Today, the Qi Xi Festival celebrates the love of Zhi Nu and Niu Lang.
The ‘Silver River’ is thought to be the sky-equivalent of the Han River, a 900-mile long tributary of the Yangtze.
Egypt: Egyptian mythology from several thousand years ago suggested that the luminous stream of stars is milk, spilled from the udders of a celestial cow (there are those milk and cow references, again). Not surprisingly, the ancient Egyptians saw the spilled milk bridging the heavens as the sky-equivalent of the Nile River.
There’s evidence that the Egyptian and Greek people interacted more than 3,000 years ago, so it’s possible that one culture influenced the other in terms of our galaxy’s ‘milky’ beginnings.
Botswana: The !Kung* Bushmen of the Kalahari desert observed the ghostly band of stars overhead and called it the ‘Backbone of the Night,’ possibly suggesting that the sky was a living being.
Australia: The Australian aboriginal tribes had numerous stories about the Milky Way. Many saw it as a river in the sky world.
The Kaurna people of southern Australia called the glowing band of light, ‘Wodliparri.’ They believed that Wodliparri was a sky-river and that fires burned along its banks. They noted that there were dark lanes traversing Wodliparri. They called these dark areas, ‘Yurakauwe’ — waters where monsters reside. Another aboriginal tribe believed that a giant crocodile lived in the river.
One creation story from Queensland involved Priepriggie, a great hunter, who happened upon a group of flying foxes, asleep in a tree. When Priepriggie killed the largest animal, the remaining flying foxes grabbed the hunter and hauled him into the sky.
All day, the Priepriggie’s tribe looked and looked, but couldn’t find any trace of him. At night, they heard Priepriggie faintly singing. The stars began to twinkle and they shifted position until they’d arranged themselves into a ribbon of luminous light that spanned the heavens. Thus, was the band of light we call the Milky Way created.
India: Followers of the Hindu religion referred to the ribbon of light in the heavens as ‘Akasaganga’ or ‘Ganges of the Sky,’ another sky-equivalent of a life-giving river on Earth.
Finland: ‘Lunnunrata’ (‘Pathway of Birds’) is what the early Finnish people called the Milky Way. They believed that birds followed Lunnunrata to their winter home, ‘Lintukoto.’ They were ultimately proven correct since some migrating birds do use the Milky Way as a navigational aid.
Norway: Norsemen saw the Milky Way as the path of deceased warriors being led by Valkyries to the hall of the dead, Valhalla, which is ruled by the Norse god, Odin.
Mesoamerica: The Mayan people believed the Milky Way to be the road spirits take to reach the underworld.
The Mayans believed that the moment of creation occurred when the Milky Way stood on end.
Navajo: In the Navajo creation story, Black God (the God of Fire and a practitioner of witchcraft) possessed a pouch of crystals. He carefully placed the crystals in the sky. Since the crystals didn’t shine by light of their own, Black God placed a fire-star in each constellation to make them glow.
Coyote watched Black God precisely set each crystal in the sky. Becoming impatient with Black God’s painstaking effort, Coyote grabbed the pouch and shook the remaining crystals into the heavens, creating ‘Yikaisdaha’ or ‘That Which Awaits The Dawn.’
The Navajo people view Yikaisdaha as a path that spirits follow when traveling between the Earth and the afterlife, each star in the path being a spirit’s footprint.
The Navajo people noted that, in January, Yikaisdaha is parallel to the eastern horizon, just before dawn.
Shoshone: The Shoshones of Wyoming tell a story of a grizzly bear who climbed a high mountain in order to go hunting in the sky. As the bear climbed higher, snow and ice clung to its fur. As the bear departed the mountain top and crossed the sky, the snow and ice fell off its fur, leaving a trail of luminosity behind.
Cherokee. The Cherokee tribe of southeastern United States believed the Milky Way was the road to the Land of Souls. The path was guarded by a large and a small dog, the stars Sirius and Mirzam. Travelers along the path to the Land of Souls must feed the two dogs or be trapped forever.
The Cherokee path to the Land of Souls and the two dogs that guard it.
These are just a few of the stories about the Milky Way from ancient cultures around the world. The stories were handed down from generation to generation, not just as entertainment around the fires, but as a means of making sense of the night sky above.
So, the next time you gaze at the Milky Way, don’t just look at the stars — consider the celestial rivers, the spirit paths, the spilled milk, and other stories our ancestors created to explain the ghostly luminescence they pondered during the long, dark nights of millennia past.