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.

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.

May begins with a strong meteor shower and ends with a close conjunction of Mercury and Venus. Sandwiched between these two events is a total eclipse of a supermoon.

Totally eclipsed Moon, October 8, 2014.

This month, Hydra, the water serpent, is well-positioned for viewing. While the largest of the 88 constellations, Hydra’s relatively unknown, its brightest star being only magnitude 2.0. See if you can identify it on a moonless evening, stretching over 100 degrees of sky, its head below Cancer, its body beneath Sextans, Crater, and Corvus, and its tail ending at the Libra border.

May Planets:

Mercury is visible in the evening twilight for much of the month. It reaches eastern elongation on May 17, meaning that it appears at its farthest point east of the Sun. On this evening, Mercury sets at the end of astronomical twilight. During the last week of May, the innermost planet makes a close pairing with Venus.

Venus begins the month low in the WNW just after the Sun sets. By the end of May, it catches up with and passes Mercury near the Taurus – Gemini border.

Mars continues to fade as it recedes from Earth. An evening object all month, Mars sets around 11:15pm MDT at month’s end, near the Gemini – Cancer border.

Saturn is still a morning object in May. It slowly brightens during the month as its distance to Earth decreases. By May 31st, Saturn rises shortly after midnight in the constellation Capricornus.

Jupiter follows Saturn into the sky each morning, also brightening as Earth approaches it. Now located in Aquarius, Jupiter’s the brightest object in the morning sky, excluding the Moon.

Jupiter (left, above center) and Saturn (2 o’clock from Jupiter) rising in the predawn sky in April.

May Spotlight:

On the morning of May 26th, a full supermoon will set in the WSW, just after being totally eclipsed by the Earth’s shadow. From the Santa Fe area, totality begins at 5:11am MDT, one hour and four minutes after dawn commences. Totality ends 25 minutes before sunrise. These aren’t optimal conditions for viewing the eclipse, but at least we’ll be able to see it as dawn grows in the east.

A total lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth is directly between the Sun and the Moon, as the Moon orbits the Earth. The first phase of a lunar eclipse is the penumbral phase, in which the Moon approaches the Earth’s shadow. In this phase, sunlight passes through the Earth’s atmosphere before reaching the Moon, causing a very slight dimming at the Moon’s leading (left) edge. The umbral phase of a lunar eclipse begins when the Moon enters the Earth’s shadow. Total eclipse occurs when the Moon is completely within the Earth’s shadow.

Here are details of the May 26, 2021 total eclipse of the moon, specific to the Santa Fe area:

Penumbral eclipse begins:    2:47am MDT

Umbral eclipse begins:          3:45am MDT

Astronomical dawn begins:  4:07am MDT

Totality begins:                       5:11am MDT

Maximum eclipse:                  5:18am MDT

Totality ends:                          5:26am MDT

Sunrise:                                    5:51am MDT

Moonset:                                 5:58am MDT

Note: The umbral and penumbral eclipse phases end after the Moon has set at our location.

The duration of totality is quite short in this eclipse because the Moon is passing just below the top of Earth’s round shadow.

During totality, the Moon is still visible as a reddish disk, despite being covered by the Earth’s shadow. This is because sunlight passing through the Earth’s atmosphere is filtered and refracted, some of which reaches the Moon’s surface. The shade of red in a totally eclipsed moon depends on conditions in the Earth’s atmosphere (e.g., temperature, water content, cloud cover, dust), making each eclipse somewhat unique.

On January 31, 2018, a totally eclipsed Moon was setting above the Jemez Mountains as dawn brightened the sky.

May Night Sky Events:

May 6-7: The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks on the night of May 6th and before dawn on the 7th. This shower can produce 60 meteors per hour during its peak. The waning crescent moon won’t interfere with viewing.

May 11: New moon.

May 17: Mercury is at its farthest point east of the Sun, making it easy to see in the WNW, in late twilight, between the horns of Taurus.

May 26: A full supermoon eclipse occurs before sunrise. Totality begins at 5:11am MDT, well after dawn has begun. The moon, near the head of Scorpius (the scorpion), will be low in the WSW. It will appear somewhat similar to the total eclipse of January 31, 2018, which also occurred during dawn.

May 25-31: For several evenings around May 27th, Venus and Mercury will be close to one another in the WNW twilight, not far from the Crab Nebula (magnitude 8.4) in Taurus. Watch these fast-moving planets as they change position from night to night.

On clear, dark nights around the 285 corridor, you can see the Milky Way rise above the horizon and span the sky. The Milky Way isn’t just a pretty band of stars, it’s a barred spiral galaxy that we reside within. The center of the galaxy is a rectangular bar with arms spiraling around it.

Our galaxy consists of 100 – 400 billion stars, dark dust clouds, and gaseous nebulae, within which new stars are born. The dust clouds and nebulae hide many stars within the Milky Way, making it hard to determine the total number of stars in our galaxy, hence the wide range in the above-mentioned estimate.

At the galactic center is a supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A* (pronounced, ‘Sagittarius A Star’). A black hole is an object that gravitationally collapsed upon itself, leaving a region of space whose gravity is so strong that not even light can escape from it. A supermassive black hole is, well, supermassive! It’s a black hole millions, possibly billions of times the mass of the Sun.  Most large galaxies have supermassive black holes at their galactic centers.

It’s difficult to visualize the spiral nature of our galaxy since we reside within it. The Sun we orbit is an average star, located far from the center of the galaxy. By observing the Milky Way from our vantage point, it’s obvious that our galaxy is relatively flat, with a bulging center.

If we were able to observe the Milky Way Galaxy from ‘overhead,’ we’d see a minor ‘arm’ coming off of each end of the central bar. One of these minor arms is called the ‘Near 3kpc Arm,’ the other is the ‘Far 3kpc Arm.’ The Near 3kpc Arm appears to run from one end of the central bar to the other, then transitions into one of the two major spiral arms, the Perseus Arm. The Far 3kpc Arm appears to start at the end of the bar opposite the Near 3kpc Arm and goes to the other side of the bar, turning into the second major spiral arm of our galaxy, the Scutum-Centaurus Arm.

This hypothetical view looking down on the Milky Way Galaxy is courtesy of NASA.

Between the galactic bar and the Scutum-Centaurus Arm is another minor arm, called the Norma Arm. This arm spirals around the bar, becoming the Outer Arm, which runs outside of and roughly parallel to the Perseus Arm.

Between the galactic bar and the Perseus Arm is a minor arm known as the Sagittarius Arm. As the Sagittarius Arm spirals outward from the bar, it becomes the Carina Arm.

There’s a ‘star bridge’ connecting the Sagittarius Arm to the Perseus Arm. This bridge is known as the Orion Spur (sometimes called the Orion-Cygnus Arm). Our solar system is located on the inner rim of the Orion Spur.

Tightly packed groups of stars known as ‘globular clusters’ form a halo around the galactic center. Globular clusters are made up of hundreds of thousands of stars, tightly bound by gravitational attraction. Globular clusters are common in the halos of spiral galaxies (there are more than 150 globular clusters surrounding the galactic core of the Milky Way), but their formation remains poorly understood.

While there are many fantastic photos of the Milky Way viewed from our perch within it, I haven’t found a detailed map showing the names of the various structures that can be seen with the unaided eye. So, I decided to make my own (so as not to clutter the map, I elected to not label Messier objects).

I lack the skill and equipment to capture the entire Milky Way Galaxy in one image, so I broke it down into several photos (also, a good portion of the Milky Way can’t be viewed from our location because it extends far into the southern sky).

Here’s one example of the maps I made (along with the same photo, sans labels), showing the portion of the Milky Way toward the galactic core, looking through the Sagittarius arm, as seen from Earth.

In this map, the Milky Way begins in Scorpius on the southern horizon at the right, moves left to the galactic center in Sagittarius, then begins to flatten as the galactic bulge transitions to a flat disk, spanning the constellations Scutum, Aquila, and Cygnus (far left).

As you can see, the view of the Milky Way is one of faint clouds of stars, too thick to count, along with areas of darkness that, at times, appear mottled and, at other times, appear like they’ve been swept in a particular direction by an unseen force.

The dark areas, often referred to as ‘molecular clouds,’ are giant clouds of dust and gas that block the light of myriad stars behind them. We tend to focus on the star clouds, but the dust clouds are also worthy of notice since some of them are major areas of star formation – stellar nurseries, if you will.

How much detail you can see when you look at the Milky Way is dependent upon a number of factors. A clear, dark night is necessary to see its overall structure. But, atmospheric transparency (the amount of water vapor in the air) and ‘seeing’ (the degree of atmospheric turbulence) are also important. When these factors are all favorable, the resulting view of the Milky Way is nothing short of spectacular, even to the unaided eye.

So, take advantage of our dark night skies and become familiar with the galaxy we live in. View it as a whole or use binoculars or a telescope and break it into small portions. You can spend a lifetime observing the Milky Way and never learn all its secrets.

I’m currently watching two novae in the night sky, both within range of binoculars and small telescopes.

‘Nova’ is Latin for ‘new,’ as in ‘new star.’ But, a nova is not a new star. A nova is an event involving a white dwarf star (a small, dense remnant of a red giant star, no longer producing nuclear fusion) and a younger star converting hydrogen atoms into helium atoms through nuclear fusion.

When a white dwarf and a fusion-generating (a.k.a., main sequence) star orbit one another, gravity pulls them closer to one another. When sufficiently close, the dense white dwarf will gravitationally steal matter from its less massive companion. The white dwarf uses this accreted matter to create an atmosphere around it, mostly comprised of hydrogen.

The newly formed atmosphere is heated by the white dwarf to a temperature in which runaway hydrogen fusion begins. This fusion blows the atmosphere into space where the heated gas can be seen in visible light.

From Earth, we see a star that’s significantly brighter than before. This increase in brightness can last for weeks or even months. This event is known as a ‘classical nova.’ Some white dwarf-main sequence star binaries can repeat the process of accretion, fusion, and eruption. These are known as ‘recurrent novae.’

V1405 Cas:

V1405 Cas is a current nova in the constellation Cassiopeia. This nova was discovered at magnitude 9.6 on March 18th (depending on your location in the Santa Fe area, stars are visible to the unaided eye down to around magnitude 5.0 – 6.5). Earlier in March, an astronomer’s photograph of the area, including stars down to magnitude 13, showed nothing in the nova’s location. Currently, the nova shines between magnitudes 7 and 8.

Before dawn on April 8th, I photographed Cassiopeia as it rose in the northeast. I easily identified V1405 Cas, using the nearby open star cluster Messier 52 (M52) as a guide.

It’s worth noting that, initially, I didn’t find the nova in photos I took the previous evening (April 7th), when Cassiopeia was low above the northern horizon and well inside the Santa Fe area light dome. Due to these circumstances, my guidepost, M52, was not visible in the photo. However, once I found the nova in my pre-dawn photo of April 8th, I went back and discovered it in my photo of April 7th by comparing the star fields of the two photos.

The nova V1405 Cas appears near the open cluster M52 in Cassiopeia. The three identified stars in the bottom half of the photo represent the right side of Cassiopeia’s ‘W’ shape.

PNV J17581670-2914490:

A potential nova, identified as PNV J17581670-2914490, is currently under observation in the constellation Sagittarius. It was discovered just five days ago (April 4th) at magnitude 8.8. Spectroscopic analysis performed at Kyoto University confirmed that this is a classical nova. Official designation as a nova has yet to be given.

I photographed this object before dawn on April 8th at about magnitude 7.7.

Searching for this nova was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

This object was more difficult to find because it’s located within the Large Sagittarius Star Cloud, where faint stars are abundant. I finally located it by laboriously comparing star locations in my April 8th photo with a photo of the same area I’d taken in February.

Nobody knows how long the novae in Cassiopeia and Sagittarius will remain at their brighter levels, but astronomers are observing them and recording data nightly, trying to learn more about novae and the conditions that lead to these violent events.

I associate April evenings with the arrival in the ENE of the bright orange star Arcturus, in the constellation Bootes, the Herdsman. A red giant, Arcturus is the fourth brightest star in the entire night sky. It’s 37 light years away — the light you see tonight is what Arcturus looked like in 1984.

Arcturus is Greek for ‘Guardian of the Bear,’ the ‘Bear’ being the neighboring constellation, Ursa Major (Latin for ‘Great Bear’). A curve following the tail of Ursa Major passes through Arcturus and leads to Spica, the brightest star in Virgo, the second largest constellation in the heavens.

Extending the curve of the tail of the Big Dipper (left center) down and to the right takes you to Arcturus (the bright star, just above the junipers). The faint constellation Coma Berenices is at right center.

During the entire month of April, for an hour or so after darkness falls, the Zodiacal Light is faintly visible in the west. The Zodiacal Light is sunlight reflecting off of small interplanetary particles.

The springtime Zodiacal Light is the thin cone of light in the middle of the photo, angling slightly to the left and reaching up to the Pleiades star cluster (just left of center). The springtime Zodiacal Light is difficult to see from our communities because there’s significant light pollution from the Santa Fe area, the Penitentiary of New Mexico, and the Albuquerque area.

April Planets:

Mars continues to fade as it moves to the opposite side of its orbit, as seen from Earth. During April, it’s visible in the west as it moves from Taurus into Gemini.

Mars (top, left of center) threads the needle between the Pleiades (above and to the right of the partially obscured Moon) and the Hyades (left of center) star clusters. The International Space Station (the white streak to the left) almost occults first magnitude Aldebaran.

At the end of April, Mercury begins to climb out of strong evening twilight, becoming an easy evening object in May.

Just below Mercury in the twilight glare, Venus has also moved to the east of the Sun. It, too, will become an easy evening object, beginning in May.

Jupiter and Saturn are now morning objects, rising before dawn in the constellation Capricorn.

April Spotlight:

Coma Berenices is a constellation few pay attention to – it has no bright stars; it’s not on the ecliptic, so no planets pass through it; and there’s no pattern to its stars, unlike neighboring Leo’s lionesque profile. Yet, since moving to Santa Fe, Coma Berenices has become one of my favorite constellations.

The constellation looks like a faint sprinkle of stardust and our dark skies make Coma Berenices easy to see and appreciate — the constellation’s practically invisible in suburban and urban settings.

A satellite in high Earth orbit passes through the Coma Star Cluster in the constellation Coma Berenices.

The reason Coma Berenices looks to some like an open star cluster is because part of the constellation is one. The Coma Star Cluster consists of about 40 stars, located in the northwest part of the constellation. The cluster is relatively close to our solar system, so the stars appear spread out, even to the unaided eye.

More importantly to astronomers, Coma Berenices is home to a large cluster of galaxies, known as the Coma Cluster. With over 1,000 galaxies, the Coma Cluster, along with the Leo Cluster, comprise the Coma Supercluster of galaxies. So, this seemingly barren part of the sky is chock-full of deep sky objects.

Until about 2,000 years ago, the stars comprising current day Coma Berenices were considered part of the constellation Leo. Coma Berenices was first recognized as a constellation in its own right in the 1500s. It’s the only modern-day constellation named for a historical figure: Berenice II.

Berenice II married Ptolemy III, becoming Queen of Egypt in 246 BC. The Egyptian people worshipped Berenice II as a goddess – she was considered the protector of sailors, helping them avoid fatal shipwrecks.

When Ptolemy III went to battle in the Third Syrian War, Berenice II said that if her husband safely returned, she’d cut off her long tresses as a votive offering. She placed her cut tresses in a temple, only to learn that her hair had disappeared by the following day. Ptolemy III’s court astronomer claimed that the goddess Aphrodite had placed the tresses in the sky, in honor of Berenice II’s ‘sacrifice’ (My wife recently cut my hair; the birds used my cut tresses as nesting material. As of last night, there were no new constellations).

One aboriginal tribe in Australia described the asterism we call Coma Berenices as a ‘small flock of birds drinking rainwater from a puddle in the crotch of a tree.’ Personally, I like that better than the royal hair story.

April Night Sky Events:

April 11: New moon.

April 14: This is the last evening to view the Zodiacal Light before moonlight interferes for two weeks.

April 22-23: The Lyrid meteor shower peaks on the night of the 22nd and morning of the 23rd. Under optimal conditions, about 20 meteors per hour can be seen. Some shower meteors are known as ‘Lyrid fireballs’ for their brightness and the lingering trains they leave in their wakes.

A Lyrid drops straight down toward the pre-dawn horizon, appearing to just miss Jupiter. Saturn is to the left of Jupiter; Mars is near the left edge. The center of the Milky Way galaxy is on the right side of the photo.

April 26: As the Sun sets, a full supermoon rises in the east, in the constellation Virgo. A supermoon is a full moon occurring when the Moon is closest to the Earth. It’s slightly larger than an average full moon.

The March 28th full moon was a borderline supermoon.

April 30: See if you can find Mercury and Venus setting in the WNW during twilight.

There’s a new kind of pollution showing up in our night skies and it’s getting worse.

Just a few years ago, when I saw an occasional streak of light on a photo of the night sky, my initial presumption was that it was a meteor. Now, I see streaks on many night sky photos and I assume they’re satellites in Earth orbit.

A dozen satellites photo-bombed this image of the Milky Way.

Satellites are critical to modern life. They provide communications and internet access; they collect data to forecast the weather and climate; they observe changes in the Earth’s surface; they provide navigation aid; and they help keep our country safe, to name but a few examples.

The biggest and brightest satellite in Earth orbit (excluding the Moon) is the International Space Station (ISS), the only satellite with humans aboard. Under the right conditions (i.e., the level of darkness and the optimal angle of reflection between the Sun, the ISS, and the observer), the ISS is the brightest object in the night sky, with the exception of the Moon.

The International Space Station (lower right) and an Iridium communication satellite (top center) bracket the Andromeda Galaxy (center). The Iridium satellite flared when sunlight hit its door-sized solar panel. Satellites appear as slowly moving ‘stars,’ but show as lines on this time exposure photo. The constellation Cassiopeia is at the left; the Double Cluster of Perseus is at lower left.

Satellites used to be so expensive to launch into Earth orbit that only governments had the resources to do it. However, through competition with private industry, launch costs have significantly decreased and the number of satellites in orbit is now increasing at an alarming rate. Consider the following statistics:

  • There are approximately 5,000 stars in the night sky that can be seen with the naked eye. About 2,000 of these can be seen at any given time, the other 3,000 being below the horizon.
  • According to n2yo.com, a site that tracks satellites, there are over 6,000 satellites in Earth orbit and the number increases every year. About half of these satellites are no longer operational (these estimates exclude classified satellites, whose numbers are unknown).

It’s worth noting that, in the last three years, SpaceX has launched over 1,000 Starlink communication satellites into Earth orbit. These Starlinks are placed into orbit in groups that look like satellite trains, slowly and silently drifting as they follow one another across the sky. They’re quite beautiful to see, but they’re becoming a real nuisance to astronomers and astrophotographers. I applaud the efforts made to make Starlink satellites less visible, but the camera still sees what the unaided eye may miss.

A ‘train’ of a dozen Starlink communication satellites cross the Double Cluster of Perseus. The satellites look like slowly drifting stars that seem to follow one another, but appear as lines on this time exposure photo. I believe that the satellites’ paths don’t overlap because the Earth is rotating beneath them. Note the two other satellites traveling in a different orbit that appear to intersect with the Starlink train toward the bottom left (their proximity is a matter of perspective).

In addition to satellites, there’s a lot of ‘space junk’ up there (e.g., spent rocket boosters). The website n2yo.com is currently tracking more than 22,000 objects in Earth orbit. That number, too, grows annually.

It’s true that some satellites are too faint to be seen and, because most satellites are in low Earth orbit and shine by reflected sunlight, they’re mostly seen for an hour or two after dark and before dawn. But, as the sheer number of satellites and pieces of space debris increase, satellites will soon be placed in higher orbits – resulting in more satellites, seen for longer periods of time. Euroconsult estimates that, within seven years, there will be 15,000 satellites in Earth orbit. That’s a ratio of three satellites to every one visible star – think about that.

The US Commerce Department has the authority to regulate American satellites. If something isn’t done to better regulate the number of satellites and make them less reflective, we’ll soon have a situation in which the night sky is in perpetual motion – observing this night sky of the near future will be like having a psychedelic LSD trip without the LSD! And I thought airplanes were the bane of astrophotographers…

However, proper satellite regulation will be difficult to achieve because the US is not the only country placing satellites in orbit — there are almost 100 countries or partnerships capable of launching satellites today.

I’m not ‘anti-satellite,’ I know they’re beneficial to humankind. But, at least paint them black or make them non-reflective, so they aren’t visible. Three satellites for every visible star will destroy our night skies. And while the number of visible stars in the sky is constant during our lifetime (ignoring the effects of light pollution), the number of satellites will eventually increase beyond the projected 15,000. We could end up with a satellite to star ratio of 5:1 or even 10:1. Where do we draw the line? Do we wait until the satellite trains become runaway trains?

One last point – ‘what goes up, must come down.’ Satellite orbits eventually decay, causing them to fall back to Earth. Gravity wins every time. Do we want 15,000 satellites raining down upon Earth over a period of years? Granted, 70% of the Earth is covered by water, so only 4,500 of the 15,000 should hit land (OK, some portion of these might completely burn up upon re-entry). Satellite re-entry is one of the reasons all satellites and space debris are continuously monitored.

Nobody’s been hurt by a falling satellite (yet). But, the odds increase as we launch more and more satellites over our heads.

I’m in no way suggesting that Save The Night Sky 285 take on satellite-related issues. Organizations like the United Nations Office For Outer Space Affairs and the US Commerce Department, as well as advocacy groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists exist to grapple with these challenges.

But, if something doesn’t change real soon, it may be time for me and others to get a new hobby!

The Zodiacal Light is a faint cone of light, sometimes seen in the west for an hour or so after dark. It can also appear in the east, about an hour before dawn. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Zodiacal Light can best be seen in the west during February and March and in the east in September and October.

This faint glow is sunlight from below the horizon reflecting off of small particles orbiting the Sun in the plane of the ecliptic (the path against the stars that the Sun appears to follow as the Earth orbits it). The Zodiacal Light is visible around the time of the spring and autumnal equinoxes, when the ecliptic is at a steep angle with respect to the horizon.

Since the Zodiacal Light is quite faint, it can only be viewed on clear, dark nights. From the 285 corridor, the pre-dawn Zodiacal Light is easily visible since our eastern skies are quite dark. However, seeing the Zodiacal Light in the west after dark has become increasingly difficult in our area, primarily due to the light dome from the greater Albuquerque area and the bright lights of the prison.

While various resources indicate that the pre-dawn Zodiacal Light is visible in ‘September and October’ or ‘near the autumnal equinox,’ I’ve viewed it from my home in Eldorado as early as the latter half of June and as late as mid-January.

Pre-dawn Zodiacal Light, as seen from Galisteo on June 30, 2020. Note how the Zodiacal Light presents a shallow angle to the horizon since it’s 12 weeks shy of the autumnal equinox. Venus is the bright ‘star’ on the horizon, just left of center and below the Pleiades star cluster.

The pre-dawn Zodiacal Light, photographed from Eldorado on January 17, 2021. You can see the upper half of Scorpius and first magnitude Antares above the horizon in the center of the photo.

Currently, the Zodiacal Light is conveniently located in the western sky, just after dark. See if you can view it, despite the nearby light pollution. I saw and photographed it this week.

The evening Zodiacal Light in the WNW, shining up between the light dome of the greater Albuquerque area (left) and the prison lights (right). The photo was taken just after dark on March 7. The angle of the Zodiacal Light is steep since the Spring Equinox is only two weeks away. Note that the evening Zodiacal Light leans toward the left, while the pre-dawn Zodiacal Light, shown in the earlier photos, leans toward the right. In both instances, the Zodiacal Light follows the angle of the ecliptic.

We need to protect our dark skies, so we can continue to see this ghostly interplanetary light.