California of the Skies

Due to its great brilliancy and richness, the great French astronomy popularizer Camille Flammarion was fond of calling the winter constellation Orion the "California of the Sky." Aside from the Big Dipper itself, perhaps no other star grouping in the entire heavens is as well known. And it’s at its glorious best on February evenings.

As the brightest of the 88 constellations in the sky, Orion is unmistakable. Simply going outside on a clear winter’s night and looking up, your gaze is immediately riveted on its display of colorful bright stars. The first thing you’ll notice are its two brightest luminaries, Betelgeuse and Rigel. If you think stars don’t have color, think again! The former is a red giant super sun and glows a distinct deep orange in hue. The latter is a blue giant and sparkles like a brilliant celestial diamond.

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Who Invented the Telescope?

Nothing gets the attention of a stargazer like hearing the word "telescope" mentioned. This wonderful device makes it possible to journey through space and time without ever leaving home. And as several of the astronauts themselves have said, looking through one is the next best thing to actually being out there! But where did it come from?
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Comet ISON’s Dawn Spectacle – Part II

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UPDATE: Comet ISON, a "shining green candle in the solar wind," is no longer with us, NASA declared Monday morning December 3 in a tribute to what many hoped would be "the comet of the century."
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We continue our coverage from last month’s installment of what’s being heralded as the "Comet of the Century." Here’s what you can hopefully expect to see during this month:
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Comet ISON’s Dawn Spectacle – Part I

A bright new comet is on its way to gracing the pre-dawn morning sky toward the end of November and promises to put on quite a show during the first few weeks of December.  Due to the time frame involved—and its potential for becoming the “Comet of the Century” as it’s being widely heralded—we’re devoting the Sky Talk columns both this month and next to its coverage.
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Coming of the Martians!

Orson Welles
Image courtesy of www.orsonwelles.co.uk

October for most of us means the real beginning of the fall season, with its lower humidity, cooler temperatures, lovely turning of the leaves, and beautifully clear nights for stargazing. It’s also the month of Halloween. For me, mention of October and this popular holiday mean something else as well—it takes me back to the night that Mars invaded the Earth!
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Twilight Lunar & Planetary Parade

Mark the three evenings of September 7th, 8th and 9th on your calendar to watch a fascinating interplay of the crescent Moon and two bright planets in the southwestern sky after sunset. And later in the month, another planet joins the parade. All of this will provide yet another example of the fact that the cosmic drama unfolding nightly overhead is alive with exciting action.
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The Sky’s Finest Galaxy!

The word "galaxy" is entrenched in the popular mind—everyone’s heard of these remote star cities, but with the exception of stargazers few have ever seen one. Or so they think. One of them has been readily visible to anyone who’s ever looked up at the summer sky on a dark clear night. It’s none other than our home galaxy, the Milky Way! And the best time of the year to see and experience it is late August into September.
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Observing Sunspots

SunspotsIf you’ve ever wanted to see sunspots, now’s the time! Our "Daytime Star" is at its long anticipated sunspot maximum this year, with its visible surface peppered much of the time with dark spots of various sizes. Watching them develop and move across the face of the Sun from day-to-day as it slowly rotates is a fascinating activity. But extreme caution is required in doing so due to the overwhelming solar radiance.
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Star-Testing Your Telescope

Many sophisticated methods of evaluating the optical quality of a telescope have been developed over the years. But there’s one very simple, convenient, and sensitive test that’s easy to perform any clear night. Known as the extrafocal image test, it uses an actual star as the test source.
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Three Plus One = Four Planets At Dusk!

A dramatic trio of planets play tag with each other after sunset low in the west-northwestern sky during the last week of this month–along with a lone lovely planet in the southeastern one all month long. Here’s an opportunity to see the two innermost and fastest-moving planets bunched together with the largest of all such worlds, and across the evening sky the most beautiful planet in the entire heavens.
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