My mother moved to Twin Falls, Idaho back in the 1990’s after living in Texas for almost 20 years. She had grown up in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon to be more specific and I think she missed the season of winter and needed a change in latitude. I had never ventured too far out of Texas before (Oklahoma doesn't really count) so I noticed quite a few differences when I visited. Canadian bacon is not a topping offered or even heard of for pizza, there is NO Bluebell Ice Cream, and they got quite a kick out of me with every utterance of the word "Y'all", but one of the biggest differences for me was something I noticed while visiting an observatory there. They hosted a star party and the weather was cold (25 degrees for me is cold) and it was outside. The views through the telescope were fantastic, but it was the naked eye view outside the telescope that caught my attention.
Orion looked different. I couldn't put my finger on what was different about it, much less why, and I think I stared at it for over an hour before someone asked me what was up. (I have one of those faces when you can tell if I am deep in thought trying to puzzle something out...I would not be a good poker player) I don't remember what exactly the telescope operator said that snapped me out of it, but I remember asking "what is the deal with Orion tonight?" They asked "what do you mean?" I told them that it looked weird, something wasn't right. Why was it so...low? I had noticed that it looked lower in the sky, but it had not yet crossed my mind that I was 13 degrees farther north than usual. Twin Falls, Idaho is at about 42.5° N and Houston, Texas is 29.7°N. That's 12.8°.
When looking at the night sky, a change in latitude means a lot. The farther north you are, the higher objects in the northern part of the sky get. For example, we are so far south that the Big Dipper is not always above the horizon...from mid-October to early February, it is simply not up in the early evening hours. For residents in Twin Falls, Idaho, the bright yellow star Capella in the constellation Auriga is circumpolar...meaning never setting. The telescope operator told me this once they realized where I was from (I'd probably said "Yall" one too many times) With a 13° difference in latitude, that puts the North Star and everything in the northern part of the sky over a full closed fist at arm's reach higher and everything in the southern part of the sky that much lower. A closed fist at arm's reach for most people measures about 10°, a very useful tool if you ever needed to measure your latitude using Polaris. So Orion was a lot lower than usual. Many of the constellations and objects I regularly observe from here in Texas to the south are not even above horizon in Idaho. Columba, Pisces Austrinus, and Omega Centauri never breach the horizon. Years later I was able to go to view Orion from Chile. From there when he rises, he rises feet first, upside down, while here in Texas he rises in the east on his side.
Recently this summer I faced this dilemma of latitude again. Comet Neowise made the news, and astronomers from all over were getting these fantastic images of something I hadn't seen in years...a bright naked eye comet. Reports came in from all over and many of my friends who don't normally take astrophotos, and many who do, churned out beautiful images of a very photogenic double tailed comet with ease. I was jealous. I couldn't see it, and not for lack of trying. Some were able to catch it both in the early evening and again in the late morning before sunrise. From Switzerland and northward it was circumpolar, up all night, from Pennsylvania it was visible as late as 10:30 or 11:00 pm in July...but for us...I went two full weeks of searching before it finally rose high enough on its orbital path for me to spot it. I suppose the good thing is, I DID see it naked eye one night, just barely. Got a couple images of it using my cell phone too. After that night the weather turned cloudy for several days. Such is the luck of astronomers sometimes.
Upcoming Astronomy Events:
• Mars is in opposition and looks fantastic now!
• Look for Venus in the morning skies in the east before sunrise! It’s the brightest thing in the sky.
• Jupiter and Saturn are low in the south in the evening sky in the constellation Sagittarius.
• Friday October 23, First Quarter Moon
• Saturday October 31, Full Moon. Halloween Full Moon!
Astronomy Word of the Week: Asterism. An asterism is an easily recognized pattern of stars, which sounds a lot like the definition for the word constellation. There are 88 official constellations that all astronomers worldwide recognize and use for identifying the location of what they may be studying. Asterisms rely more on the local culture or the way we currently look at things. Take for example the constellation Sagittarius. To people who lived in ancient Greece, the whole constellation resembled a centaur, a half-man, half-horse. But today when we look at it most people don't see a centaur. We more easily see a portion of that constellation as a teapot, probably because we are more likely to see and think of teapots now than we are centaurs.
Have questions about astronomy? Send them to Seeingstars314@gmail.com I will attempt to address some of them in future editions. Also, for more information, check out my website at Seeingstars.wikispaces.com or follow me on Twitter @shsuobservatory. Until next time, Clear Skies!
Michael Prokosch is a member of the SHSU physics department. As an astronomer he manages the observatory and planetarium at the university.