Jump On The Jupiter Wagon

As August looks to September, the familiar figure of Orion the Hunter gains prominence for early morning skywatchers. This photo was taken today at about 5 a.m. Details: 35mm lens at f/2.8, 25-second time exposure at ISO 800. Photo: Bob King

Orion crept up on me from behind this morning. When I turned from the telescope, I felt the tingle of the Hunter’s club raised over my head. Is he back so soon?? The cooler, longer nights have many of us already thinking about fall; seeing Orion at dawn provided even more impetus to relish the ever-shortening days.

Jupiter is one fine bright "star" in the southeast these evenings. Since it’s so easy to identify, we’re going to put the planet to good use finding several more late summer gems. If you go out around 9:30-10 o’clock and look two outstretched fists to the right of Jupiter, you’ll spot two modest stars — Alpha and Beta in the constellation Capricornus the Sea Goat. The top one is actually a close pair of stars with the designations Alpha 1 and Alpha 2. They look like two beady eyes to me, and you can split them without any optical aid. They’re very close but if you stare directly at Alpha, you’ll be pleased to see two stars where before you may have noticed only one. 

Jupiter is the brilliant star in the southeast at nightfall. Two fists to the right of the planet takes you to the optical double star Alpha Capricorni. The green circle at right is an enlargement of the Alpha and Beta area so you can better see Alpha as a double. Two fists to the left of Jupiter will take you to a distinctive group of stars that resembles a jumping jack. To the right of the jack are the two brightest stars in Aquarius, Alpha and Beta. The "nebula" shown is described below. Illustration created with Stellarium.

Alpha is an optical double or a chance lineup of two stars widely separated in outer space. Just below Alpha is Beta, a true double star, where both stars revolve about their common center of gravity. You can’t split Beta with your eye alone but binoculars will do it with ease. Look for the companion immediately to the right and a bit below bright Beta. Most binoculars will easily show both the false and real doubles in the same field of view. It’s a fun coincidence that the two types are right next store to each other.

Now let’s swing two fists to the upper left Jupiter to a compact asterism of stars in Aquarius the Water Carrier I’ve nicknamed the "jack", after the pick-up pieces in the child’s game (right). None of these stars is particularly bright but the shape makes it easier to see than you’d think. Whenever you’re having difficulty spotting a faint star or stars, look around them rather than straight at them. That way you align the most sensitive part of your retina on the subject. You’ll be surprised at how something invisible a moment before will suddenly pop into view.

This photo of the Saturn Nebula was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. It shows the bright white dwarf at center, ovals of fluorescent gas and two "handles" of additional gas on either side. Credit: NASA/ESA

For telescopes only is the strangely beautiful Saturn Nebula, the shape of which mimics the ringed planet. Also known as NGC 7009, this planetary nebula is 1,400 light years away in the constellation Aquarius. We’ve looked at planetary nebulas before — they’re the "puffed-away" atmospheres of stars that were once similar to our own sun. A tiny, white-hot cinder of a star called a white dwarf resides at the core of these nebulas and excites the gas around them to glow in psychedelic greens and pinks.