Shhh! Don’t wake the sun

Contrast these views of the nearly spotless sun on July 16-17, 2014 with a picture taken about two weeks earlier (below). Credit: Giorgio Rizzarelli

Who doesn’t enjoy a nap on a lazy summer afternoon? That’s what the sun’s been up to past few days. Instead of a steady parade of sunspots, it put its pencils away and went to sleep. For a time on July 17 not a singe magnetic blemish marred the entire Earth-facing hemisphere. The last time that happened was nearly 3 years ago on Aug. 14, 2011.

Ten groups including three visible with the naked eye dot the sun on July 8, 2014. Credit: NASA

The solar blank stare lasted but a day; by the 18th two small groups emerged. Today three little spot clusters have emerged but again, they’re on the small side.

I think the reason the sun looks so stark is that only two weeks ago nearly a dozen sunspot regions freckled the disk including three visible with the naked eye with a safe solar filter.

These ups and downs aren’t unusual unless this downturn continues for weeks. Expect more bubbles of magnetic energy to rise from beneath the glaring surface of the sun called the photosphere and spawn fresh groups soon. Because we now have eyes on the farside of the sun courtesy of the dual STEREO solar probes, we know the complete story. There are at least seven spotted regions in hiding there today.

Sunspot numbers are plotted for the last three solar cycles through the present. The double peak of the current cycle is shown. Credit: NASA

Sunspots and flares peak approximately every 11 years. We’re still riding the roller coaster near the top of the arc after the most recent solar maximum in late 2013. Some maxima are strong, others weak. The current max – Cycle 24 – is the weakest since Cycle 14 in February of 1906 and one of the wimpiest on record. Occasionally a cycle will have two peaks like the current one. The first peak occurred in Feb. 2012 and the second just this past June. What makes Cycle 24 even more unusual is that the second peak is higher than the first – the first time this has ever been recorded. Like people, every maximum has a personality of its own.

Doug Bieseker of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center has analyzed historical records of solar activity and he finds that most large events such as strong flares and significant geomagnetic storms typically occur in the declining phase of solar cycles—even weak ones, so don’t give up hope for some great auroral displays ahead.

A coronal mass ejection blew off on the farside of the sun early this morning July 20. It appears to envelop Jupiter, but the planet is 490 million miles in the background. SOHO uses an occulting disk to block the brilliant sun. Credit: NASA/ESA

The sun’s got a buddy this week – Jupiter! We can’t see the planet from the ground because it’s swamped by solar glare, but the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) has a great view from space. Watch the sun approach from the right and pass the planet over the next few days. After the 24th, Jupiter will move into the morning sky.

Wow, that’s a lot of sunspots! Aurora in the forecast April 19-20

A very busy sun photographed early this morning with NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Sunspot region 2035 shot off a moderately strong M-class flare on April 16. NOAA forecasters predict a 60% chance for more flares today from one or more of the sunspot groups. Credit: NASA

I can’t recall seeing the sun this peppered with sunspots in a long time. Through the scope this morning I counted nine separate groups. No single spot or group stood out as unusually large, but the combined effect of seeing so many blemishes in one glance made an impression. I encourage you to point your telescope – suitably equipped with a safe solar filter of course – at the sun today to appreciate how fraught with magnetic activity our sun has become.

Each group marks a region on the sun’s shiny outer skin called the photosphere where magnetic energy is concentrated. Strong magnetic fields within a sunspot group quell the turbulent churning of the photosphere, chilling the region by several thousand degrees. Sunspots appear dark against the sun’s blazing disk because they’re cooler.

A powerful solar flare in sunspot region 2036 captured this morning around 8:30 a.m. CDT April 14 in extreme ultraviolet light by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA

Energy stored in sunspots’ twisted magnetic fields can suddenly be released in violent, explosions called solar flares. Billions of tons of solar plasma – the sizzling mix of protons and electrons that composes the sun – are heated to millions of degrees during the explosion and rapidly accelerated into space. Radiation from radio waves to X-rays and gamma rays fan out at the speed of light. Fortunate for us, our atmosphere and planetary magnetic field protect us from most of what flares can dish out.

The powerful X4.9 solar flare of Feb. 25, 2014 recorded in six different wavelengths of ultraviolet light. Credit: NASA/SDO

Not everything though. Strong X-class flares can cause radio blackouts, damage satellite electronics and disrupt poorly protected power grids. They also can spark displays of northern lights. An M-class flare from sunspot region 2035 on April 16 may kick off auroras overnight Saturday April 19-20. NOAA forecasters predict a 25% chance of a minor auroral storm.

Video of February’s X4.9 flare shown in multiple wavelengths of light

Conditions are ideal if it comes to pass. Moonlight won’t be a problem and night temperatures are decidedly more pleasant than in February.

Keep your eyes open for aurora tonight Nov. 8-9

Big sunspot group 1890 has rotated into an ideal position to fling solar stuff in Earth’s direction should its flaring ways continue. Credit: NASA/SDO

There’s been a jump in auroral activity tonight possibly related to recent flares from the large sunspot group numbered 1890. This Jupiter-sized group has erupted with several X-class flares this week. Starting yesterday and continuing for the next few days the region will face Earth; with more M and X-class likely that means continuing chances for more blasts on the way. If you have a safe solar filter I encourage you to give 1890 a look – it’s big enough to see with the naked eye and looks splendiferous in a small telescope.

The aurora oval has expanded southward tonight toward the northern states and may possibly bring northern lights to the northern states and southern Canada. This map shows the oval around 11 p.m. CST. Click to see the current oval. Credit: NOAA

If monster sunspots weren’t enough, strong solar particles winds flowing from a large coronal hole earlier in the week could reach Earth this weekend. Whatever the cause, the potential for aurora tonight exists, since the ACE spacecraft indicates a southward direction in the magnetic field of the material in Earth’s vicinity right now (11 p.m. CST). A southward “Bz”, as it’s called, provides an ideal linkage with Earth’s northward pointing field by creating a “hole” through which solar particles can sneak by the planet’s magnetic defenses. Once inside the planet’s inner magnetic sanctum called the plasma sheet, auroras are more likely.

If it’s clear at your place tonight take a look at the northern sky for any unusual glows or arcs. It could be the start of an auroral display.

A 3rd X-class flare rocks the sun

The latest X3.2 flare in far ultraviolet light at 8:16 p.m. CDT Monday evening May 13 (May 14 Universal Time) photographed by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA

Solar activity’s been rising like nobody’s business. Two of the year’s most powerful flares fired off from the sun’s backside late Sunday and at least 8 spot groups speckle the sun’s white-hot surface today.

Another ultraviolet picture of the sun taken by NASA’s STEREO Behind spacecraft late on May 13. The flare looks like a giant spike because the brilliance of the explosion saturated the camera sensors. STEREO Behind orbits well behind Earth and sees a part of the sun’s backside not visible with Earth-based telescopes. Click to learn more about the STEREO probes. Credit: NASA

Now we can add a third strong X-ray class flare, an X3.2 that spewed a vast cloud of high-speed solar gases called a coronal mass ejection (CME). Lucky for Earth, it was directed – as the other flares were – away from our planet off the eastern edge of the sun’s disk.

The most energetic flare measured in the modern era occurred on November 4, 2003 during the last solar maximum. No one knows how truly strong it became since the sensors topped out at X28. But any flare in the X-category can affect everything from GPS satellites to radio communications, satellite electronics and even fry poorly-protected power grids.

The sun in normal white light late Monday with sunspot groups labeled. Region 1748 – site of the strong flares of the past few days –  is just coming into view at far left. Credit: NASA

Solar flares typically occur in sunspot groups where magnetic energy is concentrated. The  solar surface, which bubbles and churns like a monster pot of hot oatmeal, brings opposite magnetic fields (north and south poles) in contact with one another. When they reconnect, the sudden release of energy heats solar gases to many millions of degrees and blasts billions of solar electrons and protons into space as a CME.

The amount of energy from a big flare like the ones we’ve seen recently equals millions of thermonuclear (hydrogen) bombs.

A healthy CME (coronal mass ejection) in the wake of the most recent X3.2 flare late Monday. This photo was taken by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory which uses a special mask to block out the bright sun to better photograph it outer atmosphere. Credit: NASA / ESA

The sunspot group responsible for all the current feistiness goes by the name of 1748; it’s just coming around to the sun’s front side. Though highly foreshortened because we’re peering at it along the extreme edge of the sun, you can tell it’s a big one. Let’s hope it kicks and sputters its way to a northern lights display without any serious damage to our favorite toys.

Aurora returns plus a new solar activity forecast

Rays of pale red and green aurora stripe the northern sky last night March 1, 2013. The tops of the rays reached about two fists high above the horizon. Photo: Bob King

Life can get frantic. That’s why it felt good deep down to watch the slow dance of the northern lights last night. The space weather dudes forecasted a small chance of their appearance, and indicators like the Kp index held steady at just below minor storm level for much of yesterday.

Patchy aurora in Cepheus and Cassiopeia last night. Pale green was visible with the naked eye, but the dimmer reds didn’t register in color except in the camera. Photo: Bob King

The aurora first appeared as little more than a faint glow near the northern horizon shortly before 10 o’clock. It lolled around pushing up occasional faint rays until moonrise. Unlike some other displays, the leisurely weave of this one slowed down my brain and made for a relaxing view. There’s a 10% chance of more minor auroras for the northern U.S. tonight.

Auroral activity is connected to the sunspot or solar cycle. When the cycle reaches its peak approximately every 11 years, we see gobs of sunspots and solar flares are frequent. Material blasted into space during explosive flares and other solar activity is largely responsible for the “juice” behind the northern lights.

In a recent NASA Science News article, solar physicist Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center explores what’s been happening with Solar Cycle 24, the one currently underway. Sunspot numbers shot up in 2011 and early 2012 and then dropped off later that year through early 2013. Peak cycle is predicted for May this year, so what gives?

All solar maxima aren’t created equal. Some are weak, some more energetic and sometimes we get two peaks instead of one.

The blue curve shows the actual sunspot count; the red is what was predicted. Recent sunspot numbers are falling short of predictions. Credit: Dr. Tony Philips and NOAA/SWPC

“The last two solar maxima, around 1989 and 2001, had not one but two peaks, says Pesnell.  Solar activity went up, dipped, then resumed, performing a mini-cycle that lasted about two years. The same thing could be happening now.

The sun displays only small to medium-sized spot groups (labeled) in this photo taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory at 10 a.m. CST today. Click to see full disk. Credit: NASA

“I am comfortable in saying that another peak will happen in 2013 and possibly last into 2014,” he predicts. Back in 2006 and 2008 a group of solar physicists including Pesnell gathered to forecast the next sunspot cycle maximum. They picked May 2013. In light of flagging solar activity, that now seems unlikely; the new forecast pushes that back to the fall of this year.

There’s one more wrinkle to this story. Pesnell has found similarities between Solar Cycle 14 in the early 20th century, which also had a double-peak, and the current on. If the Cycle 24 plays out in the same way, we might get a peak later this year and another in 2015.

Like the coyote in so many American Indian tales,  nature has stealthy ways that only the watchful eye can untangle.

Prodigious sunspot group gets our attention

Sunspot region 1654 is big enough to show in a 400mm telephoto lens this morning  Jan. 14, 2013.  Thanks to a layer of clouds that filtered the sun’s light to a safe level, I could take a few quick photos. The spots are lined up horizontally above center. Photo: Bob King

I wrote about the current monster sunspot group in yesterday’s blog, but not until I saw with my own eyes through a filmy layer of clouds this morning did I realize how impressive it really is. The region, named 1654, stretches some 112,000 miles or approximately 14 times the diameter of the Earth across the sun’s northern hemisphere. With a safe solar filter, I could make out the two biggest spots.

The sun photographed by the orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory at 11:30 a.m. CST today Jan. 14, 2013. Credit: NASA

Sunspots are dark because they’re several thousand degrees cooler than the sun’s visible surface called the photosphere. The contrast makes them appear greyish-black. Powerful magnetic energy concentrated in sunspots insulates them from the surrounding 11,000 degree heat by blocking the flow of hot gases from the sun’s interior. Less gas means less heat and cooler spots … if you call 8,000 degrees cool.

Although region 1654 continues to flare, no storms are expected to hit Earth for the time being. Just the same, the solar wind has been strong enough on its own in the past 24 hours to ignite northern lights displays across the Arctic. I’ll post updates regularly if a geomagnetic (auroral) storm should blow up.

By the way, ever since I saw the movie October Sky I’ve liked the word ‘prodigious’.

Vega’s asteroid belts hint at hidden planets

This conceptual illustration depicts an asteroid belt around the bright star Vega. Evidence for the ring of debris comes from NASA and ESA space telescopes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Look low in the northwestern sky at dusk in mid-January and you’ll spy a bright, sparkling star. That’s Vega, Lyra the Harp’s most luminous star and the fifth brightest in the sky … after the sun, of course. We’ve known since 1983 that Vega is surrounded by a dusty disk of debris, the first star discovered to have one. Warmed by the star, dust radiates a feeble heat that was detected by the NASA’s orbiting Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS).

Look for Vega above the trees during the early evening. This map shows the sky facing northwest around 6:30 p.m. local time. Maps created with Stellarium

Earlier this week NASA announced evidence for two separate asteroid belts and potential planets around the star. Sound familiar? Our solar system has both an inner, warm asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter and a cold, outer belt of “ice”-teroids beyond Neptune. Using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Space Agency Herschel Space Telescope, both of which are optimized to detect infrared (heat) light, astronomers detected two bands of dust created and replenished by collisions of comets and rocky asteroids around Vega.

The amount of dust indicates that Vega’s belts have far more material than our own asteroid belts, no surprise given that our solar system is far older – about 5 billion years – and has had a much longer time to “clean house” through planet-asteroid interactions. Vega, a star with twice the sun’s mass and 36 times more luminous, is thought to be a youthful 600 million years old.

The Vega system, with its own set of asteroid-comet belts, is compared to our solar system in this illustration. The relative size of our system compared to Vega is illustrated by the small drawing in the middle. On the right, our solar system is scaled up four times. Both inner and outer belts have similar proportions. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Check out the layout of Vega’s belts. Back at home, the main asteroid belt is kept in place by the interplay of gravity between Jupiter and the inner planets, while the outer Kuiper Belt was fashioned by the giant outer planets. Although we can’t see them yet, there are almost certainly planets at play in maintaining Vega’s belts, too. Ain’t gravity fun?

Arcturus, auger of spring, comes up around midnight below the handle of the Big Dipper.

Last night while out checking on a supernova in a galaxy in Leo, a bright spark of ruby light caught my eye low in the northeastern sky. I almost didn’t recognize it, but a second later it hit me –  Arcturus. The time was midnight and already the sky offered this taste of spring.

Arcturus is a brilliant ruddy star that stands high in the south come May. Because of its prominence in late spring and early summer, it’s imbued with memories of warm nights and green grass. In January, Arcturus still slumbers below the eastern horizon until shortly before midnight. Seeing it poke between the trees warmed me up … just a little.

The sun at 10:30 a.m. CST Jan. 10, 2013 photographed by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. The pair of sunspots at left, region 1654, is big enough to see with the naked eye using a safe solar filter. This group harbors the potential for significant solar flares. Credit: NASA

Nicer yet was the sun, which burned away in a blue sky this morning. Lots of sunspot groups, including two large new spots that have recently rounded the sun’s eastern limb, have increased the chance for solar flares in the coming days.

I don’t know about you but I miss the aurora. The last one good show in northern Minnesota happened in November. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait much longer.

Aurora borealis and food for the soul

The Aurora Borealis in Manitowish Waters, Wis. Photo: Bob King

Just returned from a visit to snowy northern Wisconsin where I ran across a new restaurant I’ll have to check out sometime. What astronomy enthusiast wouldn’t?  It’s called the Aurora Borealis and I bet they serve up more than protons and electrons. A quick look at the reviews shows high praise for the crab cakes. You can find it in the wee town of Manitowish Waters.

Aurora borealis near Tromso, Norway on the evening of Dec. 15, 2012. The ice was perfect for skating. Details: Canon 5D Mark III + Nikon 14-24 f/2.8. Click photo for large version. Credit: Ole Salomonsen

The real aurora’s been scare of late at mid-latitudes but not so in the Arctic. Ace aurora photographer Ole Salomonsen took this photo on Dec. 15 he called “Cracks on Ice” from near Tromso in northern Norway. With ice 16 inches thick conditions were perfect for skating. Sadly, Salomonsen didn’t bring a pair. Should I ever have the experience of skating while the aurora wriggled overhead, I promise to face my inevitable death with a happy face.

The sun photographed by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Explorer at 3:15 p.m. (CST) today. Credit: NASA

Auroras are closely linked to solar activity, which has been on the wimpy side the past month. At the moment there is only one developing sunspot region kicking out modest C-class flares – Region 1635.

Prospects look better on the solar farside, which has been throwing fits the past 48 hours, spitting out streams of high-speed protons and electrons in the form of coronal mass ejections.

A backside CME (coronal mass ejection) photographed by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory around 7 a.m. (CST) this morning. The sun, shown as the white circle, is hidden from view by an occulting disk. Credit: NASA/ESA

While none of these are aimed toward Earth, these farside blasts could mean that sunspot activity there is picking up.

If we’re lucky, we’ll start seeing what appear to be several large, active sunspot regions as they rotate around to the nearside in the coming days.

Perhaps chances for northern lights will come along with them.

Let’s hope so. I’m sure you’ll agree that the aurora borealis is real good food (for the soul).

Ultraviolet photos taken by the STEREO behind and STEREO ahead solar observatories this afternoon which can see the backside of the sun. Many of the bright blobs you see are sunspot groups on the sun’s farside. Credit: NASA

Twilight moon, busy sun and Hubble finds most ancient galaxy

The lunar crescent joins holiday lights atop one of Duluth’s downtown skywalks this week. Photo: Bob King

Oh, poor astronomer that I am! I stayed up too late observing with telescope and binoculars through breaks in the clouds and missed the Leonids this morning. Forgive me, I needed to sleep. Good thing Tuesday morning they’re predicted to max out again (10-15 per hour). Did you get to see them?

Jim Schaff of Duluth nabbed a single shower member and a handful of random or sporadic meteors. Note that the Taurids and the occasional fireballs they pitch are still active. I saw two nice 1st magnitude ones last night.

With the recent total eclipse, auroras and meteor showers in the news, I nearly forgot about the return of the crescent moon. A couple nights ago its sharp form cut a white arc in the blue twilight sky above the city’s Christmas decorations. Tonight a fatter version of the moon will shine high in the southwest before nightfall.

Consider taking your own pictures of the crescent at twilight with camera or cellphone. It’s not difficult. Find a scene with either an interesting silhouette or something lit up like a roadway or your neighbor’s holiday lighting and include it in the foreground. Typical exposures are short enough at dusk to hand-hold a cellphone without the worries of shake and blur.

Sunspot counts have been higher this week than anytime since November 2011. While no spot or group is especially large, more activity improves chances for future northern lights displays. Photo taken at 9 a.m. CST this morning by the orbiting SOHO observatory. Credit: NASA/ESA

Although the sun shouts sunspot groups at the moment, only one of them  – Region 1614 – has the potential to kick out a moderate-strength flare. However, a recent blast of solar wind will tickle the planet’s magnetic field over the next three days (Nov. 17-20) potentially firing up minor auroras across the northern U.S. and southern Canada.

We see the galaxy MACS0647-JD (inset) only 420 million years after the start of the birth of the universe in the Big Bang. Astronomers used the massive galaxy cluster MACS J0647.7+7015 (yellow fuzzies) as a gravitational zoom lens to spot it. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Postman and D. Coe (Space Telescope Science Institute), and the CLASH team

This week the Hubble Space Telescope pushed our vision further back to the beginning of time and space when astronomers uncovered the most distant galaxy yet. Named MACS0647-JD, its light has traveled 13.3 billion years to reach Earth. We shouldn’t be seeing it at all – it’s too faint and incredibly red, a consequence of its light having been stretched from shorter, bluer wavelengths to longer, redder ones as a result of the expansion of the universe. Astronomers say the galaxy’s light has been redshifted.

Lucky for us, “8 billion years into its journey, the galaxy’s light took a detour along multiple paths around the massive galaxy cluster MACS J0647.7+7015,” according to a recent European Space Agency press release. “The cluster’s gravity boosted the light from the faraway galaxy, making the images appear far brighter than they otherwise would.”

In this illustration, the gravity of a large galaxy cluster not only bends the light of a much more distant galaxy but focuses and brightens it into multiple images. Credit: NASA/ESA/L. Calcada

The boost came courtesy of gravitational lensing. As I described in a recent blog on the Hyades star cluster, massive objects warp the fabric space and cause light to be deflected from its original path. The gravity of a large galaxy cluster is so strong, it not only bends, brightens and distorts the light of distant galaxies behind it.but creates multiple images of the object. The investigating team found three magnified images of MACS0647-JD along the outskirts of the cluster.

What’s really cool about the new discovery is how small this thing is. Less than 600 light years across, this pipsqueak galaxy is 0.4% the size of the Milky Way, which measures some 150,000 light years across. We’re probably seeing the early stages of galaxy formation when smaller protogalaxies collided or were gravitationally drawn together to create the more familiar spirals and ovals of the present era.

Looking deep into space we see far back in time. I’ve always had fun imagining how might we dip into Earth’s past to see the dinosaurs roaming again from a galaxy 70 million or more light years away. Of course, we’d need a telescope powerful enough to see right down to the planet’s surface. While that will never happen, it does makes for nice daydream.

Solar blowout and a wicked star-planet alignment

Sunspot group 1476 "blemishes" the sun this morning as it rose over Lake Superior in Duluth, Minn. Photo: Bob King

It’s always worth getting up to see a sunrise. Sure, you can’t concentrate and your eyes weigh a pound a piece by afternoon, but it’s worth the lift you feel watching a star rise out of a lake. I saw the sun slowly ease out of Lake Superior in Duluth this morning, and for a few minutes it was safe enough to take pictures with a telephoto lens.

I enjoy imperfections. Matter of fact, I’m built on flaws both inherited and accumulated over the years. Once the solar disk freed itself from the horizon, I could see it also had a blemish, a piece of crud that wouldn’t wipe off. A monster sunspot!

That spot group was plainly visible in the camera once the sun was up. An hour later I easily saw it from home with the naked eye from behind a pair of eclipse glasses.

The sun photograhed this morning through a 3-inch refractor with solar filter later this morning. The big group is 1476; smaller 1477 is at bottom. Photo: Bob King

Now spanning more than 12 Earths, the group is magnificent to view in a small telescope. The main spot has a long string of followers and reminds me of mother goose and her goslings.  Exquisitely small black umbral spots contrasted with the pale, encircling penumbra around the main or lead spot in the group. The photo only hints at the beauty and complexity of the group.

Because the sun rotates on its axis about once every four weeks, we can watch the evolution of this group with each passing day.

In active sunspot groups like 1476, new spots form and evolve quickly. Some expand rapidly and last days or weeks. Others appear and disappear in just a day. Day to day changes are obvious through a small telescope and show us just how dynamic a star can be. As always, you’ll need a safe filter to look directly at the sun. Here’s a link to a recent blog listing good sources.

Must-see video of last night’s M5.7 flare from Region 1476. The best part is the audio. Crank it up!

At 11:18 p.m. Central time last night, sunspot region 1476 blasted off a significant M5-class flare. Though large, it’s not directed toward Earth. For the moment, none of the more powerful X-class flares have made an appearance.

All the activity with more to come is because 1476 is a delta group, where positive and negative magnetic fields (north and south poles) are packed so close together, there’s great potential for instability and the release of energy in the form of solar flares. While there’s only a small chance of auroras for the far north this evening from effects not related to these spots, let’s cross our fingers for possible weekend auroras related to the big group.

From top to bottom: Arcturus, Saturn and Spica form a straight line in the sky last night. Photo: Bob King

Last night when members of our local astronomy club departed the planetarium after the monthly meeting, we instinctively all looked up. Aha! The sky was clear. High up in the southeast was a most striking arrangement: Arcturus, Saturn and Spica all lay in a straight line.

Being humans, we can’t help but be drawn to patterns, and this one you couldn’t miss. Try spying it yourself the next clear night. Go out from 9:30 p.m. on and look well up in the southeastern sky. Arcturus is the bright, orange-red star; below it you’ll find the duo of Saturn and Spica. It’s just cool.

The line will remain straight for about the next several nights. After that, Saturn’s motion to the right (west) will break the pattern. When will you first notice this?