Astro Bob blog: WeightlessMonkeys, birds and the perception of the starry sky. Look to the west for tonight's Big "X" and to the east for Saturn's brightest moon Titan.
By: Bob King, Duluth News Tribune
A white-faced saki monkey considers the world around him at Como Zoo in Minneapolis Friday. Photo: Bob King
I've wondered whether animals pay any attention to the starry sky. They must notice the stars and certainly the moon, but if they have a thought about them we'll never know. Think of dogs. Some dogs like ours lay out all night long and would make excellent astronomers if they could focus their attention on stars with the intensity they lavish on squirrels and rabbits. I suspect stars move too slowly for dogs to care about. If they jerked this way and that, it would be another matter.
At least one species of bird, the indigo bunting (left), uses the stars to tell direction. Studies have shown that they're aware of stars wheeling around Polaris the North Star. They're not seeing specific patterns but identify north by the movement of stars around the North Star caused by Earth's rotation. Wow!
Leave it to human curiosity to ask questions, look further and then ask more questions to get to the bottom of things. Not that we'll ever get to the bottom. As we approach it, the bottom always seems to move further away. Like Alice, we're falling down a rabbit hole of discovery as we try to make sense of all the patterns in this multi-dimensional universe we call home. All this falling makes me feel weightless, a sensation I rather like.
We don't get any cloudy nights here anymore in Duluth. I've lost count now on how many have been clear but try to show my appreciation for this bounty by spending time outside walking or stargazing. It's wonderful to watch the moon change night after night, moving higher and fattening up like a baby on banana pudding. Tonight the thick lunar crescent will join a line of bright stars across the west including Sirius in Canis Major, Betelegeuse in Orion and Capella in Auriga. Crossing in the other direction another line of stars shouts out for attention: Procyon in Canis Minor, Betelgeuse again, Aldebaran in Taurus and finally Venus. X marks the spot and Betelgeuse sits at the intersection.
This map shows the sky around 9:30 p.m. local time tonight as you face west. Connect the starry dots and moon to form a gigantic "X" in the sky. Created with Stellarium
After you've feasted on the vistas of the west, cast a look over your shoulder back east toward the planet Saturn. It's well placed for viewing around 10 o'clock high up in Virgo below the tail of Leo. To see Saturn's rings all that's required is a telescope or spotting scope that can magnify at least 20x. Tonight and tomorrow night Saturn's brightest and biggest moon Titan will be easy to spot about four ring lengths to the west of the planet. Though 3,200 miles across it looks exactly like a star because it's so far away. Larger scopes in the 6-inch range and up will show the moon's distinctly orange tint caused by its hazy, hydrocarbon atmosphere.
Just let the thin line of Saturn's rings point you to Titan, located due west of the planet. The map shows the scene through a reflecting (mirror) telescope with south at top and east to the right. If you're using a typical refracting scope with a diagonal, north would be up but east-west similarly reversed. Spotting scopes will show the moon on the other side of Saturn. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software.
Depending on the size of your telescope you may see three additional moons -- Iapetus, Dione and Rhea. Rhea will almost touch the eastern end of the ring plane and might be hard to spot in Saturn's glare. If you take on the Titan challenge please let us know how it went by clicking on the comments link below. Thanks and good luck!
(Indigo bunting photo by Kevin Bolton. Saturn locator map HERE.)