Hey everyone and Season’s Greetings! I hope you’re all staying well given the current situation. I’m stuck at home, just like you, working on the next set of updates for Pocket Universe.
Be sure to check out Saturn and Jupiter this month, as they’ll be really close to each other in the sky and will look amazing!
Note: Some users of Pocket Universe have reported that the motion tracking system has stopped working after a recent iOS update.
Long story short, iOS 14 changed something and for a small number of users, motion tracking just wouldn’t work any more. I put out an update (6.13) which fixed that, but which messed up tracking for everyone else (sigh). So 6.14 is now out – which fixes tracking for everyone (famous last words). If you see the “stuck” view, open the App’s settings and scroll to the bottom to turn on “Alternative motion”, and things should start moving again.
Thanks and clear skies!
p.s. wear a mask!
Early in the year, Comet NEOWISE made an appearance and using the iPhone’s amazing low light mode made it the easiest way to get a photo, like this:
Enjoy the planets!
This is a picture I tool on July 26, 2020 using a Raspberry Pi’s camera connected to a 11cm refractor under less than ideal lighting conditions. Even good binoculars should hint at Saturn being more than a star – and you’ll be able to count the brightest moons of Jupiter too.
— John, July 2020
What to look for..
At first glance, the night sky is a dome sprinkled with stars – and the darker the night, and the clearer the skies, the more stars you will see. However, the more you learn about the sky, the more you realize there is to see. Not all the lights you see are stars – some are actually planets (lumps of rock and gas that make up our Solar System), some are galaxies – themselves containing millions of stars – some are immense clouds of interstellar gas, some are clusters of stars..
Although the stars have positions that appear fixed with respect to each other, the planets, the Sun and the Moon appear to move. You might have noticed that the Moon is in a different place in the sky at the same time every night – in fact, it rises later and later every day. You’ve no doubt noticed the Moon changes its appearance: the shape changes from day to day as the angle between the Sun, the Moon and ourselves changes, altering the illumination falling on the Moon’s surface.
In other words, the night sky is a surprisingly dynamic place. Things move, and evolve, not only on a human scale of a few days or hours, but over millions of years. Nothing is still, the Universe is alive!
Watching the sky
There are many books and magazines available which will give you suggestions for things to look for in the night sky. Here are some of my own suggestions for what to look for on a clear night.
Naked Eye Observing
You can see thousands of stars with your naked eye, and they all appear as twinkling points of light. In fact, even with a large telescope, stars still appears as mere points: although huge, they are incredibly far away. It takes the very light you see years and years to travel the distance from the star’s surface to your eye.
The patterns in the stars which we call “constellations” are merely random pictures that human beings have created. There’s nothing special about them, other than an agreement on the pattern, and as they provides a quick and convenient way of identifying specific portions of the sky, their use has continued from ancient times.
You should remember that merely by sharing the same constellation says nothing about where are star is actually located in space, other than it appears to be near each other. The stars could actually be thousands of times further away from us, and merely “line up” because of our view point.
Still, learning the names and shapes of the Constellations is important, and a good way to spend an evening. Take Pocket Universe out, hold it up, and turn of and off the Constellation outlines to get an idea for the sense of scale involved.
If the night is clear, you’ll start to ascertain that some stars are a different color from others; Vega is a brilliant blue/white for example – compare this with Betelgeuse!
The planets will also appear as points of light with the naked eye, but it’s still possible to see Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn very easily. It’s said the light from the planets doesn’t twinkle as much as star light, but I’ve never noticed this myself! If you watch out for the planets from night to night, you’ll see their position has changed slightly with respect to the stars around them. The planets are much, much closer than stars, and here on Earth we’re part of the same solar system, so we all spin around the Sun together.
On a very clear night, away from city lights, you’ll see The Milky Way. This is an edge-on view of the galaxy in which our Sun is a part. Almost every star you see in the sky is part of The Milky Way: these are our interstellar neighbors.
If you want to see another galaxy, track down Messier object M31 – the Andromeda Galaxy. The Andromeda Galaxy will look like a fuzzy patch of light, best seen just out of the corner of your eye. This galaxy is so far away, it takes 2 million years for the light from its stars to reach us. Sadly in the Northern Hemisphere, M31 sets too early to see at this time of year.
To see something a little closer to home, find M45 The Pleides. This is a cluster or grouping of stars, merely 440 light years away (the light you see tonight, set off in 1571AD). You might know them as The Seven Sisters, as those with good eye-sight can count seven stars in the group. Unfortunately in Summer, the Pleides also don’t rise far above the horizon until just before dawn in the Northern Hemisphere. Let’s find something a little easier to spot.
Planets! The planet Saturn is easy to spot at the moment – it’s high and bright in the South-West, quite near a brightish star (Porrima). You’ve just seen a “gas giant”. The other visible planets are hiding beneath the horizon until just before sun rise.
Saturn! Look at Saturn! Once you’ve spotted the rings (if your binoculars are half-way decent), start looking for other planets. You should be able to see Uranus and Neptune if you follow Pocket Universe’s directions.Get up early and look for Jupiter: with large binoculars you will be able to see the four brightest moons which orbit it. Mars will still only look like a speck, but you might be able to pick out a ‘phase’ of Mercury i.e. it won’t look perfectly round. And then of course, we get to the “deep sky objects”, such as the Messier objects. More to come..
Saturn again, obviously! With a telescope, you can observe Jupiter’s moons of course, but also pick out details on Jupiter’s surface. Jupiter is surrounded by huge ‘bands’ of gasses, and you should be able to make out two thick darker ‘belts’ with even a smaller telescope. Mars is not in the best location for observation at present, but with a good telescope you should be able to see a white smudge at one pole – this is the ice-cap.
More to come..
Orbiting the Earth right now, at a height of approximately 350Km and traveling at almost 30,000 kph – that’s 200 miles, and 18,000 mph for you non-scientific unit folks) is the International Space Station. It’s the world’s only permanently manned outpost in space, and although it’s huge, it’s still under construction. It’s so big you can actually see it from the surface Earth, as long it’s flying overhead and is reflecting sunlight in your direction.
Pocket Universe now allows you to track the position of the ISS as it passes over the Earth. From the new ISS view, you can see what country the station is currently flying over, and if there are any sighting opportunities for your region.
If there is a suggested observation time, you’re in luck. Spotting the ISS is easy and fun – close to the suggested time, find a spot with a clear view of the horizon. Times which are just after sunset work best. You should see a very bright ‘star’ drift across the sky. It will finish its pass in about 2 or 3 minutes, and it might not get very high in the sky. At times, the ISS will be in Earth’s shadow, and may not be visible – so just after the sun has set, but when the ISS is still reflecting sunlight will give the brightest target. You can also watch for the ISS in the Virtual Sky mode (if you turn on ISS Updates from the Settings page). A little satellite will be drawn in the approximate position of the ISS to help you find it. But be quick – the ISS zooms past pretty quickly! If you have binoculars or you are good at moving your telescope quickly, you might be able to make out the shape of the station. Amateur astronomers have even managed to photograph astronauts taking a space walk!
I’ve started work on an instruction book, in eBook format. At the moment it won’t install if you aren’t viewing it directly from Mobile Safari, so you will have to copy this link and re-open it I’m afraid. Here’s the link: http://www.pocketuniverse.info/PUeBook.epub Do let me know what else you would like to see in this guide. (With version 3.11 you can tap here.)