To help you up your astronomy game, we tapped genius couple Katie Peek and Josh Goldston for five must-knows in the night sky. These two are true all-star experts: Peek, the infographics editor at Popular Science, has a Ph.D. in astrophysics, and Goldston is the Hubble Fellow at Columbia University’s astronomy department. See their simple—but seriously impressive—sky-mapping instructions below.
“The galactic center is the rotational center of the Milky Way Galaxy—our galaxy,” says Peek. It is visible in the summer evenings in the Northern Hemisphere. Look for it in the Sagittarius constellation, a teapot shaped constellation. We were surprised to learn that the sun isn’t our galaxy’s hub, and so were the scientists who discovered the galactic center about 100 years ago. “That was a big step in finding out that we’re not the center of the universe, and that there are more galaxies out there,” says Peek.
“Depending on the year, Venus is visible at sunset or sunrise, because it orbits inside earth’s orbit,” says Peek. So basically, don’t look for this planet—second closest to the sun—in the dead of night. Besides timing, there are a few other ways to find Venus. “It will always be the brightest thing up after the sun goes down or is coming up, because it’s close to us,” says Peek. “And it won’t twinkle. Planets don’t twinkle the way that stars do, because of the way that light gets moved around in our atmosphere.”
Hubble Deep Field
You’ll find this one in a small region of the constellation Ursa Major—otherwise known as the Big Dipper. Another good cue for finding the Hubble Deep Field through your telescope: Look for nothing. “It’s an uninteresting, empty looking spot in the Northern Sky, basically,” says Peek. “But the guy who was running the Hubble was like, ‘I’m going to take hours of the most valuable telescope’s time and point it where we can’t see anything.” The scientific community was perturbed, to say the least. “But he found hundreds of galaxies out there,” says Peek. This surprised everyone and informed us that galaxies existed much farther away and that there were way, way more of them than we ever thought.
Orion Nebular Cluster
Orion is one of those famous constellations that you should already be able to find. (Hint: Look for it in the winter). “If you look at the three stars that make Orion’s Belt, below there’s the ‘sword’ hanging there,” says Peek. “In the sword there’s a cluster of stars being born right now.” Spotting them is easy, says Peek. “They’re brighter because they’re really, really big, and they’re close together.” Now, when astronomers want to study how stars are born, they examine these stars.
In 1974, physicists Steven Hawking and Kip Thorne made a bet. Thorne argued that Cygnus X-1, a strange area in the Cygnus constellation, was a black hole. Hawking thought otherwise. Neither collected winnings until 1990, when the evidence was just too strong in favor of X-1 being a black hole—and Hawking paid up. It’s visible in the summer evenings, right overhead from New York City. Look to the Northern Cross constellation (also known as Cygnus the Swan), which is considered “the backbone of the Milky Way”.
Photos: Wiki Commons