Fascinating Stars in the Universe
Night Sky Watching
Have you ever marveled at the night sky and wondered how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things? There is a certain order in the way the Moon, planets and the stars move across the night sky. The beauty of space science lies in its certainty. I wish I know how exactly the stock markets will behave the next day just like I know the sunrise or the sunset timings.
There is beauty in watching a total lunar eclipse when the fully eclipsed Moon suddenly turns red. There is excitement when there is a Venus transit or a bright comet in night sky.
I am a star gazer fascinated by the beauty of the universe. If one asks me to list my favorite sight seeing places, night sky would be up there in first position.
Milky Way Galaxy
Solar System Planets
There are a total of 8 planets in our solar system since Pluto is no longer considered a planet. Out of these, we can see 5 planets with our naked eye. The five naked eye planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Uranus and Neptune can be viewed with the help of powerful telescopes or binoculars and only if you know where to look.
I have seen all the 5 planets with naked eye. I am yet to make a sincere effort to spot Uranus and Neptune. Mercury and Venus are called inferior planets with respect to earth. Their orbits are closer to sun than that of our Earth. Because of this reason, these two planets would always stay relatively closer to Sun. These two planets could be seen either in the west after sunset or in the east before sunrise when they are visible.
Venus has phases similar to Moon and one should make an effort to watch the crescent Venus through a telescope. Mercury is a difficult planet to spot for city dwellers as it is visible only for few weeks in a year. But it can be very bright and is easy to spot. We get our best chance to spot Mercury on 15th December 2018 as it rises an hour before sunrise. As an added bonus, we can also see the bright Venus whose crescent is visible when viewed through a small telescope.
Jupiter is the second brightest planet in the night sky and the fourth brightest object overall. A small telescope can help one see Jupiter's four moons. Mars is called the red planet because of its red tinge. Saturn is another bright planet that is visible to naked eye. A medium or large telescope is needed to view the famous rings of Saturn.
Spotting a Comet
It has been my wish to spot a comet in night sky from my childhood. During my school days, there was a buzz that the Haley's comet would make an appearance in night sky. I knew it was my last chance to spot that comet as it has a periodicity of around 75 years. I stayed awake for several nights to catch a glimpse of this periodic comet but I failed. It is possible that I did not know where and when to look.
Nevertheless, I thought I would have a nice chance to spot a comet in 2013 when there was too much hype around comet ISON. But it fizzled out and I could not have a glimpse of the same. According to some earlier predictions, the comet was expected to become as bright as Full Moon but that did not happen as the comet disintegrated during its close encounter with Sun.
In Jan 2015, I was lucky enough to spot Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy using my modest pair of binoculars from my home. It was not very bright but it was still a special moment for me as this was the first comet I could see.
A Glimpse of Deep Sky Objects
After solar system objects, my interest shifted to deep sky objects like Milky way and Andromeda galaxy.
Andromeda galaxy is really special because it is situated at a distance of 2.5 million light years from us. The apparent size of this galaxy is six times the radius of full Moon! Still most of us would not have seen this galaxy in night sky because it usually gets washed away by the light pollution. A binocular is all I needed in my light polluted skies to spot the Andromeda galaxy.
Milky way cannot be seen from my place. I was lucky enough to spot this once from a remote area in Nagaland, India. It was visible to unaided eye since the surroundings were pitch dark and the milky way arm occupied nearly half the sky. It was one of my best moments in night sky watching.
I was also lucky enough to spot a Nova that happened in Sagittarius constellation using my telescope. A nova represents a violent explosion of a dying star. The Nova would appear like a star in a place where there was none before. The one I saw was not very bright but still it helped me cross one more milestone in observational astronomy. Have you heard of Betelgeuse that could go supernova in sometime? If this does, it could rival Moon in brightness.
Shooting Stars and Milky Way Galaxy
Meteor Showers and Fireballs
Shooting stars are streaks of light that we see occasionally across the night sky. I am fortunate to have seen many shooting stars in night sky. Most of this have happened several decades ago during my childhood. Meteor showers represent the specific periods in a calendar year when the meteor activity peaks. This is when our planet crosses the path taken by comets and the debris left behind by the comets impact our atmosphere as shooting stars.
These shooting stars are actually very small particles entering earth's atmosphere. They get burnt up when they enter the earth's atmosphere. What happens when a large meteoroid enters our planet that may not be large enough to impact the planet? This creates a more fantastic sight referred to as a fireball. The fireball is also a shooting star but it appears really spectacular and fiery.
I was fortunate enough to spot one such fireball in the year 2012 shortly after sunset. I happened to look up and the fireball came in my line of sight. It might have lasted just a fraction of a second yet it has created a lasting impression.