Fascinating Stars - 5 Types of Night Sky Objects
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 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 eclipsed Moon turns red. There is excitement when there is a Venus transit or a bright comet in night sky.
The 5 types of night sky objects are as given under.
1. Solar system planets and moons
3. Meteor showers and fireballs
5. Deep Sky Objects
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.
1. Solar System Planets and Moons
There are 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 spot Uranus and Neptune. Mercury and Venus are called inferior planets in relation to earth. Their orbits are closer to sun than that of our Earth. Because of this reason, these two planets would always stay 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 attempt to watch the crescent Venus through a telescope. Mercury is a difficult planet to spot for city dwellers as it is visible only for a few weeks in a year. But it can be 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 a 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 visible to naked eye. A medium or large telescope is needed to view the famous rings of Saturn.
It has been my wish to spot a comet from my childhood. During my school days, there was a buzz that the Haley's comet would appear 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 glimpse this periodic comet but I failed. It is possible I did not know where and when to look.
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. The comet was predicted 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 bright, but it was still a special moment for me as this was the first comet I could see.
3. Meteor Showers and Fireballs
Shooting stars are streaks of light we see once a while 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 tiny 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 spectacular and fiery.
I was fortunate enough to spot one such fireball in the year 2012 a while after sunset. It so happened I looked 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.
The visible stars in night sky belong to milky way galaxy. All these stars sit in the same spiral arm where our solar system is located. The stars look none different when viewed from a dark location or through a binocular.
I would list the stars worth hunting in the night sky.
1. Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.
2. Betelgeuse, a bright red star in Orion constellation
3. Polaris or the North star that is almost stationary in the sky
4. Pleiades or Seven sisters, the brightest star cluster visible to naked eye.
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. I was also lucky enough to spot a Nova that happened in Sagittarius constellation using my modest telescope. It helped me cross one more milestone in observational astronomy. Have you heard of Betelgeuse that could go supernova in sometime? If this bursts, it could rival Moon in brightness for a few days.
5. Deep Sky Objects
Deep sky objects can be further classified as given below.
2. Star clusters
Orion Nebula is visible to naked eye and through a good telescope, it reveals many details. Pleiades or seven sisters is the star cluster visible to naked eye. There are also many star clusters around Sagittarius constellation that can be spotted using a basic telescope.
Andromeda is the brightest galaxy at a distance of 2.5 million light years. The apparent size of this galaxy is six times the radius of full Moon! Still most of us would not have seen this galaxy because it gets washed away by the light pollution. A binocular is all we need to spot the Andromeda galaxy. Light pollution is no issue as I have seen Andromeda galaxy at ease from my terrace with just a binocular.
Milky way cannot be seen from the light-polluted city skies. 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 half the sky. It was one of my best moments in night sky watching.
- James Mullaney. (2006, August 8). 111 Deep Sky Wonders for Light-Polluted Skies [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/111-deep-sky-wonders-for-light-polluted-skies/
- John Pickrell. (2006, September 4). Top 10: Comets [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn9975-top-10-comets/
- Jamie Carter. (2018, July 17). A beginner’s guide to meteor showers [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.skyatnightmagazine.com/advice/a-beginners-guide-to-meteor-showers/
- Nancy Atkinson. (2015, November 25). Order Of the Planets From The Sun [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.universetoday.com/72305/order-of-the-planets-from-the-sun/
- Glenn Chaple. (2008, March 10). Learn the constellations [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.astronomy.com/observing/astro-for-kids/2008/03/learn-the-constellations