Published On: Fri, Feb 17th, 2017

Stargazing at Orion Nebula, Pleiades, Planets at Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory

When we first moved into our home, I got glow-in-the-dark stars for the ceiling in Najwa’s room.  Before she even started Kindergarten, I made sure she knew all the planets, in order, which ones had rings, was the closest to the sun, the farthest, the coldest.  And threw Pluto in there for good measure.

I was just living my fascination with astronomy through her.  Fortunately, she liked it as well.

Last summer we went to an astronomy festival in the shadow [well, if the sun was up] of the Washington Monument. Najwa saw Jupiter for the first time.

Tonight, there was a another get together of astronomers at the National Air and Space Museum, and they brought out their big telescopes for the public.

The gathering was at the Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory. As many times as we’ve been to the museum, I never gave it much thought as we walked past it, but tonight, they opened it up for the public after the museum closed.

Looking through telescopes at astronomical objects during the day? That’s right! Come by the Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory to look through our telescopes and discover craters on the Moon, spots on the Sun (using safe solar filters), the phases of Venus, or other wonders of the universe. When the weather is clear, the Public Observatory is open for daytime telescopic viewing, guided by our staff of astronomy educators.
Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory
Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory — outside on the National Air and Space Museum’s east terrace

Inside is this huge telescope.  Bigger than Najwa.  The dome was cracked open to the night sky and the astronomer was adjusting it and the telescope for some far off world.  We got there just as Mars ducked behind the wall of the museum so we missed a chance to view Mars through this telescope.  We’d have to settle for one of the smaller big telescopes later.

For now, though, we got to see Castor.  It’s a binary star, the second brightest int he constellation Gemini.  It’s called a star, but it’s really two starsthat revolve around each other, but there are more stars in the star cluster, and, well, something like that.

Castor was recorded as a double star in 1718 by James Pound. The separation of the two stars has increased from 2″ in 1907 to 7″ in 1997.

A third star is 73″ distant from the main components. It was discovered to vary in brightness with a regular period and was thought to be an eclipsing binary, but the variations are now considered to be due to areas of different brightness on the surface of one or both stars.

All three of the visual components are actually spectroscopic binaries and Castor is a complex multiple star system made up of six individual stars. Castor A and B both have orbits of a few days with a much fainter companion. The Castor C components orbit in less than a day. Castor C is believed to be in orbit around the bright pair, but with an extremely long period of several thousand years.

Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory
Aiming the telescope at Castor in the constellation Gemini.
Najwa at Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory

Outside the Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory, there were other astronomers with more telescopes pointing all over the night sky. Unlike the astronomy festival last summer, it wasn’t that crowded so we didn’t have to stand in 50-deep lines to take a peek into outer space.

The first telescope was pointing to an area of the sky just below the belt of Orion.  It’s the Orion Nebula.  The light we were looking at started its travel towards Earth around the year 700 AD.  Imagine that, as the astronomer said, we were looking at the past.

The Orion Nebula (also known as Messier 42, M42, or NGC 1976) is a diffuse nebula situated in the Milky Way, being south of Orion’s Belt in the constellation of Orion. It is one of the brightest nebulae, and is visible to the naked eye in the night sky. It’s located at a distance of 1,344 ± 20 light years and is the closest region of massive star formation to Earth. The M42 nebula is estimated to be 24 light years across. It has a mass of about 2000 times the mass of the Sun.
Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory

The next telescope was your standard-looking telescope.  One you’ll find at the local hobby store.  It was pointed at Venus, and since you can see Venus with the naked eye, it would do.  In the night sky, it just looks like a really, really bright star.  Through the telescope, tonight at least, it looked like a crescent moon.  Literally, it looked like the moon.

Stargazing at National Air and Space Museum - Looking at Venus
Stargazing at National Air and Space Museum - Looking at Venus
The bright white dot in the top right corner of the photo is Venus.

We checked out a few other telescopes, some also pointing to the Orion Nebula, another one was looking at Mars [it was red], and then there was this giant telescope checking out Pleiades.

Stargazing at National Air and Space Museum - Looking at Pleiades
Stargazing at National Air and Space Museum - Looking at Pleiades

In astronomy, the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, is an open star cluster containing middle-aged, hot B-type stars located in the constellation of Taurus. It is among the nearest star clusters to Earth and is the cluster most obvious to the naked eye in the night sky. The celestial entity has several meanings in different cultures and traditions.

The cluster is dominated by hot blue and extremely luminous stars that have formed within the last 100 million years. Dust that forms a faint reflection nebulosity around the brightest stars was thought at first to be left over from the formation of the cluster (hence the alternative name Maia Nebula after the star Maia), but is now known to be an unrelated dust cloud in the interstellar medium, through which the stars are currently passing. Computer simulations have shown that the Pleiades was probably formed from a compact configuration that resembled the Orion Nebula. Astronomers estimate that the cluster will survive for about another 250 million years, after which it will disperse due to gravitational interactions with its galactic neighborhood.

In Japan, the constellation is known as Subaru which means “to unite.” It was chosen as the brand name of Subaru automobiles to reflect the origins of the firm as the joining of five companies, and is depicted in the firm’s six-star logo.

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About the Author

David Gaines

- David Gaines is a Washington, DC, resident transplanted from North Carolina whose dream career was a newspaper writer but settled for the recruiting industry and simply blogging about whatever thoughts crosses his mind.



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