Astronomy Questions & Answers

Can Venus ever be far enough from the Sun to appear east of the meridian?

During the Northern Hemisphere winter solstice, when the Sun is farthest south and sets in the southwest, can Venus ever be far enough from the Sun to appear east of the meridian? Yes, but only when viewed from near-arctic latitudes. In late 2008, for example, Venus is the Evening Star…

Astronomy Questions & Answers

When will (or did) the galactic equator cross the ecliptic very close to the latter's northern and southern extremes?

As a teenager, when examining an equinox-1950 star atlas, I noticed that the galactic equator crossed the ecliptic very close to the latter’s northern and southern extremes (that is, the solstices at right ascension 6h and 18h). On equinox-2000 charts they are even closer. I’d love to know when the…

Milky Way Galaxy, NASA / JPL-Caltech

Science-based Q&A

What percentage of our galaxy’s stars move in retrograde orbits?

Do astronomers have any idea what percentage of our galaxy’s stars move in retrograde orbits? The short answer is yes, a very small percentage. But the long answer is more interesting. First, let’s agree what we mean by “retrograde.” If you were to look down on the solar system from…

Astronomy Questions & Answers

How can binary stars orbit each other so fast?

In a News Note (S&T: November 2004, page 16) you described WR 20a, a binary star in Carina with components of 83 and 82 solar masses and an orbital period of 3.686 days. How can two huge balls of gas move so fast? Grab any introductory astronomy textbook and turn…

Take a walk on the wild side

Astronomy Questions & Answers

How do you convert celestial coordinates for equinox 1950.0 to 2000.0?

I use Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, which gives objects’ celestial coordinates for equinox 1950.0. How do I convert these to 2000.0, the current standard? First off, the difference isn’t great. Fifty years of precession change an object’s right ascension and declination by a total of 0.7° at most (if it’s near…

Alpha, Beta, and Proxima Centauri

Astronomy Questions & Answers

What date were the two principal stars of the Alpha Centauri system last known to be closest to each other?

On what terrestrial date were the two principal stars of the Alpha Centauri system last known to be closest to each other in space? According to the orbit recently published by Belgian astronomer Dimitri Pourbaix, α1 and α2 Centauri were closest in space (at periastron) in early August 1955, and…

Astronomy Questions & Answers

Why doesn't a GPS receiver read longitude 0° 00' 00" while standing on the prime meridian at the Greenwich Observatory?

Why didn’t my GPS receiver read longitude 0° 00' 00" when I visited Greenwich Observatory and stood on the prime meridian? The NAVSTAR satellites of the Global Positioning System can provide your location to an accuracy of 3 meters (10 feet) or better. The coordinates you get are based on…

Hobby-based Q&A

What defines a planet's north pole?

Uranus is often said to have a retrograde rotation with its axis tilted 98°. Why don’t we say it has a direct spin with the axis tilted 82°? Since 1982, the International Astronomical Union has defined the north pole of a planet to be the pole that lies north of…

Plate tectonics explained

Astronomy Questions & Answers

Did that earthquake off the coast of Sumatra alter Earth's rotation and tilt?

Did the earthquake off the coast of Sumatra that triggered the horrific tsunami on December 26, 2004, alter Earth’s rotation and tilt, as some news stories suggest? The Sumatra earthquake released as much energy as 475 megatons of TNT. That’s some 23,000 times the energy released by the atomic bomb…

Porcelain sun dial

Hobby-based Q&A

Can you use a replica of an 18th century New England sundial in Washington?

I have a museum’s pewter replica of an 18th-century New England sundial. The inscription says it was designed for latitude 42°. Can I use this sundial in Seattle, Washington? The iconic garden sundial, with triangular shadow-casting gnomon and horizontal plate, gives accurate readings at the latitude for which its hour…

Moon's far side

Astronomy Questions & Answers

How could an astronomer living on the far side of the Moon verify Earth existed?

How could an amateur astronomer who lived her whole life on the far side of the Moon verify that Earth existed? Well, not by tuning in episodes of reality TV. Since the Moon has virtually no atmosphere, there is no mechanism (like ionospheric skip) by which radio signals from Earth…

Astronomy Questions & Answers

Is it possible to have no full Moon in February during a leap year?

Everyone knows there can be two full Moons in a month. Is it possible to have no full Moon in a February containing 28 days? Yes, but only about four times in a century. This happened in 1999 and will next occur in 2018, assuming the phases are expressed in…

Venus Ring of Light

Hobby-based Q&A

How did early astronomers calculate accurate solar system positions?

In the pre-computer age, say 50 years ago and back, how did astronomers calculate accurate positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets for predicting an eclipse or a transit of Venus? They did it by hand, with the help of numerical tables. These weren’t the trigonometric and logarithmic tables you…

Astronomy Questions & Answers

How many daylight hours do you get in a year?

No matter where in the world you live, do you get the same number of daylight hours over the course of a year? No. The equator actually gets fewer hours of daylight than most other latitudes. Any given place would be in daylight exactly 50 percent of a year’s time…

Hobby-based Q&A

Four Galilean moons shadows

Can all four Galilean moons cast their shadows on Jupiter ’s disk at the same time?No. A triple shadow transit is as good as it gets (S&T: July 2004, page 94). The motions of the three inner moons are gravitationally locked so that, as English astronomer George B. Airy wrote…

Hobby-based Q&A

When is the earliest sunrise of the year?

The earliest sunrise of the year doesn't always occur on June 20th (the solstice), which has the longest day. Why? The earliest sunrise actually depends partly on latitude. In 2004, for latitude 40° north, it was June 13th. For 50° north, the earliest sunrise was on June 16th. At 30°…