WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Nova, ocean moon light up the weekend sky

Posted June 28, 2012

In April, a star near the teapot in the constellation Sagittarius suddenly became bright enough to see from Earth. The phenomena was independently discovered by two amateur astronomers, one using a relatively small 8" reflecting telescope. Within hours, the star increased in brightness by over 100 times before dimming just a few days later.

Now being called a possible nova, this previously inconspicuous star is known as Nova Sagittarii 2012. In May, NASA's STEREO-B spacecraft, which normally is focused on our sun, captured a rare video of this nova brightening into view.

The word nova translates to "new star" and refers to the sudden appearance of a bright point of light that wasn't seen before. Actually, a nova is an old, compact star that has material fall onto its surface, causing it to become brighter for a short time. Scientists are careful not to refer to this as a supernova, which is thousands of times more powerful and ends in the destruction of that star.

This week, observers around the world noted that the star had brightened once again. It's still too dim to spot with the naked eye but is within the reach of a backyard telescope or good, steady pair of binoculars. A few hours after sunset,look to the south southeast, and find the teapot that makes up Sagittarius. Follow the spout of the teapot up about the height of the teapot and lid to find Nova Sagittarii 2012.

Saturn and Mars line up with the moon

NASA spacecraft captures nova NASA spacecraft captures nova

If you've got a bit of cabin fever from staying to avoid the heat this weekend, venture out once the sun sets for a planetary show in the southwestern sky. The waxing gibbous moon will line up on the left, with Saturn in the middle and orangish Mars on the right. These are great targets for even small telescopes and binoculars, and even Saturn's rings should be visible.

Look above Saturn for the slightly yellowish point of light. That is Saturn's moon Titan.

Researchers studying data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft announced on Thursday that gravitational attraction of Titan and Saturn indicates that tides of 30 feet are sloshing around in a massive ocean under the moon's icy outer shell. Saturn's pull is so strong and Titan so elastic that it elongates like a football when orbiting close to Saturn and becomes more spherical when further from the planet.

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