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Stargazing at the National Air & Space Museum

Stargazing at the National Air & Space Museum
The white light in the right corner is Venus.

We’ve made many trips to the National Air & Space Museum, but this was our first time doing so after dark. They were having a special event with a bunch of powerful telescopes set up to view the night sky.

There were many stars in the sky to check out, but the cool objects to check out were the planets. Najwa was able to see Venus as well as Jupiter and some of its moons.

You can see the planets with your eyes, but unless you know better, they appear in the night sky like any star. We needed the scientists to point them out.

Seeing Jupiter and three of its moons was interesting, but for Najwa, it was anticlimactic. It literally looks like four white dots, one a tiny bit bigger than the others, on a purely black canvas. As she gets older, she’ll be able to appreciate what she’s looking at.

The white light in the right corner is Venus.

Another of the telescopes was pointed at Pleiades.

The Pleiades star cluster – also known as the Seven Sisters or M45 – is visible from virtually every part of the globe. It can be seen from as far north as the North Pole, and farther south than the southernmost tip of South America. It looks like a tiny misty dipper of stars.

If you’re familiar with the famous constellation Orion, it can help you be sure you’ve found the Pleiades. See the three stars in a row in Orion? That’s Orion’s Belt. Draw a line through these stars to the V-shaped pattern of stars with a bright star in its midst. The V-shaped pattern is the Face of Taurus the Bull. The bright star in the V – called Aldebaran – depicts the Bull’s Eye. A bit past Aldebaran, you’ll see the Pleiades cluster, which marks the Bull’s Shoulder.

We also viewed a binary star system, a star system consisting of two stars orbiting around their common barycenter. The barycenter is the center of mass of two or more bodies that orbit one another and is the point about which the bodies orbit. Part of the binary star system, which was in the Gemini constellation, was the star Castor.

Castor is one of two bright stars in the constellation Gemini the Twins. It appears as a single star, but it’s actually a famous multiple star system, containing three pairs of binary stars all revolving in a complex way around a common center of mass. In other words, the single bright light we see as Castor is really six stars in one.

There is much mythology associated with these two stars, typically only in conjunction with each other. They are usually considered to be twins. In Greek mythology Pollux is immortal, the son of Zeus, and Castor is mortal, the son of King Tyndareus of Sparta. Thus they were really half-brothers rather than true twins, with a common mother in Queen Leda. Their conception and birth, however, was a complicated and unlikely affair, with their mother succumbing to both Zeus (disguised as a swan) and King Tyndareus on the same night, with the resulting birth not only of Castor and Pollux, but of their sister Helen of Troy. Castor and Pollux later were among the argonauts who sailed with Jason in search of the Golden Fleece, and due to their mutual devotion, Zeus placed them both in the heavens on their death, so that they could remain together forever.


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