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Become a Stargazer

Stargazing often intimidates beginners because the sky itself is so complex. Consider the following:

  • The night sky is divided into 88 constellations, most of which are visible from the United States at different times of the year.
  • On a clear, moonless night, a thousand or more stars are visible.
  • Five of our solar system's eight planets, a few star clusters, a spiral galaxy, and the odd bright comet are visible, too.

Truly, the catalog of objects visible to the unaided eye is impressive — and overwhelming.

Explorations in 2009

January 14

The Stardust spacecraft got a gravitational “kick” when it flew past Earth. After gathering particles from Comet Wild 2, the craft was retargeted to fly past Comet Tempel 1 in 2011, and the Earth encounter will give it enough extra energy to rendezvous with the comet. Another spacecraft slammed an instrumented probe into Tempel 1 in 2005, so the follow-up observations will look into the crater gouged by the impact.

February 18

Explorations of Minor Bodies

Galileo is best known for its reconnaissance of Jupiter. As it transited the asteroid belt en route to Jupiter, though, it made the first close flybys of asteroids, passing within a few hundred miles of Gaspra and Ida. It discovered that Ida has a tiny moon, which later was named Dactyl. In 1994, Galileo provided the only direct look at the impacts of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter.

Our Star, the Sun

The Sun was born about 4.6 billion years ago from the gravitational collapse of a vast cloud of gas and dust. Material in the center of the cloud was squeezed so tightly that it became hot enough to ignite nuclear fusion.


Mercury's surface closely resembles the Moon's. It is covered by impact craters, ancient lava flows, and quake fault lines. Mile-high cliffs stretch for hundreds of miles across the planet's surface. The huge Caloris impact basin, 800 miles (1,300 km) wide, decorates one side of the planet.

Pyxis and Antlia

The technology of the 18th century highlights the southern evening sky now. A couple of faint constellations are named for the high-tech devices of the time. Pyxis, the compass, is quite low in the south-southwest at nightfall. Antlia, the air pump, is to its left.