Date: December 6, 2011

Title: Top Ten Best Things to Look at in the Sky

Podcaster: Carolyn Collins Peterson

Organization: Loch Ness Productions


Music from A Gentle Rain of Starlight by Geodesium:

Description: Carolyn Collins Peterson, The SpaceWriter, talks about her top ten things to look at in the sky.

Bio: Carolyn Collins Peterson is a science writer and show producer, as well as the vice-president of Loch Ness Productions, a company that creates astronomy documentaries and other materials. She works with planetariums, science centers, and observatories on products that explain astronomy and space science to the public. Her most recent projects include documentary scripts, exhibits for NASA/JPL, The Griffith Observatory and the California Academy of Sciences, video podcasts for MIT’s Haystack Observatory, and podcasts for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s “Astronomy Behind the Headlines” project.

Sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” has been sponsored by NO ONE. please consider sponsoring a day or two so we can continue to bring you daily ‘infotainment’.


Hi, I’m Carolyn Collins Petersen, TheSpacewriter.

In my first-ever episode of 365 Days of Astronomy, I talked about the Top Ten Reasons why Astronomy is Cool; so for this one, I’m sharing MY top ten list of great celestial objects to look at and ponder about in the sky.

The first celestial object I really remember seeing in the sky was the Moon, probably around the tender age of four or five. It wasn’t until I was much older – in grade school that I learned what it was: Earth’s closest neighbor in space.
Later on, I watched as people walked on the Moon, and I just assumed that I’d live in a colony on the Moon when I grew up.

When I got older, I thought maybe I’d live on Mars. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Red Planet. As kids, we played Mars exploration games. We’d blast off, spend an afternoon checking out the terrain, and always get back in time for dinner. It was a very convenient planet to explore.

Even as kids, we knew that Mars was a dry and dusty desert planet. The big question these days is “has there ever been life on Mars?” Someday soon, we may know the answer.

The first time I ever looked through a telescope, it was at the planet Saturn. I think that astronomers knew the rings were made up of small particles, but it wasn’t really until the Voyager spacecraft took some of the first high-resolution images of Saturn that we found out just how intricate those rings are. Of course, today we have the Cassini mission on a long-term visit to the Saturn system and it’s cranking out amazing discoveries — not just at Saturn, but also at its moon Enceladus and the outermost edges of the ring system. I hope that those images inspire another little kid to dream about distant planets, just as my first look through a scope at Saturn did for me.

The stars catch my attention, too. The star Sirius has always been a favorite of mine. It lies about 8.6 light-years away from us, which is pretty close in cosmic terms. Sirius is much hotter than our Sun and has about twice the mass. Like many other stars, Sirius converts hydrogen to helium. It puts out 26 times more energy than the Sun. That, and the fact that it’s so close to us, makes Sirius one of the brightest stars in our nighttime sky.

Another one of my favorite stars is Betelgeuse. It’s a bloated, red supergiant that lies about 700 light-years away from us. Betelgeuse is only about 10 million years old, which seems young, for a star. Our Sun is 4.5 BILLION years old. But, Betelgeuse is incredibly massive, well more than ten times the mass of the Sun. Because of that, it has rushed through most of a star’s life stages in its short lifetime. And, when stars like Betelgeuse do that, it won’t be long before they explode as supernovae. For Betelgeuse, this will happen sometime in the next million years. In the distant figure, one of our great-great-great-great grand kids is going to look up at the sky and see Betelgeuse – but it won’t be a red giant any more. It’ll be a bright fireball, blowing itself to smithereens.

One of my all-time favorite objects in the sky is a starbirth region. It’s called the Orion Nebula, and it lies about 1,300 light-years away from us in the constellation Orion. What really intrigues me about the Orion Nebula are dense little clouds of gas and dust called protoplanetary disks. Think of them like cocoons—with young stars growing inside them. In some cases, they may very well also have the beginnings of planetary systems forming inside. If so, when we look at the Orion Nebula, we’re looking at what our own solar system may have looked like more than four and a half billion years ago.

The most mysterious object in the sky that catches my attention is actually something that I’ve never seen. But, it’s out there and astronomers are studying it in wavelengths of light our eyes can’t detect. The thing I’m talking about lies at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, about 26,000 light-years away from us, in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius. Whatever is out there is hidden from our view by clouds of gas and dust. In 1930, an engineer at Bell labs named Karl Jansky, kept detecting a steady radio signal from that part of sky. What he discovered were radio emissions coming from the general region of the galaxy’s center. The actual radio-emitting object is called Sagittarius A-star, and it was discovered in 1974.

Today, astronomers can use infrared-enabled telescopes and sophisticated radio telescopes and x-ray telescopes to see through the clouds of gas and dust that surround the center of the Milky Way. And, they’ve found what’s emitting the radio signals: material in the accretion disk surrounding a black hole.

Another of my favorite objects is the most distant thing you can see with your unaided eye. It’s a galaxy that lies so far away that the light you see from it left when the pre-humans still walked the Earth.

It’s called the Andromeda Galaxy. If you have a good dark-sky observing site, you should be able to make out this dim, fuzzy little object with your naked eye. Here are a couple of cool facts about Andromeda. First, it has a supermassive black hole at its center, just as the Milky Way does.

Second, astronomers have measured Andromeda’s travel through space and they’ve calculated that it will collide with the Milky Way in about four and a half billion years. When that happens, the two galaxies will merge to form a large, elliptical galaxy. Right now, we don’t have to worry too much about that—all we have to do is go out on a dark night when Andromeda is high in the sky and check it out!

My next favorite object is really a pair of smudgy looking little star clouds that you can only see from the southern hemisphere. They’re called the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. They are really companion galaxies to the Milky Way and they have very irregular shapes. The two lie about 170,000 light-years away from us, and there’s evidence to suggest that they formed elsewhere and kind of wandered into the Milky Way’s neighborhood. Just like Andromeda, they’re going to collide with the Milky Way—in this case, our galaxy is going to gobble these two up.

The last member of my top ten things to enjoy in the sky is the entire sky itself. No matter where you live, you can usually see at least a few stars; if you live away from city lights, you can see hundreds or thousands of stars.

But, we wash out the night sky with bright lights. We waste money lighting up space.

Of course, we don’t have money to burn like that and our lights shouldn’t be washing out a view of the stars. Look at it this way: the stars are where we got started. Nearly every atom in our bodies once was part of a star; or was created in the Big Bang some 13.7 billion years ago. So, we come from the stars. And now, we’re losing the view of that ancient home. Think about that.

Well, that’s MY top ten list of great things to view in the sky. What’s on your list?

If you’d like to learn more about my top ten favorite sky sights, please visit me at: and click on the 365 Days of Astronomy tab, to find links to more information about the sky.

Thanks for listening and keep looking up!

End of podcast:

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