Things that Lurk in the Shadows

Like me – and hopefully you, too!

Stalking the stars of the non-Hollywood type has become a lost art, something people did generations ago when light faded but they weren’t ready to climb into bed. Nowadays, we chase away the dark with our electric lights, televisions, and iPads.  The stars, and other things of the night sky, go relatively unnoticed by most. But stepping foot out onto your dark porch might just yield some startling surprises!

Of course, getting to know the night sky can be a daunting task, especially if you’re not a fan of the dark. Where to start: Constellations? The names of the brightest stars? Categories of stars? Deep space objects? It can be all a little confusing, and perhaps not that interesting at first, especially when looking with the naked eye. But give it a little time and I guarantee a few Wow!‘s will be uttered.

I suggest two places to start out, especially if you have a busy schedule. The first place is dusk [or dawn if you’re an early riser], right as the Sun is setting [or rising!]. Look to your east [west if looking during dawn], opposite of the Sun. You’ll likely first notice a pink or rose-tinted glow. This is called the ‘Belt of Venus’. It results from the red part of the light spectrum of the Sun’s light being backscattered, or bounced back toward the source, through our Earth’s atmosphere.  Those orbs you see in ‘ghost’ photographs, weather radars, and those much-loved full body scanners at airports utilize backscatter. As you watch, you’ll notice the rosy part of the sky climb higher and become fainter. Under it, you’ll see a blue arc. This arc is literally the shadow of Earth or nightfall creeping up on your location! Of course, at night, you are in Earth’s shadow. Earth is blocking the Sun from view.  But when looking at the Earth’s shadow, you’re seeing it on the atmosphere of Earth.  I suppose if we had no atmosphere, you might not see the shadow as we do currently, but I rather not see that theory ever tested out. So breathe easy and enjoy the view!

Moon, Belt of Venus, Dusk, Nightfall, Arcata Marsh

The Belt of Venus just below the smallest moon of this year.

Arcata Marsh, California, Mud Flat, Humboldt Bay

This blue line is not the shadow of Earth. It’s not arced, nor in the east. Likely it is caused by a layer of atmosphere saturated in water, like the marine layer.

Belt of Venus, Shadow of Earth, nightfall, Arcata Marsh, California, Bench, Pond

The Belt of Venus and the shadow of Earth


Earth’s shadow, or nightfall, winning out over the Belt of Venus

The second place to start your night sky adventures is the Moon. For many reasons. Listing them all out would use up all of the internet, so I’ll give you one or two and leave the discoveries to you. For one, the media is intensely interested in “Super Moons” right now. You can learn what that means and then snicker, content and secure with your knowledge as others hyperventilate around you and don foil hats. Secondly, life on Earth would be completely different without the Moon, so it’s many influences are worth taking note. And since the Moon is close enough to influence us like it does, it’s also easier to observe than some celestial bodies. You can use a simple telescope, the zoom on your camera, or binoculars to get a stunningly closer look. You won’t find cheese, but you’ll learn that the light and dark patches are made up of two different rock types and discover what can be found in the middle of larger craters. If detail is what you want, you could scope out your local astronomy club to see if anyone has a large telescope they’d be willing to point at the Moon, or you can head over to this website,, and look around at all the tracks we’ve been making in the Moon’s dust.

The “Mini Moon” of 2014. Otherwise known as the Moon as far away as it gets this year.

Happy exploring!

Jupiter and the Moon

In case you missed the celestial view last night:

I once took a geology class called Meteorites and Planets. Of course by now, all the information is fuzzy to me, but I do remember something about two different rock types on the surface of the Moon, accounting for the nearly white areas and the grey patches. Makes me wish we had more Moons!