Here They Come!

Here They Come!

Perhaps you’ve been watching the amazing Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Cosmos television series? Last night, he touched on the fact that stars have long been used as a calendar, indicating when new seasons are around the bend [get planting, you!]. Certain constellations are tightly tied with seasons–such as Orion and Winter.

Less than 45 miles from Indianapolis, Brown County State Park is flooded with light pollution.

Less than 45 miles from Indianapolis, Brown County State Park is flooded with light pollution.

This winter, I’d been fussing about how slowly Orion moves. He’d climb over the eastern mountains, dangle over the Golden Gate Bridge [from the Marin Headlands, of course], and all and all, be a slow poke about his waltz across the sky. My impatience, stemming from the fact that I don’t usually look at the winter night sky, kept growing. It’s so difficult to live in a place where the temperature is mild year round [Ha! But I don’t ever feel warm.]. We made several trips up to Kneeland, a patch of human-created prairie where the astronomy club meets, this winter to stand in a forest of telescopes and gawk with like-minded folks and only encountered nippy conditions, but no frostbite.  To me, looking at the stars says very loudly SUMMER! My brain, in that warm, wind-swept prairie of South Dakota-mode, wondered why long underwear was necessary, and why the stars weren’t as familiar. Sirius? Isn’t that some form of radio?? Aldebaran? Don’t you mean Altair? And who is this Orion fellow anyway? Hercules! Hercules! [In my defense, my star gazing occurs between the hours of 9 and 12 pm–no early morning viewings for me, hence the missing the “other” part of the sky.]

So last night, after what feels like a long winter [probably since there was hardly any rain–hardly a winter!], the Big Dipper pointed to two bright stars [and one planet] creeping over the eastern mountains–Arcturus and Spica [and Mars–that’s a story for another day]! Summer stars, the stars I’m most familiar with, were shining and climbing. Soon they will be directly overhead, crowning the night skies of summer. Good Bye Orion! Good Bye Stars of Winter!

Orion sinks into the Pacific [center left], Sirius, the brightest star we see, glows in foggy conditions [left]. Taurus and the Pleiades follow to the right. All of these are topped by the Milky Way running horizontally across the top of the photo.  The orange glow of Eureka competes with the blue light from the Trinidad Head Lighthouse [on right].

Even with some light pollution but less-densely populated, we are lucky to live in such a dark area. Orion sinks into the Pacific [center left], Sirius, the brightest star we see, glows in foggy conditions [left]. Taurus and the Pleiades follow to the right. All of these are topped by the Milky Way running horizontally across the top of the photo. The orange glow of Eureka competes with the blue light from the Trinidad Head Lighthouse [on right].

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, http://featured-sites.lroc.asu.edu/, 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!