During warm summer nights, simple star gazing can be a fun family event or a fuss free date. Many think that astronomy involves expensive astronomical equipment and Carl Sagan-like knowledge of the stars; nothing could be farther from the truth! By approaching the skies without preconceived notions, you and your family approach the cosmos exactly how the ancients did; that is, without a clue!
Have no fear, however, you have a secret weapon at your disposal that those ancients did not; Astroguyz. Just the fact that you’re successfully reading this blog tells us two things about you; that you have access to ye ole Internet, and a thirst to know about the wonders of astronomy! The Internet itself is a wonderful resource of free stuff to steal and help you through the night sky. Back in the olden days (the 80′s) we had the library and the Old Farmers Almanac to fill this void. Now, like everyone else, they are online as well! Sure, you my have to cut through some semi-astrology and dubious long range weather forecasts, but their rising, setting, and transit times for the Moon, sun and planets are dead on.
So, what can the uninitiated see in the sky tonight? Below is a short list; I’ll try to keep the links to a minimum until the end of the post. With very little preparation, you can spot;
Sure, everybody knows the Big Dipper and Orion the Hunter, but have you ever seen Camelopardalis, the Camel-leopard? How about Lepus the Hare at Orion’s feet, or his two dogs; Canis Major and Minor? The constellations weave a rich tapestry of mythology that tells us something about our ancestors.
Planets: Hey, what are those stars that tend to wander from night to night? If you notice these, you’re probably spotting planets! Cool tip; stars may twinkle on a humid summer night, but planets don’t! The reason for this would fill several (future?) blog posts on the technical aspects of atmospheric seeing; suffice to say, it’s a quick identification tip. You can spot the five naked eye planets of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter & Saturn if you know where to look for them. Watch them night to night as they slowly wander through the constellations. Jupiter is high in the east currently at sunset; Mercury, low in the west, is toughest.
Satellites: Go out during dusk or dawn, and you’ll notice “stars” moving silently across the sky. “Satellite Spotting” is a cult of its own, and in the course of an hour you may see anything from the Shuttle (if it is in orbit!), the International Space Station, Iridium flares, or spy satellites. A great deal of what’s out there visually are in fact old rocket boosters!
Meteor Showers: A personal favorite…I like meteor showers that produce at least a minimum of ten meteors per hour, like this months Perseids. A truly incredible spectacle is a rare meteor storm like the 1966 Leonids… these are once in a lifetime events!
Aurorae: Common enough to actually be a nuisance to deep sky astro photographers in the Arctic, these are visible from the lower 48 usually at some portion of the year. With the sun about to begin a long overdue upswing in solar activity, who knows? Here in northern Maine, I nearly always peak out and look north after sunset to see if there is a dull green glow… a good aurora is an eerie sight, and shouldn’t be missed!
UFO’s: No, I don’t think its at all probable that you and your family will be abducted to take a spin around Alpha Centauri tonight… that only happens to inebriated guys on long fishing trip weekends! I only mention this because all of the items above have been reported as “flying saucers,” especially under rare conditions. Stare at the sky long enough and you’re sure to see something strange. Arm yourself with some astro-knowledge, and you’ll be able to separate these phenomena from the real aliens landing, ray guns ablaze, on your lawn!
Of course, these items may eventually wet your appetite to purchase a telescope. This is totally noble cause (I have four myself)… but don’t forget, at least once in a while to step away from the eyepiece and simply look up for the sheer fun of it!
A rare, triple conjunction. Photo by Author.
Online resources: Now, for those all important web resources essential for successful star gazing. I use these myself in the field to sound like a semi-pro;
Online Planetarium programs: Sure, you could actually pay for fancy planetarium software, but there are oodles (a technical term!) that are free, such as GoogleSky, HNSky, Stellarium, and the newly released, soon to be reviewed here at Astroguyz, Microsoft’s World Wide Telescope. Our pick? We love Stellarium because you can use it as a stand alone i.e. on the laptop application, away from the Internet.
Satellite Tracking: SpaceWeather has a dirt simple satellite tracker; just enter your zip code, and it spits out what’s passing over that is of interest tonight. I also check them for the status of the auroral corona, to see if the northern lights are especially active. For the hardcore (and our favorite!) we give you Orbitron, another in the field application. Just be sure to refresh those TLE’s (Two Line Elements) occasionally to make sure those passes are current!
What’s in the Sky Tonight?: Sky & Telescope , Astronomy, and Skymaps all have good nightly info; another fave is Heavens-Above , another satellite tracker, but stocked with astronomical info as well. And don’t forget, we post an Event-of-the-Week, our top weekly pick, right here at Astroguyz!
Astronomical Lore: Wanna sound like a pro about the mythology and lore behind the sky? Check out these sites:
Final essentials might include a lawn chair or three, bug repellant, a (red) flashlight, and a light jacket. A thermos of your favorite warm beverage or a craft of wine for those that are of age might make you glad to appreciate the universe we happen to inhabit, as well!
Well, that about wraps it up for our latest how-to-excursion; here’s wishing you clear skies. And don’t forget to watch for the Perseids this weekend!
Canis Major portrait… photo by Author.