If you’re like us here at Astroguyz HQ, you find yourself in the ‘burbs under increasingly brightening night skies. But you want to use that shiny new Christmas telescope, right? What follows is a list of objects that you can view tonight from the comfort of your backyard, can of beer and barbeque in hand. This list also serves as a peek at our star party faves, which can frequently occur under less than optimal skies;
-Planets: Planetary targets generally stand up well to light pollution, as they’re small and compact. Plus, objects like Jupiter and Saturn are great star party faves, and actually show more detail and contrast in the twilight hours than in total darkness. On Mercury, Venus, and Mars, however, detail tends to be bashful. Even Uranus and Neptune are possible targets under light polluted skies, if you known exactly where to look.
-Satellites: Manmade objects in low Earth orbit make wonderful suburban targets, and require no equipment to observe, to boot. Several sites and tools exist to take advantage of tracking satellites; two of our favorites are the site Heavens-Above and the stand-alone program Orbitron. Some of the brightest targets are the Shuttle, the Hubble Space Telescope, numerous Iridium Flares, and of course, the International Space Station. You can even track the ISS via Twitter Feed @twisst!
-Double Stars: Again, brighter doubles allow for a surface to magnitude ratio “punch” to clear all but the worst Vegas-strip light pollution. A quick pick of our star party faves are Albireo, Rigel (for magnitude contrast), Mizar, Porrima (for a challenge), 56 Andromedae, Castor, Algeiba, and Gamma Arietis (Mesarthim). Remember to work the ‘wow factor’… everybody remembers the ‘two suns in the sunset’ scene in Star Wars. Remind folks that it’s our loner Sun that is the odd ball in the universe!
-The Sun: And while awaiting darkness, don’t forget our nearest star. Our Sun can be a fascinating object of study, and unlike other astronomical objects that’ll look exactly the same throughout our lifetimes, Sol changes its apparent face from day to day. And, of course, light pollution is absolutely a non-issue when it comes to solar observing! For best results, a specialized solar scope may be in order, although a safe and cost effective alternative is a homemade filter mask. Don’t miss out on that up and coming solar maximum!
-The Moon: Our nearest satellite is considered a nuisance to many a deep sky imager, but during a suburban backyard star party, consider it your friend. To the un-initiated, the Moon is one of those few targets that actually looks like something out of a glossy coffee table astronomy book, complete with mountains, plains, and craters. A view of the Moon through the clouds has saved many a star party.
-Select Clusters: A brief word is in order at this juncture on what not to observe; nebulae, galaxies, and that favorite +14th magnitude planetary nebula just doesn’t cut it under light polluted skies. These objects have a low intrinsic surface brightness and wash out quickly. Likewise is often true for all but the brightest comets. So, are any deep sky objects fair game? Open and globular clusters can make the cut under all but the worst skies. Some faves that hold up well are M13, M3, and M35. Some observers also don’t realize that southern hemisphere targets such as Omega Centauri can even be high enough above the horizon to be a viable target for folks in the southern US.
-Colored Stars: This is my secret weapon at star parties… while every scope down the line is aimed at Saturn; I draw ‘em in by giving them a view of something unique. A carbon star can appear ruby red and is a beautiful sight through any sized aperture. Three sure faves are Mu Cephei (Herschel’s Garnet Star), R Leporis (Hind’s Crimson Star) and our number one unknown fave, V Hydrae. With these, you might just stump even the most seasoned observer!
Got a fave? Every star party vet eventually builds up a repertoire of their own, and we’d love to hear yours. The reality of light pollution doesn’t mean that you have to pack it in; a quick re-prioritization of observing targets will keep you out were you want to be; under the night time sky.
Next up; the first of our year end “best of” and a look ahead commences, with 2010: The Year in Science!