Stargazing

Turn Your Sights Skyward

stargazing

With no stoplights, only one person for every four square miles, and few streetlights, the Trinity night sky provides spectacular stargazing. The Milky Way is so dense and clear that you feel as if you could reach up and whip your fingers across the stars.

Stargazing allows us to become well acquainted with the positions and sights of the night sky. We view the sky from the Earth, a moving platform that is always changing our specific view. The motion of the Earth around the Sun brings a changing night sky with the passing of the seasons. There are always many interesting features one can observe with the unaided eye.

I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly–or ever– gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe. And as the astounding vastness of the universe becomes obscured, there is a throwback to a vision of a universe that essentially amounts to earth, or one’s country, or state or city. Perspective becomes myopic. But a clear night sky and a little instruction allows anyone to soar in mind and imagination to the farthest reaches of an enormous universe in which we are but a speck. And there is nothing more exhilarating and humbling than that.” — Dr. Brian Greene, Columbia University

Learning the constellations is a great way to pass a clear evening. Starting with the brightest stars and the clearest formations, we can learn to spot constellations such as the Big Dipper (Ursa Major), or Orion the Hunter, constellations that have been familiar to humanity throughout its history. The sky has been mapped, and if you learn the patterns of the stars, you will never feel lost when staring into the vastness of the night sky.

The planets, the “wanderers” of the sky, move around the sky in front of that background of stars. They can be tracked with current maps available online or in popular astronomy magazines. Some planets move faster than others, but all move through the same constellations (more or less) as the Sun. This path across the sky is called the ecliptic, and all of the constellations of the Zodiac are in this path.

Meteor showers are a special treat for any stargazer. The Leonids in November 2001 showed us a display of fiery streaks across the sky for hours in the early morning. There are several annual meteor showers caused by Earth moving through the orbit of a comet that has left much debris in its wake, though nearly every clear night, with enough patience, one can see a handful of meteors streaking through the blackness.

Comets, the “dirty snowballs” that orbit around the Sun and sometimes are deflected in their orbit to pass close enough to the Earth to be seen, are another rare sight we can enjoy without telescopes. Halley’s comet is the only really bright comet that returns toward Earth often enough for most everyone to have a chance to see it at least once. It returns every 76 years. Its last pass was in 1986.

A favorite game of adults and children is to lie on your back and watch the sky for satellites and the International Space Station. First person to see a satellite gets to make a wish.

Deep space objects, outside of our own galaxy, are nearly impossible to see without a telescope. One big exception is M31, the Andromeda galaxy, located in the constellation Andromeda. If you can locate this fuzzy luminous patch in the sky, you are looking at our galactic neighbor. It’s the most distant object one can see with the unaided eye.