Editor’s Note: Some photos may be enlarged by clicking on them.
Well, after the “downer” tone of my last piece, this piece will look up and away. The night sky captured the imagination of our ancestors. Every known culture has used the sky to capture reminisces of some of their tales. Every week Not Adahn pitches us on how the stars foretells our futures. But in the modern world many of us have lost our connections to the wonders of the night skies. We can go inside where it is warm and well-lit and we can amuse ourselves in ways that were undreamed of even 50 years ago. Our cities have also robbed the night sky of the ability to grab our attention. Ambient light obscures our chance to even see what is visible. None of this is bad. Warm, lit evenings with plenty of food and entertainment has been a goal of mankind for thousands of years. But sometimes you may wonder “What is that light up there in the night sky?”
You can observe the night sky year round but the summer and fall are easier times to break the problem of not seeing the night sky. During the summer the night sky faces to center of our galaxy and the night sky has lots of things to look at. The evenings are warm. The autumn in some ways is even more favored because many people hunt and are arriving at dark locations away from cities before dawn and remaining until well after sunset. Others are out for morning or evening walks and night clings longer so the opportunity to see the night sky is more easily presented.
This article is for the casual sky observer. I assume the readers have no precision telescopes, special software or the other equipment that serious amateur sky observers use. If you have an internet connection (if you don’t you’re not reading this anyway), working eyes, binoculars, maybe a spotting scope or a kid Xmas gift grade telescope* you have all the equipment you need.
(* This is a smaller refraction telescope with no electronics and generally with pedestrian quality lenses. Typically they have low magnification around 35X and higher magnification around 80-90X.)
What will you see when you look up? Stuff. Most of which is beyond the care and concerns of humanity. Some of the stuff is from mankind and can be humbling to see it whiz along. Some of it is our neighbors. The rocky or gassy planets which formed around us. Maybe you’ll see a visitor from the icy far suburb of the Solar System. I guarantee that you’ll see our companion orb. With patience and luck maybe you’ll see reminders of the power of the universe to alter life, planets or entire star systems.
One word of warning. What you will see in with your own eyes is one sense, disappointing. You won’t observe the rich colors, incredible details and literally otherworldly viewpoints in the best images released by the elite observatories, NASA, or the ESA. But that will be more than made up by the fact you will be seeing the objects first hand with your own eyeballs and mind. You will be able to combine the seen with the presented and hopefully be able to better enjoy both.
What do you need to observe the night sky? 1) A night without solid cloudiness.; 2) Your eyeballs at a minimum; 3) Something to tell you what is out where and when. (More in a bit); and it helps if 4) you have some type of optical aid. This doesn’t need to be a $10,000 telescope. It can be a decent pair of binoculars, a kid xmas present type telescope, a spotting scope, or even a decent rifle scope. The more magnification and light gathering ability device has the more detail it will enable you to see. It will also help if you give your eyes some time to adjust to the night away from lights.
This scribbling will be broken down into Solar System sky objects and manmade objects. I’ll try to keep the jargon down so as the Hitchhikers Guide advises, “Don’t panic”. So let’s head out to the deer stand, or out for the evening walk, and make sure to look up from time to time.
The Solar System and Manmade Sky
Let’s start with the easy stuff in our immediate neighborhood of the universe. The Sun, Moon, planets, comets, manmade stuff and others. Seeing these objects rates from really easy to challenging (or lucky). For the most part these things are bright, it is easy to observe their movement, and they show details even with the most basic binoculars or scopes.
This is the earliest known night sky object and for the most of a month it takes no great skill to find it, even in a city. The Moon is a delight to observe as the terminator (line of light and night) crosses the lunar surface. The area around the terminator is full of shadows which allows surface features to “pop” into view. Mountains thousands of feet tall cast their shadows miles deep into the cooled lava “Sea” that surround them. Large craters will have bight rims with inky black interiors, and occasionally you’ll see the top of a crater’s central peak poking into the sunlight from the dark void.
So when is it best to observe the moon? Any time you can see it, except for the 4 days or so around a full moon. During that period the moon appears flat because the light doesn’t cast noticeable shadows
Through binoculars or your scope the view changes by the hour as the edge of the night rushes along the surface. One cold, dark, and clear pre-dawn in Montana I got into position and waited for daylight and the elk. While I tried to stay, warm, quiet, and unscented I had a great view of the terminator and as I looked at the moon through my binos I caught the moment the sun rose high enough to pass through a breach in a crater wall and send a narrow beam of light spilling across the crater floor.
Even with no optics the face of the moon changes between nights. If the moon is already up at sunset, you are approaching the full moon. If at sunset, it is the full moon. If there is a noticeable period between sunset and the moon- the moon is waning. Finally if the moon is bright and high in the sky around noon, it is about a week to no visible moon. AKA- the new moon.
Fun fact about the Moon. Because of a small wobble in the lunar orbit an Earth observer over time can see almost 60% of the lunar surface as the wobbles (libration) let us peek around the corner of the Moon. Also, most lunar sea surface material is about the same color as a middle aged asphalt parking lot.
In short don’t look at the sun without eye protection. Especially now since even there are very few sunspots to see (aka solar minimum). Welding goggles are not usually dark enough to protect you since most commercial welding goggles are a level 12 darkness and the sun requires level 14. Small “XMAS Telescopes” usually come with a “solar filter” which can be used with the lowest power lens configuration. In other times you can carefully observe the Sun’s face for sunspots. Right now the risk is probably not worth the view. But, unless you have specialized equipment, the Sun is best observed online from a solar observatory website. There are three exceptions to this: solar eclipses, planetary transits, and the green flash. I’ll discuss solar eclipses later.
Planetary transits are the rare occasions when Mercury or Venus actually are seen crossing the face of the Sun for a few hours. Because the planets don’t follow the Solar equator the geometry required for the Earth to experience this view are few and fleeting. The last transit by Venus was June 5, 2012 and was fun to see. The next will be December of 2117. A Venus transit was how the atmosphere was discovered and that led to a rush to have observing sites around the world in 1769. Today science has moved beyond transits for scientific purposes but watching the progress of a planet across the face of the Sun puts the scale of the Solar System in perspective. While my bet is that I’ll miss 2117 transit of Venus, I am holding out hope for the Mercury’s November 11, 2019 transit of the Sun. The transit will be visible from all of North America and much of Europe. Japan, you’ll have to catch it online. I live near an east facing beach so I’ll be able to experience it at dawn. What you’ll see is a black dot that moves across the face of the Sun. This website will provide you the information for your location including where on the solar disk you will see Mercury. If you miss this transit your next opportunity will be November 13, 2032.
To observe the “green flash” you need an unobstructed view of a flat horizon at sunset or sunrise. It works best if you use an ocean or a Great Lake. I have heard people have seen the “green flash” on the Great Plains, but I had no luck when I lived in the KC area.
A “green flash” occurs because the atmosphere acts like a prism and just as the solar disk disappears (appears) at the horizon the prism causes a 1-2 flash of green to appear at the top of the solar disk. Again, a fun thing to see if you are aware and lucky.
In the current night sky at sunset Jupiter reigns. Venus is usually brighter but right now it is close to the Sun and hides in the glare of sunset. In contrast if you look west of south after sunset the largest planet with be the first “star” to come out and remains the brightest object in that part of the sky. With the naked eye Jupiter is very bright silver white “star”, while through even the smallest binoculars it appears clearly as a disk instead of a point of light like a star. You can do a quick check if this. Find Jupiter and check it out. Now make a closed fist and extend your arm. Place it just below Jupiter and look at 5 o’clock. That bright red star is Antares. Now look at Antares in your binos. Antares is the 15th brightest star in the sky. It a red super giant of about 12 solar masses only about 550 light years away and if it swapped places with the Sun it would fill the Solar System until midway between Mars and Jupiter. It is truly big. Even that close and big Antares is a mere pinpoint of light. Every major planet is clearly a disk and not a point of light. (See opening picture)
In a dark location with good binos (with large front lenses to gather light) you can see Jupiter’s four large moons. They appear as distinct “stars” along Jupiter’s equator. With any scope these stand out. Depending where they are in their orbits you can see up to four of the moons Galileo discovered. All four are fascinating for their own reasons, but the inner two moons (Io and Europa) move so quickly that observing even an hour apart will reveal clear movement. With a scope as well you’ll be able to make out some of Jupiter’s banding which look like brownish stripes north and south of the equator. Jupiter takes about a year to move one zodiacal constellation. So once you find it, it’ll be easy to follow.
If you look at Jupiter or Saturn near the horizon you may be tempted to say, “WTF Double Eagle? Either you lied about where the moons (rings) are, or the planet tipped over. Not to fear. This is just an optical illusion because you are essentially looking sideways at the planet. Look closer to when it is at the highest point it’ll reach in the night sky (AKA zenith) and things will appear normally.
Fun Fact: The gas giant Jupiter rotates so rapidly (a day is about 12 hours) that even though binos it visibly bulges along the equator.
Venus is the Earth’s nearest twin in size and our closest planetary neighbor on average. (Depending on locations in their respective orbits both Venus and Mars can be closer on any given day.) Because Venus is closer to the Sun it sometimes appears in the morning and other times in the evening (aka Morning and Evening Stars) and can never appear all night like the plants farther from the Sun than us. Venus is even brighter than Jupiter and at peak times on moonless nights can cast a faint shadow.
Unfortunately, Venus is not a fascinating view through your optics. It appears as a silvery disk but with no moons so you don’t get the obvious movements as the moons parade around Jupiter. The only real trick Venus will display for you is that it goes through phases like the moon, less a “full” Venus. The fuller Venus appears, the farther it is from Earth; and the more crescent it appears, the closer it is. Because of this, the apparent brightness of the planet remains fairly constant. A crescent Venus is noticeably larger in your optics than an almost full Venus.
Venus is not much of a visual treat right now since it just passed behind the Sun. It sets within minutes of the Sun and is not visible to the casual observer. In a few months it will return to easy visibility. In fact, Venus can be seen during daylight hours and is sometimes reported as an UFO near the Sun. Here is how and where Venus will appear after sunset for the next few months.
Fun Fact: Venus’s surface runs about 900F and the atmosphere is so dense that the pressure at the surface is the same as the deepest parts of the Marianas Trench. The odd thing is that the planet rotates so slowly that a Venusian day is longer than a Venusian year.
Saturn is the third brightest planet and is brighter than almost every star. As a bonus, now it is near Jupiter in the evening sky so it is really easy to find. To find Saturn locate Jupiter. Using the same closed fist stretched out arm technique, go left a bit over two fists and up slightly (10 o’clock position). That yellowish star is Saturn. Through even a small scope Saturn will grab your attention because the rings are right there and easy to make out. (Most binos make Saturn look like a yellowish football. If you have high quality lenses and steady them against something you can just make out the rings in good conditions.) Saturn and Jupiter are slowly closing together so over the next months they will be easier to see together. In December 2020 they will appear to almost touch they will be so close together in the night sky (AKA conjuction).
Saturn’s rings are “open” and easier to see now. In fact even a cheap telescope will reveal that there are “rings” and not a ring. As the years continue on we will move more in line with the rings and they’ll almost disappear. Then they’ll open to the other side. (14 year cycle). It takes a bit over two years for Saturn to move between constellations which is why Jupiter will “catch up” next year.
Fun Fact: Gallieo was the first to observe the planets though a telescope and discovered Jupiter’s moons and phases on Venus. He could only make out that Saturn bulged and it was a later scientist who discovered the nature of the rings. The rings are almost all small pieces of water ice ranging 1cm to 1M in size and the most visible rings are ~63,000 km wide, but only 10-30 meters deep.
Mars may not be our closest neighbor planet, but it is the most “earthlike” neighbor with seasons, clouds, snow, occasionally running water, and hosts of other similarities. In the night sky Mars is an odd duck because it zips through the constellations (a Mars year is 687 Earth days) and changes brightness and apparent size dramatically over a short period of time. Right now? It is so close to the Sun it is hidden in the glare. Come March it’ll escape the Sun’s glare to appear as a bright red point of light around dawn. By as the months go on the distance between us and Mars will fall until October when we will be only 0.4 AU apart and Mars will be bright bloody red and one of the brightest objects in the sky.
Through your binos or spotting scope Mars appears a red disk (Mars’ surface is covered with rust colored rocks). As the months go on the disk will get larger and the white polar cap will become easier to see. You need to keep your eye on Mars because it crosses constellations about every other month unlike the dawdling Jupiter (1 per year) and Saturn (1 every other year). It also spends part of the year “going backwards” as the Earth catches up as it passes the planet.
Fun Fact: It has the largest known mountain, Olympus Mons, which is visible through a moderate sized telescope. It was discovered on Earth in the 19th Century and named Nix Olympia but it was an unknown object. It took until Mariner 9 orbited in Mars in late 1971 to determine what it was. Olympus Mons is a shield volcano that stands 14 miles high above the base and covers a surface area almost equal to the size of France. In comparison, Mauna Kea in Hawaii is the tallest volcano on Earth and rises only 6.3 miles from the ocean floor to the summit. Olympus Mons weighs so much that it has deformed the crust and sits in a 2km deep depression surrounding mountain.
For your basic sky observer Mercury is like Venus but more so. With a year of only 88 days it rapidly transitions between the morning and evening sky. Because it is closer to the Sun it never gets far from the horizon. But sometimes when you are out and the day is transitioning a “star” is seen low in the sky. If the time of the year is right you are looking at Mercury. Through our optics it appears as a small oddly shaped disk or crescent similar to Venus but much smaller. See “Transits” (above) to take advantage of the rare opportunity to watch Mercury cross the face of the Sun.
Fun Fact: Mercury is smaller than some moons. Both Ganymede (Jupiter) and Titan (Saturn) are all larger than Mercury. Ice has been detected in several craters near Mercury’s poles in pockets that are perpetually in darkness.
The Outer and Minor Worlds
How about the rest of the solar system? The planet Uranus is dimly visible to the naked eye in a dark location and “good seeing”. (“Good seeing” is a dark night with little to no wind and a steady temperature gradient through the atmosphere so the atmosphere is moving very little.) But for the casual observer Uranus is best seen when it is near an easier see thing. During a lunar eclipse in 2014 Uranus was right below the moon and any observation of the moon meant you couldn’t miss a gray green disk. That disk was Uranus. My suggestion is don’t try and find Uranus without the aid of an easy object nearby. Many websites will be happy to let you know when these days are approaching.
Fun Fact: Early in the Solar System Uranus was smacked by another object near the same size. Now it rotates on the side and essentially rolls around the Sun. Uranus was not recognized as a planet by early astronomers and shows up as a “star” in several sky maps.
Neptune is invisible to the naked eye but like Uranus can be found with optics when it is near something else. One morning when I was out before dawn getting into position for a turkey hunt Neptune was near the crescent Moon. In my binos I could make it out as a very small bluish disk. Even with a small scope that is the best you can hope for.
Fun fact: Neptune was discovered by two astronomers independently doing the math on small perturbations of Uranus. It has been visited only once by an Earth launched space probe. Voyager 2 passed by the planet in 1989.
The dwarf plant Pluto. Forgetaboutit. Even through the largest earth based scopes Pluto is a speck of light that can only be made out by how it moves over several nights.
Fun Fact: With a very elongated orbit, Pluto actually moves inside of Neptune’s orbit for 20 years every orbit (248 Earth years). The last time it did so was 1979-1999 ce.
The dwarf planet Ceres is another dwarf planet but is more conveniently located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Under almost perfect conditions it can be made out as a dim star. It is not worth the effort to find unless you start getting hooked by amateur astronomy.
I’ll discuss only the two most common, solar and lunar. Solar eclipses only take place during a new moon, because that is when the moon is directly between us and the Sun. Because of the tipping of our orbits it is only sometimes the Moon’s shadow crosses the earth’s surface.
The next totality that will cross the US is April 8, 2024 and totality will cross Texas and cross west of the Appalachians through eastern NY and curve into eastern Canukistan.
Lunar eclipses only take place at a full moon and only sometimes for the same reasons. But since the earth’s shadow is so much larger the area for observed totality covers a larger part of the planet and for a longer time. As the bulk of the Earth’s shadow hits the face of the moon it starts turning dark, usually orange-ish, but rarely black. This is because our atmosphere always bends some light through.
The next lunar totality for the US is January 21st. The mainland will be in position for the entire thing, while on my island hideaway the moon will rise a bit before totality and I’ll get to observe the rest. Convenient and warm for me, if not for some of you.
These are when one object crosses in front of another. It is the astronomy equivalent of the saying, “Standing there makes you a better door than a window. “ Almost all of the most visible of these events take minutes to a few hours and cover a fairly small portion of the surface of the Earth. There are websites that highlight the most noteworthy of these. No real science to be learned, but they are fun to see. Watching a planet disappear and reappear from behind the moon is a kick. Visible from naked eye to scope.
Meteors and Meteorites
A meteoroid is a small bit of metal, stone or a metal/stone mix in space. A meteor is a meteoroid burning up in the atmosphere. A meteorite is a meteoroid that makes it to the surface of the Earth. The average visible meteorite was the size of a marble when it hit the atmosphere. Most meteoroids burn up at 75-50 miles above the Earth.
Seeing a meteor is a matter of chance and luck. You can improve your odds by watching after local midnight so your chunk of Earth is facing our direction of movement. The other way is to watch during known periods of “meteor showers”. (See a good website for info.) These are the times when the earth passes through the orbital paths of larger comets and sweep up the dust and small objects left behind comets in their flight. If you get really lucky you can watch a fireball which is a larger meteor burning brightly. Sometimes they leave a visible smoke path, or even break apart into multiple pieces while you watch. The best fireball I ever saw was one early morning in 1992. We were out for the Javalina hunt. I had left camp and was walking up a hill to get into position when the hill in front of me blazed white and I saw my shadow. I quickly turned around and saw a huge fireball traveling across the sky. As I watched it broke into 4 pieces and kept going, eventually blinking out far to the southwest. The light from the still hidden Sun caught the smoke and lit it up in the pre-dawn sky. I thought it was space debris but when I checked with the local observatory a few days later they confirmed it as a meteor.
As much as many of us hoped for the “Sweet Meteorite of Death” in 2016 and will do so again in 2020 the odds are small that the next extinction level meteorite strike will happen then. You can play around with this website and find how your very own SMOD will impact you. Have fun with it. Can you design the next KT event?
Fun Fact: The change of definition from meteoroid to small asteroid was formally defined only in 2017. A meteoroid is grain sized to one meter in size. Smaller size are micrometeoroids and larger are small asteroids.
Here is Comet 1A. Comets are dirty snowballs left over from the formation of the solar system. Well outside of the planets there is a large cloud of dust and ice stretching out over 100,000 Astronomical Units (AU = roughly the distance from the Sun to the Earth). This cloud is known as the Oort Cloud and is the home of the comets. Passing objects and stellar events give the cloud gravitational nudges and some of these nudges eventually result in a dirty snowball to start to fall into the Sun’s gravity well. (It may take millions of years between the nudge and the solar pass.) Those snowballs which come in close to the Sun start to warm up and give off ionized gas and dust. These are known as comets. Every year dozens of comets are found and most remain faint and fuzzy telescope objects, but every few years (on average) a comet becomes a bino and naked eye object. About once a decade a comet will shine bright and luminous thus becoming a spectacular sky show. Since most bright comets take a long period to orbit the sun their arrival is a once in a lifetime event. Even Halley’s Comet takes 76 years per orbit so at best you might get two chances to see it. Spectacular Comet Hale-Bopp passed within 1 AU of Jupiter so the orbit was considerably shortened. If you are around in 4380ce Hale-Bopp should put on a good a good show.
Right now the night sky doesn’t feature any worthwhile comets for the casual observer.
Aurora form when Solar Wind particles hit the Earth’s magnetosphere and then ionize. Lower energy particles are blue and green while high energy particles display red. The map shows the band of common occurrence over North America. Especially energetic solar storms can result in red aurora appearing throughout the continental USA. More here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurora
There is a bunch of it up there, so much in fact that some areas of prime “real estate” are getting downright crowded. Most manmade stuff is not easily visible to a casual observer, but some of it is. The biggest and brightest object is the International Space Station (ISS). This is my recommendation to try and find first. It is BRIGHT, moves relatively slowly and is impressive. It is often mistaken for an airplane heading to a nearby airport. When you see the ISS, you will know you saw it. Conveniently the nature of the ISS orbital parameters means that it will be visible for multiple days from your location before it goes dark again. The ISS will be visible from your location during passes for several hours before dawn and after dusk. I recommend using Heavens-Above.com for finding your visible passes. (More info below). For other satellites a find a dark location on a night with no moon. Watch and you’ll see small lights than are too small to be passing planes moving along. If you are ambitious yu can use Heavens-Above.com Db to find specific satellites.
If you are near Commiefornia or the Floridaman Atlantic coast you can occasionally see launch vehicles heading to orbit. It is impressive to watch a small object at the head of a rapidly lengthening cloud as it is gaining speed and altitude. After the vehicles cross the sky you can watch the remaining gas plumes be twisted by the winds alofy. They often make surreal shapes with transient splotches of the spectrum. Both the Kennedy Center (FL) and Vandenburg Air Force Base (CA) will publicly announce non military launches to the public. Most military launches may get only a few minutes, or no, public announcements.
A Smattering of Websites
There are scores of astronomy related websites out there. In fact, there are more potential websites for you to visit than the number of fleshy globes that Q offers for viewing to the Glib community each month. But here are a few websites that are easy to use and are geared toward the interested general public.
Astronomy Picture of the Day. You might as well visit it since your tax dollars pay for it. This is a great site which features just what the name says. Each picture has a clear description of what you are seeing. The photos origins are diverse (in the good sense) from NASA, other space agencies, observatories from across the globe, and from amateurs sending in some incredibly artistic works. The archive goes back to the mid 1990’s. This has been my first website daily since 1997.
EarthSkyNews. This organization covers what is going on for the general sky observer. You can sign up for a free daily email newsletter. It has observing updates, news from space, photos, and only a small touch of occasional “climate change” stuff. They also keep your subscription information tight. I can’t think of a time when I got unsolicited emails that would have come from them selling my info.
Heavens-Above. This is a serious but easily accessible site. It is “THE” public website to track satellites, get sky charts, past and future night skies etc. When you first visit this site note the upper right corner of the page. There is a box there. Open it and set your location from a database. It will not change all the data for your location and remember it. Look down the left side and the ISS is highlighted. Click on it and it will give you the visible passes for the next 10 days. Click on the day and BINGO, there is a sky chart for that pass.
Keep following down the left side and you get to the astronomy portion with easy to use interfaces. You want to see what was going on the sky at the moment of your birth? Just put in the data and there will be the sky for that time. Want to see the sky for 4th of July 3000 years ahead? It is there.
These three websites will serve a casual observer. There are hundreds of other websites out there from the USG, other governments, private organizations and amateurs. If there is interest after this article I can do a “Part Two” with easy to observe deep sky objects. With just binos, or in some cases a deep dark sky, you can observe a host of objects, including a galaxy that will one day crash into our own.
[No photos in this article are mine.]