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Star Gazing update and encouragement

About nine months ago we had a couple of posts on here about star-gazing, one by Paul and one by me, and it seems to me like it's time for another. Because it's so much more fun than talking about health care...

If you can get a clear night these days (and that's the trick, in my part of the country), and if you live in the United States, here is the very amateur star-gazing gist:

The bad news is, the moon is full for a while here. Boo.

The good news is, the sun sets early, so there's an hour or so of full darkness, before the moon gets well up, when you can still see quite a bit on an otherwise clear night. So get out there by about 6:30 to look around before the big moon comes riding up the sky, romantic but intrusive.

Things are getting interesting in the sky. Orion, my favorite constellation of all, is rising. You'll see him rising just a bit before the moon comes up. He's lying on his back with his shield above him. Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, and Rigel are un-missable, as is his belt.

Perseus is well up, somewhat to the east but nearly overhead, by about 7 p.m. I've gotten to know Perseus a little better this year, motivated by the incorrect statement in my daughter's science book that Algol is the constellation's brightest star. Looks like it's actually Mirfak, though Algol is quite noticeable as well.

One of the most brilliant things up right now (if you don't count Jupiter, who has the unfair advantage of being a planet) is the star Capella in the constellation Auriga, the Charioteer. You'll see Capella and Auriga just below Perseus in the sky. Capella is readily visible if you face northeast and look up.

Don't miss Aldebaran and the Pleiades, both in Taurus. You'll find them in the east, above Orion.

Neither of the dippers is visible at the time I'm out at night. Mnemonic from H.A. Rey: Bears hibernate in the winter. Therefore, it's harder to see the Big and Little Dippers (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor) in the winter. I'm not counting the star Polaris, of course, at the tip of the Little Dipper's handle, which is always up, being the North Star.

Don't forget to try the Sky Globe software mentioned in the earlier post. It's absolutely perfect for complete amateurs.

I was reading one of Rey's star books for children the other night and learned that Betelgeuse is 500 light-years away. Which means the light from it left it about the time of Columbus--as Rey points out. It could be gone by now, and we'd never know. (But it probably isn't.) Makes you think.

Comments (15)


Orion is my favorite as well. I've always had a strange connection to hunters/archers and it was the only activitiy (beside swimming) which I truly enjoyed and did well in at summer camp growing up.


Thanks, Kamilla. Have you gotten to see Orion yet this year?

It was a bit cloudy in the east tonight, so I only got a glimpse. I don't really like to go out late at night, and my youngest daughter (the present star-gazing maniac) doesn't stay up late. But after the moon is no longer full, we may go out more like 8 or so to see Orion all the way up over the trees. _If_ we can get another clear night.

Hi Lydia

I take it that you live in suburbia like I do. Do you have any tips for dealing with light pollution?



Not yet, Lydia. But most nights, if it isn't cloudy, I can see Orion sitting right over my house as I walk up to the front door. I work evenings, so it's nice to have someone watching over me at that hour (grins).


Paul Kabay, I don't have a lot of ideas. I feel that I'm lucky. My "suburbia" is what you might call a small city or a large town, take your pick. It's not ideal, by a long chalk, but I don't have to go out into the country to find an open space, as I did when I lived in Nashville many years ago, and the light pollution is only moderate. I have a nice-sized back yard and front yard. We've never seen the Milky Way here, that's for sure, but on a night without clouds or moon, after dark, we can see all the bright stars one is supposed to be able to see, and we can see several more in each brighter constellation. The fainter constellations are pretty much lost.

Summer is a very hard time for star-gazing here, because the evenings are so long, and there is so much light in the sky even after sunset. You would practically have to go out after 10:30 p.m. to get a really dark sky some summer nights.

I did get up the gumption this fall to ask my neighbor to turn off her bright outside light one evening, and that helps. I also suggest that you turn off all the lights in your own house on the relevant side, and if possible get your eyes dark=adjusted a bit inside before going out. It's surprising how much it helps simply to put up a hand to block a street light, too.

But the most helpful thing for dealing with a certain amount of light pollution is good software and/or a good antecedent knowledge of the stars and constellations. If you already know what you should be seeing and what you're looking for, you can identify things much more easily, which is exciting even when you cannot see a lot of stars on a given night.

Does anyone want information on good astronomy software/websites (much of it, free)? I did some research for an astronomy professor a few years ago and compiled a huge list. Did you know that you (yes, you) can actually do research to help an astronomer sort out galaxy types (humans do better than machines) and get credit (at least obliquely) in published articles? Did you know you can find your own comets and get them named? There are many cool sites. You can get a Firefox plug-in that displays the phases of the moon or a wall paper that real-time updates the sun's position from anywhere on the earth.

Any requests?

The Chicken

If I lived somewhere different, I might try to do some of those exciting things, MC. At is it, I consider myself very lucky to have been able to see Polaris last night. Between light pollution and cloud cover, the idea that I could find a comet or sort out galaxy types is highly implausible.

Chicken, I'd love to poke around with that sort of thing. Why don't you just stick a handful of good links in a comment here? I'll make sure to clear the comment from the admin side (multiple links tend to draw the attention of spam filters.)

Chicken, by all means, please do so. Let us know when you have, so we can approve the comment.

Betelgeuse may apparently be on course to go supernova at anytime in the next 1000 years, which is astronomicaly like saying 'any minute now'! I would love to see a supernova in my lifetime, how incredible would that be!

Orion has always been a favorite. Perhaps because it is so, so apparent in the clear air of winter (when the clouds go away).

I am a funny mix of ever-present enthusiasm and not enough get-up-and-go to actually go do a lot of observing. We had a fair amount of involvement for a while when my son got a 6" scope, but that fell over in a high wind and has not been repaired. Nearest shop is 80 miles away, even to get it looked at.


I'm in something of the same situation - I'd like to do more stargazing but can't in the city and it's not safe out on your own up in the moutains after dark (for a girl at least). But I think it make a really nice date activity, if any single men are out there, teehehee.


My own opinion is that a telescope is not much of an aid to star-gazing except as a motivator. This is _especially_ true if you live in even a moderately-sized city or large town. In a situation with a lot of light pollution, you need all the help you can get to get a sense of context for the stars, to see as many as possible at a time and compare what you are seeing to a chart or software. Otherwise you're just lost. A telescope focuses and does exactly the opposite of showing you the sweep of the sky.

Perseus is well up, somewhat to the east but nearly overhead, by about 7 p.m. I've gotten to know Perseus a little better this year,

Why, thank you for noticing me and getting to know me better this year, Lydia. I hope to return the favor. :o)

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