Stargazing@Earth Hour

Written by The Night Sky Guy on March 25, 2011 – 6:18 pm -

This Saturday night (Mar.26) as neighbourhoods and city blocks turnoff their lights for Earth Hour why not take advantage of the darkness and look skyward at the stars. As long as you have clear skies, you should experience a lot less light pollution and so see  a fair bit more stars in the sky than usual.

As a quick test for your sky conditions and the effects of light pollution,  take a look at the Little Dipper and see how many of its stars you can see.  To find Ursa Minor face the northeast horizon and look about halfway up the sky (mid-northern latitude locations).


Find the Little Dipper and use its stars to see how light polluted your night sky is. Click image to enlarge.

You should be able to see the Big Dipper lying on its side with the handle pointing down towards the horizon.  Take the 2 end stars in the bowl and draw an imaginary line left until you hit the next brightest star – which is the North Star or Polaris.  It marks the tail end of the Little Dipper. Now try and trace out the remainder of the Little Dipper.

Can you  see all the stars that make up the handle and bowl? Backyard astronomers use these stars to get a rough guage of how light polluted their local skies are.  While the two end stars of the little bowl are magnitude 2 and 3 – making them just visible from suburban skies – the remaining two stars in the bowl and handle (except Polaris which is super bright at mag 2)  are all 4th magnitude – which means they are usually not easily visible under lots of light pollution in  urban and suburban sites.   Look for the stars before all light are turned off for Earth Hour and then during Earth Hour. Do you see any difference?

Earth Hour will also be a great time to see the wonders of the Universe.  One of the great celestial sights not to be missed is the granddaddy of all constellations – Orion – the Great hunter. Face the southwest sky and look for 3 bright stars in a row – that is Orion’s belt. Now just underneath it is his sword – made of three much fainter stars – usually more challenging to see under urban lighting. Can you see 3 faint stars lined up vertically?  Look a the middle star and you may notice that its  fuzzy. That’s because you are looking at a giant gas cloud that is a nursery for dozens of newborn stars.  Called the Great Orion Nebula – its is located more than 1300 light years from Earth.   You should be able to see it with the naked eye as a ‘fuzzy looking star’ – especially during Earth Hour.

Around Canada and the US there will be local astronomy clubs setting up telescopes in municipal parks during Earth Hour to take advantage of the darkness.  I will be setting up my telescope with my astronomy buddies from RASC for free public viewings at the Westmount Park Earth Hour celebrations in Montreal.  What’s happening in your neck of the woods? Check out the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s website and for the USA go online to the Night Sky Network and try the Astronomical League website too.

Let’s enjoy the dark skies – even if they are only for an hour!

Wishing you all clear skies!

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Mercury Up in the Sky

Written by The Night Sky Guy on March 23, 2011 – 5:13 pm -

If you have clear skies one of these next few nights this week try your hand at finding planet Mercury in the sky. Face the western horizon after sunset and look for a faint star in the sun’s fading glow. Binoculars will surely help pick out the pinprick light from this innermost planet.  Just below it you can spot the quickly sinking Jupiter as well. Both planets will be a challenge to see because they are so close to the horizon and will be setting soon after the Sun.  By the last week in March the pair will be lost in the Sun’s glare so now is the time to get out and observe these neighbouring worlds. BTW – this will be the best apparition for little Mercury for 2011.

EXTRA: For more on Mercury and the ghostly Zodiacal Lights that are now visible in the Northern Hemisphere read  my National Geographic Skywatch column this week.

Also check out this cool photo taken by a Montreal-based backyard astronomer who managed to capture both planets in this picture postcard.

Mercury (top) and Jupiter (bottom) shine in the low western evening sky above Montreal. Photo Courtesy of Frank Tomaras.

Mercury (top) and Jupiter (bottom) shine in the low western evening sky above Montreal, Canada on March 15, 2011. Photo Courtesy of Frank Tomaras. Canon Rebel 150mm, 1/30 sec. Click image to enlarge.

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Supersized Full Moon in Sky

Written by The Night Sky Guy on March 18, 2011 – 4:58 pm -

Now that the famous so-called Supermoon is almost upon us its time to go outside and take a gander at that giant silvery orb in the sky.  When you do just keep in mind that our celestial neighbour will be just under 358,000 km from our planet – the cloest in 18 years. That is about 30,000 less than its average distance.

This will make it appear about 20% brighter and 15% bigger than other full Moon months.  Not a big deal celestially speaking but still the Moon should look great Saturday night. No worries about seismic activity on Earth- just enjoy. If you get clouded out – try watching Sunday night too – it should still look great just past its full phase.

Sky and Telescope

Best time to watch is just after sunset – looking towards the eastern horizon as the Moon rises. Should be a splendid sight as the full Moon forms cosmic backdrop to more Earthly surroundings. In fact it will probably appear unusually big while near the horizon – a visual illusion/mind playing tricks on you- but nevertheless an impressive sight. BTW also makes for a great photo op.

As a cosmic bonus…. as the moon sails across the overhead southern sky during the course of the night – check out its companion – a creamy coloured star that is planet Saturn. Neat to think that while the Moon is only a few hundred thousand km away, Saturn is a respectable 1.5 billion km distant. The pair will hang out with each other both Saturday and Sunday nights.  A great double bill sky show you don’t want to miss. Now let’s just hope we get some clear skies!

For more details on this so-called ‘Supermoon’ check out my National Geographic story and also recommend you watch this NASA video on the topic.

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