23 Aug 2010
There was a time early on in my skywatching life when I thought the winter skies were the best. Ennobling those hibernal skies were majestic Orion and his dog Canis Major, itself embedded with the brilliant star Sirius. Next to them were Taurus with his bright red eye, Aldebaran, and his heart, the sparkling Pleiades, trapped within the body of the great bull. I still look forward to the winter skies, to be sure, but I have finally given in to the fact that the summer skies can easily match the winter beauty.
And one of the beautiful parts of the summer sky gracing us now is the area around the great archer, Sagittarius. It is there that you may want to spend a little time before the winter constellations start to invade our celestial dome.
In Sagittarius you will not just find the familiar shape of the archer constellation, but several other sky objects easily observed with nothing more than binoculars; and one magnificent object for which you need only a clear, dark sky and nothing else.
In the next weeks go outside and look to the south for an array of stars that looks like a school kid's attempt at a five-pointed star, tipped over slightly. That star-encrusted star shape is the main body of Sagittarius.
Now, if you can get a pair of binoculars you can go a level deeper into the constellation. There are in and around that Super Star a side order of star clusters and nebulae. The star clusters are what will be easiest to spot.
For example, just to the west (right) of the great "star" are two beautiful clusters of stars called Messier Objects 6 and 7 - M6 and M7 for short. Open clusters, basically, are clusters of stars which were formed together in the same nursery not too long ago.
You can see another sky object in Sagittarius called the Trifid Nebula (M20). Take your binoculars and scan the skies slowly just above the north point of our star shape for that faint, fuzzy cloud of glowing gasses.
With a small telescope you can have a more rewarding time carefully scanning the area around the archer. It will seem there are nebulae and star clusters in just about every field of view.
Lastly, on a clear, dark night you should easily notice the river of dim light pouring out of Sagittarius towards the north. It is, of course, the Milky Way, our galaxy seen edge-on, and Sagittarius marks its center.
Go to skyandtelescope.com and get a star chart of the area. Grab some binoculars, get yourself outside and have a great time observing the Archer.
09 Aug 2010
Our last time here the growing problem of light pollution was the subject. Today, we will take the issue beyond mere complaining, and look for solutions - before it's too late.
Recall that light pollution is the modern term we apply to the brightening of the night skies by man-made sources, a brightening which is stealing the skies from both the discipline of astronomy and our purely aesthetic enjoyment of the starry canopy.
But what can we do about it? I'll cut right to the chase and refer you to an organization which is dedicated to that very cause. The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), founded over 20 years ago, has as its sole purpose to preserve and protect the nighttime environment.
Lisa Bruhn, president of the San Diego chapter of the IDA, puts our first priority simply and to the point, "Educate yourself." Where is a good place to start? IDA's website - www.darksky.org.
There you can learn about making your own home less of a night sky threat by using downward-directed, shielded lighting. Read about how to get more energy-efficient lights which will not only reduce the pollution around your house but reduce your energy bill, as well.
At darksky.org you learn to avoid lights that are marketed as safety lights but can actually make things more dangerous. For example, those gigantic outdoor lamps that light up the entire neighborhood can both blind us, the good guys, and create heavily shadowed areas which are easier for others to hide in, namely the bad guys.
Ms. Bruhn continues, "Then educate and bring awareness to anyone who will listen. Spread the word to friends, neighbors, clubs, rotary groups, or city government, and collaborate with other like-minded organizations."
How? Start by giving them some of the slick information sheets found at the IDA website under "Educators/Kids." See the link for Education Brochures. Print one out and kindly give it to a neighbor who might be an unwitting offender.
"Most people, once enlightened, can't disagree with quality lighting design - lighting that provides ample visibility, reduced or no glare, energy savings, and an overall good outdoor ambiance."
Feeling extra motivated? Consider getting together with other people who care about our skies by hooking up with your local chapter of IDA. You can find your regional section at darksky.org.
Says Lisa, "If you can demonstrate to your cities and neighbors that good security can be achieved much more effectively with well shielded outdoor lights, and that we can achieve energy savings, and that we can also get a good quality environment, then we all win."
And maybe we'll get our skies back.