One of the advantages of homesteading in the country is darkness. At night it gets really dark. The city light pollution is gone. The sky gets darker the further away from the city that you get. I remember, as a child, travelling with my parents at night and seeing the horizon lit up ahead, on the road. While there would be a gazillion stars over head, the closer that we got to our destination, the brighter the sky became. The stars dimmed.
When wwoofers come to Joybilee Farm in the summer, we take them out to the pasture and show them the stars. Out in the pasture, 1/2 a mile from our nearest neighbor, and protected by the mountains from the city light pollution, the sky is naked. The air is clean and a bit thinner here, at 2700 feet, and the stars are brilliant. Most of our visitors have never seen the stark night sky, without the influence of light and air pollution. Its an amazing feast for the eyes. Many of them think that we are pulling a trick. Being city folks, some have never seen the milky way, or the planets and stars before. They think it is an illusion, and that we are somehow manipulating it. How sad.
Don’t let bad past experience stop you from enjoying the night sky
If you’ve lived in the country for a while or even in a small town, like Grand Forks, the night sky is familiar to you. You might be thinking, oh yeah, I’ve seen the stars before. So what? Or maybe when you were a kid, Santa brought you a Sears catalogue telescope, you looked at the moon craters but no one ever took you on a tour of the night sky. The lenses on those telescopes weren’t the greatest, what can you expect for $30, and besides the moon craters, there wasn’t anything of interest. You got bored and gave up star gazing. As an adult you periodically notice the moon phases and you can find Orion in winter or the big dipper. You can show your kids and grandkids the navigational clues to find the North Star. Maybe you remember the Indian tale of Pleiades, or the 7 Sisters, how a brave’s eyesight was very good if he could see all 7 stars. The average person could see only 5. Look at it through a decent telescope, however, and you will see millions of stars and even some galaxies.
Living out in the country, at Joybilee Farm, I’ve gained a completely new appreciation for the naked night sky. The night sky is always changing. While there are stars, galaxies, nebulae, star clusters, and constellations that stay the same each night, changing through the night and through the seasons, but basically in the same place, there are other things in the sky that change. Some of the changeable things, the moon, eclipses and the planets, are predictable and can be mapped. Other things like meteors and comets appear in the night sky, and then are gone. Comets might appear over a few nights to weeks. Meteors are a flash in the dark. Then there are the manmade lights — space junk that re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, or satellites that move in orbit around the Earth. There are actually an amazing number of these.
With a few tools, borrowed or bought, you can see more detail in the night sky and up your amazement quotient. It is said that those who have seen Saturn’s rings through a telescope are forever changed in their appreciation and wonder of God’s creation in the sky. Tonight and over the next 3 nights, if the sky is clear where you live, you will want to head outside with a pair of binoculars or a good quality telescope and have a look at the sky. All 5 planets will be visible in the night sky tonight. They have been visible for several weeks now, but you are in for a real treat tonight.
The basic tour of the night sky
First let me explain how to find the planets. The planets travel in a line, called the elliptic line, from East to West. Where I am, they travel kind of toward the south, rather than directly overhead. But the closer you are to the equator the more the elliptic line is directly overhead. Once you find the elliptic, you will be able to identify the planets and the major stars in the sky. A computerized telescope can help you with that, because they come pre-programmed to show you the main objects in the night sky, for your global position or your latitude and longitude. The sun and moon also follow the elliptic line so if you can find their path for your area, in the sky, then you can find the elliptic. The elliptic is an imaginary line that planets, sun, and moon follow — there isn’t really a line there. The 12 constellations also follow the elliptic line, which puts the planets, and moon within the various constellations depending on the month and year. The planets travel through the 12 zodiac constellations depending on their individual orbit of the sun. For instance Jupiter spends about a year in each constellation. Saturn on the other hand, being further from the sun, spends 2 years in each constellation.
An amazing spectacle: 5 planets in the night sky and a conjunction of Venus/Jupiter
In the next few days, in the night sky at sunset, if you have a clear horizon, you will see mercury in the Western sky, just above the horizon. Venus and Jupiter are in conjunction, meaning that they are almost touching, in the West, as well, within the constellation of the Ram. They should be visible for 4 hours after sunset, the longest possible time at Northern latitudes. Here’s an article in EarthSky that explains the science behind this brilliant conjunction of Venus and Jupiter that will peak on Thursday night, March 15.
At the same time, Mars is visible in the Eastern sky. The red planet is visible from sunset to sunrise, in the constellation of the Lion, near Regulus, the King Star, and will travel through the elliptic during the night. About an hour before Jupiter sets, around 10:30pm, Saturn rises in the East, near Spica in the constellation of the Virgin. And for about an hour you will be able to see four planets in the night sky. If you have binoculars or a telescope, you will be able to see Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings, if the sky is clear. Binoculars have to be held very steady, while most modern telescopes are held steady on a tripod. With their computer assistance, a modern telescope can help you locate other sky-marks worth looking at, too.
There are many more objects to view in the night sky. The moon is waning and won’t rise until around midnight this week, so you can get a good view of all 5 planets if you set up your telescope and gather the kids for a night of star gazing from sunset till about 11pm, if the weather co-operates, with a clear night sky. Other things to see this week include, the stars: Regulus, Spica, Sirius, Betelgeuse (pronounced Beetle Juice) and Rigel in Orion, Aldebaran (you’ll find this bright star between the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, and the constellation Orion, this week). Within the constellation Orion, look for the Orion Nebula in the Right leg of Orion, and the Horse Head nebula in Orion’s belt.
Unlocking the secrets of the Night Sky
When you travel into unknown territory it helps to have a map and a guide. My very favourite guide to the night sky is the book, Nightwatch, a practical guide to viewing the universe, now available in its Fourth edition and giving important conjunctions, eclipse dates, and space facts through to 2018. We’ve been using this guide since edition 2 and have found it to be an invaluable resource to help our family understand the night sky.
NightWatch, 4th Edition
When shopping for a telescope you don’t want to get a cheap model. The lenses will be inadequate to allow enough light in to view the deep space objects like nebulas and star clusters. On the other hand, you don’t need to spend a fortune to find a telescope that will show you the secrets hidden in the night sky. Reliable names in affordable telescopes include Celstron, Meade, and Orion. For under $100 you can get a basic telescope that will let you see Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons.
Celestron 21037 PowerSeeker 70EQ Telescope
Spend a little more on a computerized telescope and you will be taken on an automated tour of the night sky including nebulae, star clusters and other deep space objects. Our own telescope is a Mead computerized telescope. We’ve learned so much from its computerized programming. You can also plug it in to your laptop or pc and find out even more. It can be pre-programmed to take you on the tour of the night sky, of your choice. This is great for homeschoolers. You don’t need a star map to use the computerized telescopes. You simply line it up with three bright stars, punch in the time and date and it takes you on a sky tour, or you can program the name of objects and it will move and point them out. This one is the number one choice:
Celestron NexStar 90SLT Mak Computerized Telescope (Black)
Difficulties to overcome
One of the difficulties in viewing objects in the night sky is the interference of clouds and foul weather. A night of star gazing is an amazing opportunity that will ignite wonder in adults and children alike. But when the clouds or rain interfere, you can get some help from your computer. There are several planetarium programs available that will show you the sky at anytime of the day, as well as being able to show you the sky as it will appear in the future or as it appeared in history. The one I use, Stellarium, is available as Open Source and is free. Stellarium has a catalogue of over 600,000 stars, with add-ons of another 200 million. It shows you the constellations from 12 different cultures along with star lore. The newest version 0.11.2 was released on Saturday March 10th. The pictures for this article are screen shots from Stellarium showing tonight’s sky. We’ve used it for a number of years now in our high school homeschooling. Imagine looking up a date in history, where there is a description of a “sign in the heavens” or an omen in the stars and being able to go there and see what the historians saw, whether it was an eclipse, a planetary conjunction or something else that warranted being recorded. It ignites the passion of both student and teacher in the learning process. Its free and it sure beats dead text books.
I’ve shared with you just a hint of the passion I have for looking at the night sky. There’s so much to learn and this article only scratches the surface. Don’t waste the beauty of the night by spending your evening watching TV. Instead grab a blanket, bundle up in your toques and coats, and head out to the pasture, if you are already on your homestead, or out to the country if you are still dreaming. Check out the conjunctions of Venus and Jupiter over then next few nights and take a look at Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons through a telescope, and ignite a lifetime passion for looking at the secrets of the night.
What’s your best star gazing moment? What inhibits you from seeing the night sky? Have you tried Stellarium? What features do you like best? Do you have another planetarium program that you use? Leave a comment.