Persistent Perseids Pierce the Planet

800px-The_2010_Perseids_over_the_VLT

A Perseid meteor over the Paranal Observatory in Chile. By ESO/S. Guisard [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Unless you live in a big city (or are visiting one in a foreign country), you may have noticed an occasional streak across the night sky late at night or early in the morning. This signals that Earth has begun to cross the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle and we are fast approaching the height of one of the most spectacular meteor showers of the year: the Perseids.

This year, however, the show will be extra special, possibly the best in 20 years.

Jupiter has done us a favor this time around, pushing the cometary debris a little closer to Earth. Late at night on August 11th, I highly encourage you to bundle up and head outside. After the moon sets around 1AM, you are in for a spectacular show, if predictions are correct. Astronomers are expecting up to 150 meteors per hour – for those playing the home game, that’s at least two a minute.

Some tips for viewing the meteor shower:

  • The best viewing will be early in the morning, after 1AM when the moon sets.
  • Look towards the northeast, but don’t stay so focused on that point that you lose the rest of the sky.
  • If possible, get away from city lights. I usually go to a campground or a local lake.
  • Bring a jacket so you can bundle up – even if you are in a warm climate, sometimes temperatures at night can get a bit chilly during the summer.
  • Bring a reclining lawn chair or a good blanket to rest on so you can observe comfortably without craning your neck. A sore neck will mean a quick end for your star-gazing.
  • Be patient. I know it’s a weeknight, but try to stay out at least an hour. Not only does this increase your chances of seeing some spectacular sights, it will allow your eyes to adjust fully, which can sometimes take up to 20-30 minutes. Also, the show gets better throughout the early morning.
  • Even though the peak is on Aug. 11/12, the days prior or following should still provide a decent show.
  • Bonus: Bring a good pair of binoculars and see if you can identify any objects in the sky. Mars and Saturn will be in the vicinity of the Moon on August. 11, in the south-southwest sky. That reddish star below Saturn on that night? That will be Antares, one of my favorites to spot.

More information is available from Astronomy Magazine, EarthSky, or any decent Google search.

Ad majorem Dei gloriam!

Backyard Astronomy: Go outside and look up!

This is part of a continuing series on backyard astronomy. While there is no set frequency on the posts, you can find them (and the initial introduction) here.

I remember like it was yesterday when I saw the Milky Way for the first time. My dad and I were camping, and as we sometimes did, we camped with only the stars as our tent and the granite Sierras as our floor. Looking up, far from city lights, I observed a multitude of stars strewn across the night sky, taking my breath away. Then, over in one section of the dark expanse of the universe I saw it:a band of faint but certainly discernible light touched by darker splotches, both extending across the night sky, almost as if someone had taken a cosmic milk bottle and spilled it on the canvas of the cosmos.

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Image of the night sky above Paranal on 21 July 2007, taken by ESO astronomer Yuri Beletsky. A wide band of stars and dust clouds, spanning more than 100 degrees on the sky, is seen. This is the Milky Way, the Galaxy we belong to. At the centre of the image, two bright objects are visible. The brightest is the planet Jupiter, while the other is the star Antares. By ESO/Y. Beletsky [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Astronomy does not start with expensive telescopes or fancy software. As I used to tell my English students, the best way to get started in one’s journey with the stars is to get away from the lights and look up. Only by using your own two eyes, unaided by any equipment, can you get a true idea of the sheer immensity of the universe. Well, you may not even get a true idea, but you might get an inkling!

So what happens if someone comes to me and says they are interested in studying astronomy? Here is what I would tell them:

  • First, shelf the plans for buying a telescope. You won’t need it for at least a year, although a good pair of binoculars will come into the picture before then.
  • Second, buy a planisphere. These hand-held charts are portable and should be part of the toolkit for any budding astronomer. Find a size that suits you, and make sure it corresponds to your viewing area! Case in point: when I travel to Mexico for language immersion this summer, I need a different planisphere than if I were back at the seminary in Oregon. The planisphere will help you to identify many common objects in the night sky and help you to grow more comfortable in navigating the cosmos.
  • Third, find a small flashlight and cover it with red transparent film. This will help your eyes stay adjusted, as it can take up to 30 minutes for our eyes to grow accustomed to the dark skies. One stray beam of unfiltered light can hamper, or even restart, that process. Use it to view the planisphere, or write in your journal (more on that in a later post).
  • Fourth: Find a comfortable viewing area that gives you a wide-open view if the sky, unhampered by trees AND city lights. Bring some snack and water too, and if it’s winter, don’t forget to dress warmly! If you want to stay off the ground, bring a reclining lawn chair or something similar; the idea is to stay comfortably while you look up for extended periods of time. The light issue is something that is increasingly difficult to overcome as urban sprawl and development continues unabated. Many of my students had never even been stargazing, much less seen the Milky Way!
  • Contact a local astronomy club! Even if you don’t plan on joining the club’s viewing parties, their websites often include tips for local viewing, even providing directions to particularly lucrative observation locations.
  • Finally, share it with someone! Whether it is the local astronomy club as mentioned above, a close friend, significant other, or even an online community, amateur astronomy can bring a lifetime of enjoyment, and what better way to experience the fullness of that enjoyment than by sharing it with like-minded individuals? When we share our experiences, we not only can help teach others, but we can gain new insights ourselves.

Notice how I made no mention of apps or other software. For now, stay away from them, at least while you are actually outside observing! For your first few trips, grow familiar with the night sky by just using the planisphere, rather than relying on technology. When you move on to binoculars or telescopes, it will make your viewing much easier and more enjoyable. I am not saying to never use star-finder apps, just don’t use them yet And by all means, use the internet for research before heading out. If you do end up using a phone app, however, make sure it has a a “red filter” mode or something similar, so as not to disrupt your night vision, and turn off any automatic lock screens and timers that will cause your phone to exit the app, again, for the same reason. See how much simpler it would be without the technology, at least when you are getting started?

There you have it: 6 steps to taking your first foray into night-sky viewing and amateur astronomy; next I will talk a bit about equipment. If you have any questions, comments, or anything to add, let me know. Until then, keep looking up!

Pax.

Backyard Astronomy: Getting Started

Note: Regular readers may notice some changes. Please hang in there while the dust settles; I will be posting an update on said changes (including background on the new address and blog title) this weekend. You can still expect reflections on faith, literature, and current events, but I also want to include more science (and specifically astronomy) based content as well. As always, I reserve the right to post as frequently or infrequently as needed, due to my primary duties and busy schedule as a seminarian and graduate student in Theology. Pax.

 

When I heard the learn’d astronomer, 
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, 
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, 
   and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
   much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, 
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

-“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman

Telescope

I hate to break it to ya, but you will be starting with something a bit more modest – your own two eyes. Photo by User Ericd on en.wikipedia (GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

A few people have asked me how to get involved in astronomy. I am no expert by any means, but I am also happy to help people get started on the journey. After all, astronomy helped me in my own faith journey, and continues to be a profound inspiration for me to this day. So when someone expresses an interest in discovering the secrets of our endless universe, I jump at the chance to be a guide, however imperfect. To be honest, that is one of the reasons* for this blog: I hope to show people that the sciences like astronomy and religious faith are not mutually opposed. Here are a few things I have learned over the years about getting started in astronomy:

Go outside and look up – Often times when we get involved in astronomy, we want to go out and buy a telescope, expecting to unlock the mysteries of the cosmos. This is probably the worst thing you could do, and will likely destroy your new hobby. Just go outside and look, and I don’t mean step outside for a few minutes and say, “oooh, that’s nice, time for some hot chocolate.” No, bundle up, get comfortable, and really look. Find objects in the sky that interest you. Jot down their location by identifying familiar constellations.  Try to get away from light pollution too (take a look at the International Dark-Sky Association for more info).

Don’t go off and buy expensive equipment at the start – I already mentioned it above, but seriously, don’t go out and buy the Celestron NexStar 8SE telescope, even if you can afford it, at least not yet (after all, it is pretty nice). Your own two eyes are just fine to start with, and eventually, you can upgrade to a good pair of binoculars. One useful piece of equipment that you can invest in now (for only 10 bucks) is a planisphere, an adjustable hand-held star chart. Make sure you purchase one that corresponds to your area though! There are also many useful apps that you can get for free or relatively cheap.

Share it with someone – Astronomy becomes even more fun when you are with someone. You can compare notes and help one another notice things that perhaps the other person did not notice there before. It’s also great to just geek out about what you saw while warming up over the afore-mentioned cup of hot chocolate after a night of productive star-gazing. You are likely to find astronomy clubs almost anywhere, and many of them are more than eager to help newbies get started.

Read and write – Read read read! The internet of course is a great resource to stay alert to current astronomical events and new breakthroughs. You should also venture down to the local bookstore and library and peruse their selection of astronomy books. There are many fine works out there to get you started. One important aspect of astronomy that I think is often overlooked by the budding backyard sky watcher is journaling. Whenever you go outside and look at the stars, right down what you see! Take notes, draw pictures, give details about the conditions. The more detailed the better, and it will help hone your observational skills.

Be patient – Astronomy is not a sport of the impatient. Some nights you will see countless wonders that leave you breathless, and others you will see a grey rain cloud covering up that planet or nebula you were hoping to catch, and that’s OK. The important thing is to keep at it and to not get discouraged.

Google will provide many resources on getting started in astronomy, and many of the articles provide similar advice, but I have found these sites to be particularly helpful:

Over the next few months, I will provide more detailed posts on each of the topics above, such as explaining the various types of telescopes and some methods for astronomical observations and journaling. These will be including among the more faith-based topics I cover and an occasional review here and there, as well as some newsy items. I currently carry a full load of graduate courses, so I can’t promise a timeline, but my own love for things otherworldly will motivate me to write, and I hope that I can guide one or two people in their first steps into this amazing world. Until then…

Pax.