Springing into the night sky


I'm dreaming of the mountains, where the children learn the stars. Rexroth's Daughter, Greg Brown


IN THIS light-polluted, screen-obsessed time, learning the stars probably doesn't rank high on many to-do lists. That's too bad. It's really not that difficult to develop at least a passing acquaintance with the universe around us.

And it's free, at least before you get hooked enough to start buying equipment. Once you get a feel for the patterns and motions of the stars, you get a new appreciation for how our planet fits into the scheme of things.

There's a lot of talk about reality this and reality that, these days. Well, turn off the TV, step outside on a clear night and there's a beautiful reality for you. It's home. We're hitching a ride on a hunk of rock circling a huge nuclear furnace, our sun, which is a pretty ordinary star among the 400 billion or so that make up our Milky Way galaxy alone.

This is a good time of year for getting to know our cosmic neighbourhood - at some point, surely, we'll enjoy real spring temperatures, before the invasion of the insect world has yet to begin.

Celestial guidebooks

Before you venture out under the stars, make sure you spend some time indoors with some good guidebooks. I have sung the praises of Nightwatch (Firefly Books) before in this space, and I may as well repeat the chorus. Canadian astronomer Terence Dickinson offers an appealing, informative source of information for the beginning and intermediate stargazer.

A couple of Firefly publications may help as well. These are lower-cost alternatives to larger format tomes such as Nightwatch. Practical astronomy: A Beginner's Guide to the Night Sky, by Storm Dunlop, covers the whole gamut of amateur astronomy, while the title of the Moon Observer's Guide, by Peter Grego, explains its purpose.

Both publications have their good points, which I'll get to, but let's get the quibbles over with first. With any guidebook, I want to know the background and expertise of the author. Strangely, the books offer no information at all about Dunlop or Grego. Both are based in Britain, and a Google search revealed they are prolific writers and members of the astronomical community.

Dunlop's book calls itself a beginner's guide but doesn't pitch itself to the younger reader, and that's probably a smart move.

Only young adults and older readers who have a serious interest in the hobby would likely get through this book: Dunlop offers a lot of information here.

But it's almost too much of a good thing. This compact volume is stuffed with graphics, sidebars and illustrations. There are no obvious divisions of content, so everything tends to run together.

But if you are intent on absorbing as much as possible about this hobby, this is a reasonably priced, valuable volume. I particularly like Practical Astronomy's mini-tables of contents that direct the reader to pages within a section that refer to more specific observing topics.

I'm also impressed with the Moon Observer's Guide. Like many such volumes, it's organized by lunar days - that is, the first day after new moon, Day 2 and so on. Each section includes a map of that particular slice of moon, accompanied by descriptions of the craters, "seas" and other lunar sights to be seen during that phase.

Grego also gives tips on instruments best suited for observing the moon, as well as pointers on photography, videography and drawing your observations. The final chapters offer a glossary of terms and information on eclipses and exploration programs such as Apollo.

Under the dome

If you've yet to delve into the bookstore, buy a magazine such as the Canadian publication Sky News or Sky and Telescope from the United States. These magazines have simple star charts so you can begin orienting yourself under the celestial bowl.

Hold the star chart at about chest level and face south. Turn the chart so that south is at bottom - this way the chart accurately reflects the orientation of the stars when you look up.

As I've mentioned before, star charts can be tricky and take a bit of mental gymnastics. For example, the southern horizon as represented on our chart may look like it should be behind you, when that direction is oriented at bottom. But remember that's the direction you're facing - the sky is like an inverted bowl, so the usual terrestrial map orientations don't work.

So give it a try on the next clear night. Look south. If you have a clear view of the horizon, you will see the star Spica (SPIKE-uh). As your chart should indicate, this star is in the faint constellation Virgo. Spica stands out, because it's one of our brightest stars and it's located in a sparse section of sky.

Look higher in the sky and to the left for another bright star, Arcturus (arc-TOUR-us), in the kite-shaped constellation Bootes (buh-OH-teez), the Herdsman. 

The most recent maps also should include the planets, at least the ones visible at about 10 p.m. You'll have plenty of opportunity to spot a planet this summer.

Let's start with the ringed jewel of the solar system, Saturn, which will put on a great show this summer as it climbs higher in the sky.  Go back to Spica in the south.  Look below it and to the left for Saturn, a pale yellowish orb that is slightly brighter than the blue Spica. 

Turn your gaze above and slightly right of Spica to find a closer solar system neighbour, Mars. The Red Planet, which has more of a subdued rusty hue to the naked eye, is making one of its closer approaches to Earth. 

Now turn around and face the west. You’ll find Jupiter, the largest planet, closing out its winter apparition in the west. Later this month in the west after sunset, tiny Mercury (it's only slightly larger than our moon) will put on a good show.  This sun-hugging planet is always relatively low in the west at dusk or in the east at dawn. But this time around it will climb high enough for a good view, particularly on May 30-31 when a very thin crescent moon will appear to the left of this little rocky world.