(Northern Hemisphere Version)
Typically about this time of year stargazing treats us with the last of the winter constellations: the magnificence of Orion setting in the west, followed by the Gemini twins. The first of the early spring constellations follow behind them an hour or two later: Cancer and Leo. If you wait up long enough, the summer constellations come marching across the sky in the wee hours of the morning: Hercules, Cygnus, and Sagittarius low in the sky. These all have deep-sky treats like clusters and double stars and nebulae hiding among their stars — and finding them is what makes stargazing so rewarding.
Well, that’s a quick précis of how it would look if the weather would cooperate! Stargazing is pretty heavily weather-dependent. That is, if it’s rainy or cloudy, the avid stargazer is stuck indoors staring moodily at the telescope and binoculars and star charts, wishing for clearer skies. Lately in our neck of the woods we’ve had rain and snow — actually more of the stuff than I’d care to see. So, these cloudy nights, when I’m not watching The War Channel (CNN) or reading a book, or soaking up warmth from a crackling fire in the fireplace, I’m here in front of the computer, looking at cool pics of stuff in the sky to tide me over.
A word about the weather. We live in New England, but we came from Colorado. When we got here, folks would say things to us like, “Colorado — it snows there quite a bit, doesn’t it?”
Well, first they’d say, “Yah naht from around heah, ah ya?” then we’d get down to the serious business of comparative weather patterns between New England and Denver. It would seem that the East Coast view of Colorado is that it snows there all the time and that everybody lives in the mountains. Never mind that half of Colorado is more like a desert and gets a fraction of the rainfall and snow that New England (for example) gets.
I swear that that this strange view of snowbound mountain living is a product of Monday Night Football. The running joke in Denver was that every time the Broncos were scheduled to be on Monday Night Football, there’d be a huge blizzard, which would set all the sportscasters wagging their tongues about the snow mucking up the game. And the camera folks would set their telephoto lenses up on top of Mile High Stadium, look west and zoom in on Mt. Evans which is often covered in snow from September to May.
Those of us who lived in Denver and environs knew better, and I suspect many folks figured as long as the “threat” of snow kept the East Coasters from actually moving out to Colorado and screwing up the traffic patterns (what? there were traffic patterns?), then it couldn’t be all bad.
But I digress. In Colorado, even at the height of the snow storm season, we actually many nights of good stargazing weather (as long as one dressed up warmly and had plenty of backup for the battery-operated socks). Sure it snowed. But it melted fast and the dryer climate kept us in good viewing.
But, out here in New England — well that’s quite a different story. In the six years we’ve lived here, the nights of really good stargazing have been really few and far between. Oh sure, there was the night I laid on my car hood in late November, watching the Leonid shower for nearly five hours. That was a clear night (as long as you didn’t count the light pollution). And, there have been a few nights when the temperatures dropped to the low points, the air was dry and the stars were like diamonds on velvet. Then stargazing was a quick “duck out and scan for the cool stuff with binoculars” affair because it was too cold to set up the big scope. I don’t have an observatory, which would probably make things easier. So, on those nights when stargazing just won’t be denied, I use 10×50 binoculars or a handy little scope called an Astroscan, which is portable and nearly indestructible.
You have to be a hardy lot to stargaze in New England winters — especially this past one. We started getting heavy snow on Christmas and it hasn’t let up since then. Now (early April) we’ve just had yet another few centimeters of snow, with the promise of more. This is more than Colorado had for most of the winter, although lately they’ve been getting socked, too. The difference there is that it warms up between storms.
So, like I said, weather is a big thing for stargazers. It affects what we see, when we see it, and the clarity of what we see. It makes the challenge of seeing the Orion Nebula or the Beehive or the Andromeda Galaxy, or any of dozens and dozens of other cool objects in the sky more rewarding when we actually spot them.
And those nights when I’m inside stargazing on the computer monitor? Here’s a small sampling of the places I visit on the Web:
Space Telescope Science Institute
The Astronomy Picture of the Day
The Earth Science Picture of the Day
NASA’s Planetary Photojournal Site
and, because I’m really interested in learning more about such things as 3D digital artwork: