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All posts for the month April, 2003

This time of year many Americans race to beat the deadline of filing their taxes. There are at least two kinds of folks who are sweating it today: those who have filed and have to pay taxes, and those who haven’t filed and will be racing to the post office before midnight to get them filed. This year, and for several years now, thanks to Al Gore and the Internet, I’ve managed to file my taxes via computer — thus omitting some of the stress from April 15th (although not the pain of paying).

Heres a star chart to help you figure out what youre seeing.

Here's a star chart to help you figure out what you're seeing.

If you are filing your taxes today and you’re making the midnight run to the post office, make sure you take some time after it’s all over to glance up in the sky. If it’s clear, look nearly overhead for the Tax Time Constellations of Bootes (with the bright star Arcturus at its tip) and Corona Borealis, with the star Gemma (also known as alpha Corona Borealis, or Alphekka) gleaming from the arc of stars that make it up.

Once you get back home, you’ll probably be all keyed up from the mad dash and can’t get to sleep. And, you’re probably tired of watching CNN or Skynews all night. So get back outside, and grab a pair of binoculars to take along. See if you can use them to find a little globular cluster of stars in the Keystone of Hercules, just to the east of Corona Borealis. On the chart, I’ve marked it for you — it’s called M13 and its about 2/3 of the way up the left side of the Keystone.

Now, once you’ve spotted that, give a look over at the Big Dipper in the northwest. Find the handle and then look at the star in the bend of the handle. It’s called Mizar. But, actually there are two stars there — if your eyesight is really good, you might be able to spot them both without help. Through binoculars you can clearly see two stars. Actually there are six stars there, but you’d need a good sized telescope to see them.

Now, wasn’t that a nice way to end Tax Day?

Note: I forgot to mention that the Moon would be fairly bright around midnight. It’s a waxing gibbous Moon and will be a full Moon on the 16th. Its brightness makes it a bit tougher to spot M13, although not impossible. Don’t worry too much about it if you don’t find the cluster right away — in a few days the Moon will not be as much of a problem!

Also, the chart up there was created using Cartes du Ciel, a desktop planetarium available for download at: Astro-PC

(Southern Hemisphere Version)

A couple of years ago I spent 17 days on a cruise ship as an astronomy lecturer. The itinerary was a trip around South America, beginning in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil and ending up in Valparaiso, Chile. My job was to teach people how to find things in the sky and give a handful of lectures about astronomy during the course of the trip. We left on March 15 and returned on April 2, early autumn for southern hemisphere stargazers.

I had been to S. America once before, so I had some inkling of where things were in the skies, but this would be the first time I’d have nearly unfettered access to dark skies for a long string of nights. So, I took along my handy traveling telescope (the AstroScan) and a pair of 10 x 50 binoculars. I had star charts for the passengers, and several stargazing guides to use as reference.

It turned out to be quite a fun trip (you can see pictures at our South American trip site). We had about 8 good nights of stargazing, and out at sea, there was just NO light pollution from cities. In fact, aside from a few lights at the back of the ship, and the appearance of the southern aurora borealis as a white glow to the south, we enjoyed the darkest, clearest skies we’d seen in our lives.

On the clear nights, we’d set up the scope on the top deck of the ship and do our observing. Most nights we’d get a few stargazers with us, and on three nights we had well in excess of 100 folks out there, craning their heads upward to enjoy the southern Milky Way, the Large and Small Magellanic clouds, and other delights. And people had such interesting questions. I think the most-asked was “Where’s the Southern Cross?”

The most thought-provoking came from an Israeli rabbi who was an avid observer and asked me what I thought the limits of infinity were. We tossed that one around for a while, up there on the wind-whipped top deck under the black velvet skies and glittering stars.

Stargazing will do that to you — just when you’ve found a globular cluster and are scoping it out through the eyepiece, some sense of the distances that light travels from these objects hits you, and you marvel at the size of the universe. My favorite objects to look at in the southern skies during that trip were the myriads of clusters glittering along the path of the Milky Way, and the beauty of the Eta Carinae nebula, and the appearance of Mars, low on the horizon after dinner.

We hope to go again sometime, to spend more idyllic nights aboard ship watching the skies. Even more fun would be to meet up with South American amateur astronomers and do a bit of stargazing with them. Or, if we ever get a chance, going to Australia and observing from the outback. I hear it’s a whole ‘nother universe down there!

(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:

Digital Blasphemy.