Astronomy and Taxes

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

Early Autumn Stargazing

(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!