This article was contributed by David Baumgartner. This is the first of a series of articles on local astronomy.
It is often I hear people say: “I can’t go out and watch the skies at night, I have no idea where or what to look for, besides I don’t even have a telescope.”
Well this month we are going see how you can go out into your backyard, put down a blanket or use a lawn chair, lay on your back without a telescope or even a pair of binoculars, and look straight up to be entertained for hours.
First off, pick a night when the stars seem to jump out at you and the moon’s brightness is not around to block out most of your view. Hopefully your backyard is somewhat free of glare and nearby lights, which is getting harder to find these days. If the night chill gets a little too cool, bring a blanket. Nothing is worse than freezing your “you know what” off when you are trying to have fun. If your dog is anything like our dog Ally was, you may want to leave them in the house. There is no way Ally would leave us alone when we’re laying on the ground. To her, that meant time for play.
Okay! We are finally on our backs, the dog is in the house, and you are looking straight up into the night sky. What are we looking for?
The first thing you may notice is that the sky isn’t as clear as you may have thought. Maybe from the summer coastal evening clouds slowly creeping over the Gabilan Mountains coming in to obstruct your view. But look closely; it’s not clouds at all, it’s the Milky Way. The Milky Way is always there waiting for you to admire it. It is one of the most beautiful things you will ever see, as long as you understand what it is. This cloud you see is actually billions of stars, making up only part of our own Milky Way galaxy, so far away that they look like clouds. Some of these stars are thousands of light years away from us.
While looking straight up, there is a star that doesn’t get lost in the Milky Way. You can pick out the fifth brightest star in the whole sky, Vega, some 25 light years away. So the light you see now left that area of Vega some 25 years ago traveling at the speed of 186,000 miles a second. No pottie breaks, no layovers, just barreling straight through from Vega to your eyes. Feel special? Well, you should. What were you doing 25 years ago when the light left Vega? Ponder on that for a while.
And while you are looking in that area, you might as well try and find the Summer Triangle. Start with Vega, in the constellation Lyra, which is a small parallelogram of stars. Draw an imaginary line from Vega through Lyra that points the way to Altair, the 11th brightest star in the heavens, part of an even larger parallelogram that defines the constellation Aquila the Eagle. Altair is easily recognizable because it is the centerpiece of a row of three bright stars. If you follow the Milky Way northward from Aquila, you’ll arrive at the third Summer Triangle star, Deneb, the 19th brightest star in the heavens, located in the constellation Cygnus the Swan. Altair and Vega are stars a bit brighter than the sun and only 16 and 25 light years away. But Deneb is about 1,600 light years away. It is actually one of the hugest and brightest stars we know of. What were you doing 1,600 years ago? Go on the net and get yourself a star chart to help you find your way around the night sky before you go out tonight, it will help immensely. Or you can travel to Orion Telescope in Watsonville, where they have everything you need for this hobby.
Now if your night out happens to be around August 13, you will notice something special going on. And that would be what is called “The tears of St. Lawrence,” better known as the Perseid meteor shower. These showers usually put on quite a show for us each year. Unfortunately, conditions do not favor this summer bonanza of shooting stars, as they are called, because the brightness of the full moon fades them out on this go-round.
Meteors range in size from grains of sand to very small pebbles, and have the consistency of ash. At the speed of around 25,000 to 160,000 miles an hour, they ram into our atmosphere creating an incandescent trail as they vaporize. You can see the Perseids from July 17 to August 24. But they peak around August 13 for the best viewing.
The best time to witness these trails would be early in the morning from 3 a.m. to just before dawn. If you can’t get yourself to stay up that late, or get up that early, you will still have a good chance to enjoy a good number of meteors earlier in the evening, maybe not the usual 110+ strikes with no moon, but enough to peak your interest.
Okay, there you are! No telescope needed, just your own eyes and a blanket, with your dog barking inside the house wanting out. So you have no excuse now not to enjoy a little searching of the skies and witnessing some natural fireworks. The only thing that can stop you now is bad weather.
The main thing is to enjoy the outing, whether you are with others or just by yourself. Don’t forget to let your dog out at the end so they can enjoy your company on the ground for a while.
August Sky Watch
8/2: Moon is at perigee (223,320 miles from Earth), 3:11 a.m. EDT
8/5: Mercury passes 9* south of Pollux, 6 p.m. EDT
8/7: First quarter moon occurs, 1:31 p.m. EDT
8/9: Moon passes 2* north of Jupiter, 7 p.m. EDT
8/12: The moon passes 0.04* south of Saturn, 6 a.m. EDT
8/12: The moon passes 0.1* north of Pluto, 6 p.m. EDT
8/13: Perseid meteor shower peaks, not a favorable year for this major shower (see 8/15)
8/15: Full moon. The full moon of August is called the Green Corn Moon or Grain Moon.
8/17: The moon is at apogee (252,429 miles from the Earth), 6:49 a.m. EDT
8/18: Moon passes 4* south of Neptune, 9 a.m. EDT
8/20: The moon passes 5* south of Uranus, 11 a.m. EDT
8/23: Last quarter moon occurs, 10:56 a.m. EDT
8/25: Mars is at aphelion (154.9 million miles from the sun), 9 p.m. EDT
8/30: New moon occurs, 6:37 a.m. EDT
8/30: The moon is at perigee (221,939 miles from Earth), 11:53 a.m. EDT (second time this month)