Photo by MarQ
The autumn skies are one of the starry delights of the year, and the last time you might spend night time outdoors.
But the reward is starlight soothing our soul, the celebration of technological satellites within eyesight cutting through the constellations and maybe a cosmic intruder or two piercing needles of light into the night.
Let’s face it; the days are numbered that you’ll be outside after dark. Cold weather and busy holidays keep most of us inside when the day turns to night.
And we don’t want to think about those January and February cold nights, when it’s nearly dark at 5 pm and you don’t have much gumption to brave the usually harsh weather.
But it is rewarding to make some time for stargazing every week for a half-hour or so—sort of a “starnap”. Just sitting outdoors in comfortable clothes on a comfy recliner and allowing your eyes to adapt to the night while bating in starlight will do you wonders.
I guarantee it won’t be wasted time. I think you might be recharged a little bit, and for sure you’ll witness with eyes and ears a new perspective on the stars above, and maybe your neighborhood.
Most of us will be battling the security lights of the neighbors and other sources of light pollution. So try and block yourself from annoying stray light. Start this stargazing nap by relaxing outside in the deep twilight and see all kinds of nature stirring about as the stars come out to play with you.
Your eyes take about 15 minutes away from white light to allow the pupils to open wider and allow a dramatically better night vision. The human eye isn’t sensitive to red light, and flashlights with a red bulb or cellophane are used to look at a star map or equipment. As your eyes dilate and open wide like an owl, use your ears to hear the night world around us coming alive.
The crickets and other insects in their nocturnal late summer cacophony are gone. But you’ll see a few bats darting by, snagging flying insects that buzzed by you earlier. Neighborhood sounds come alive. You realize car tires make a sound of their own on the streets, and somewhere overhead a propeller plane is heading to a twilight landing. A dog barks, quarreling cats howl and in the distance a train’s whistle moans.
All of a sudden, it’s dark.
Even if the Moon is high and the lunar light drowns out the stars, there will always be a few dozen of the brightest to shine through. And maybe a planet or two.
Getting familiar with the night sky is like meeting neighbors that change as you drive down a road that repeats every 12 months. Seeing the Great Square of Pegasus in the northeast this Autumn time of the year is like seeing an old friend you haven’t talked to since February when the celestial horse was setting in the west.
There are The Pleiades star cluster rising in the east, with Taurus the Bull and Orion the Hunter close behind. In the west the Milky Way is literally making its swan song as the Northern Cross asterism of Cygnus the Swan is setting.
A star chart is essential and fun to use when beginning to get curious about which star is which and the starry outlines of the constellations. A “planisphere” is a star wheel that can be moved to show you the star patterns at any date and time, and they can be found at most book stores. Libraries will have several books on constellations, and free sky charts are on the Internet, like StarMaps.com.
Hey! That 1965 edition of the New Encyclopedia Britannica you inherited from your parents—or snagged cheaply at a yard sale—will no doubt have a star chart for the North and South Hemispheres of Earth. Even some world atlases will have star charts. It doesn’t matter how old your star chart is, the constellations haven’t changed in millions of years, only the positions of the Sun, Moon and planets change.
To know the night sky is truly a rewarding experience that never gets old. There is so much to learn…and so little time. You can’t find the faint constellations when the Moon is bright for a week or so around full phase. And then we have plenty of cloudy nights to spoil our stargazing.
Of course everyone has a personal life that has lots of evening commitments. So in reality, you might be lucky to seriously stargaze just five or six times a month.
Before you know it, the night sky has changed its characters, the constellations you were learning are setting, and new ones are rising in the east. After a season or two of steady stargazing, you’ll come to learn the rhythm of our Earth’s journey around our favorite star, the Sun. The rewards will be something you only measure inside your mind.
Connecting with the stars above is more physical than you might think. And mental.
First, the physics of light says it has two important properties: it acts like a wavelength and like a particle. This dual nature of light, discovered by Sir Isaac Newton 500 years, has it acting like a radio wave with different frequencies relating to specific colors, i.e. a rainbow. And rays of light act like ping-pong balls, bouncing with an equal and opposite angle.
When taking our wide-alert “starnap,” the colors we see in some stars is because of the wave property of light. Like fire, a red star is cooler than a white one. And yellow are somewhere in between.
The harder to grasp concept is the fact that light acts like a particle, like something physical bouncing around. Every good photographer knows how to manipulate this solid property of light to get predictable results.
So, just like a camera strobe flash bouncing off skin to brighten a face, starlight is bouncing off your body, being absorbed by the retina in the back of your eye and entering your body in a real, physical way.
That’s right. Starlight from the fifth brightest star Vega, 26 Light Years away, left the surface of the star in 1990, traveled more than 156 trillion miles during a three-decade journey across interstellar space to bounce off our eyes and enter our bodies in a real physical way.
That’s a concept that ancient astronomers would never grasp—that we actually look back in time because the stars are so far away. Even light traveling at 186,000 miles a second—6 trillion miles in a year—takes years to traverse the distance to even the closest stars to our Sun. We look at our favorite star as it “was” 8.5 minutes ago, the time it takes sunlight to traverse 93 million miles.
A concept ancient stargazers would believe is that starlight directly affects humans—the basis for twisting the science into astrology. Yet, we are very much stardust, though you won’t need to use the feather duster to clean up!
So take advantage of these mild Autumn nights that have so many starry friends awaiting your acquaintance. Take an occasional “starnap”, look up and imagine each starry point as a world of its own, probably with several planets and maybe a companion star orbiting it.
And just maybe you’ll find a starnap so enjoyable that you’ll continue stargazing though the Winter and get in rhythm with the seasonal stars. You won’t be disappointed.