Spring is the time of year when I first got serious about learning the constellations and using a small telescope. That was many moons ago. But little has changed in learning one’s way around the night sky.
It takes ambition and desire, a star map and a red flashlight, and, of course, a fairly dark sky. And no matter what kind of telescope you may own, learning to use it the best you can will maybe inspire you to own a better instrument in the future. Even the cheapest department store telescopes are much better than those used by pioneers like Galileo 400 years ago!
The warmer nights of Spring make it more comfortable to stargaze, and you can recline on a lawn chair or even the hood of your car if you drive to a dark site like a lake or mountain site.
To help you identify the stars and their patterns, amateur astronomers use a “planisphere.” This is a cardboard or plastic wheel of the constellations that can be is moved to match the date and time to see the seasonal constellations. Most book stores and some nature centers (like Bays Mt. in Kingsport) sell the popular planisphere—a tool used by stargazers for centuries.
Also to familiarize you with the constellations, the library is filled with beginner books on stargazing, and free star maps are available on line—just check out Skymaps.com.
It’s always good to prepare a stargazing night during the daytime, familiarizing yourself with what’s up in the night and figuring out some celestial targets to hunt down. That’s some of the fun of stargazing, hunting down the treasures of the night by star-hopping around to your target.
Once outside, it is important to allow about 15 minutes for your eyes to adapt to the dark—you’ll be amazed at how much more you’ll see. Your pupils open up wider to let more starlight inside your eyes. This is just like turning out the bedroom lights—at first you think the room is dark but in a few minutes you see everything on the walls and furniture in great detail.
How do you read those star charts in the dark? That’s where the red flashlight comes in…the red does not dilate your eye pupils and maintains your night vision, critical to seeing celestial objects the best we can. Use red nail polish covering light bulbs or red cellophane—and of course there many red flashlights on the astronomy marketplace.
Stargazing during this transition time from winter to spring has some of the most prominent and easy to identify constellations. The new group of spring constellations is rising in the east while the winter ones are saying goodbye in the west.
Winter star patterns like Taurus, Orion, Canis Major and Minor, and the twins Gemini are all setting in the west one by one after 9 pm. The Spring constellations of Leo, Bootes and Virgo are taking over while the hindquarters of the Great Bear, Ursa Major, is high in the north—the Big Dipper.
Follow that curve of the Big Dipper’s handle to the bright, orange star Arcturus, and continue the curve to brilliant white Spica. The old astronomy axiom is “Arc to Arcturus and speed on to Spica!”
Arcturus is at the base of a kite-shaped pattern of stars named after an ancient hero called Bootes (Boo-O-tez), and the stars also align like a giant ice cream cone. Spica is the only bright star in the large constellation celebrating Virgo the Virgin Maiden. But above Spica all this Spring and Summer is the yellowish planet Jupiter!
High above the eastern horizon after 9 p.m. is the mighty lion of the skies, Leo. His lion’s mane looks like a backward question mark, dotted by the bright star Regulus. The hindquarters of the lion are three stars forming a right triangle.
Below this triangle and under the lion’s belly are several distant galaxies that are easy to see even with binoculars if you know where to look.
These are the “faint fuzzies” that serious amateur astronomers hunt down among the stars of the constellations. Galaxies, globular clusters and gaseous nebulae are among the faint fuzzies. Most look like irregular grey patches of light—much like dust balls under a bed.
In the 18th Century, the great French astronomer Charles Messier was an avid comet hunter, but he kept coming across objects that looked like a faint, fuzzy comet, but they didn’t move. So Messier catalogued more than 100 of these celestial objects in the mid 170os. This became the famous Messier Catalog of 105 deep sky objects, a starting point for amateur astronomers to cut their teeth in exploring the Universe.
But there are a lot more Messier Objects to see in the spring skies with a telescope. Any telescope—even a cheap department store one like I started out with.
Springtime is “galaxy time” when dozens of these stellar islands are visible that are on the Messier list. Leo the Lion has two groups of galaxies: M-105, M-96 and M-96 are clustered together in the lion’s belly, and M-66 and M-65 are below the hindquarters triangle of stars.
In Ursa Major is the famous Whirlpool Galaxy, M-101, and a huge concentration of galaxies in a cluster. And sprawling Virgo has a few easy Messier targets, but contains thousands and thousands seen in professional photos in the giant Virgo Cluster of galaxies.
We see all these galaxies this time of year because the position of Earth in its orbit has us looking away from our Milky Way and into the cosmos. Therefore we see the millions of galaxies beyond ours.
The night sky is filled with the treasures of our Universe, and they are yours to find—no matter how trivial you might think your telescope is. The important thing is to use any telescope the best you can, pushing its limits…as it might lead in the future to a more serious instrument.
Try a little Spring stargazing. You just might get the astronomy bug, leading to a life-time of enjoyment chasing down the “faint fuzzy” gems of our night sky.