The autumn skies are one of the starry delights of the year, and the last time you might spend night time outdoors.
Let’s face it, the days are numbered that you’ll be outside after dark as 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 there are dark skies at 6 pm but not much gumption to brave the usually harsh weather.
So make some time every week for a half hour or so stargazing by just sitting outdoors in comfortable clothes on a comfy recliner and allowing your eyes to adapt to the night.
I guarantee it won’t be wasted time. I think you might be recharged a little bit, maybe distress and for sure you’ll witness with eyes and ears a new perspective on your neighborhood.
Most of us will be battling the security lights of the neighbors, so try and block yourself from annoying stray light. Start 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 needed to look at a star map or equipment. As your eyes open wide like an owl, use your ears to hear the night world around us coming alive.
You’ll hear the night come alive with a twilight background of soft noise of car motors, closing doors and bristling bushes that punctuate the falling darkness. A few bats dart by, snagging unseen insects trying to survive one more chilly night. You realize car tires make a sound of their own on the streets, and somewhere overhead a propeller plane is heading to a nighttime destination, its light blinking a trail in the deep purple sky. 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 stars 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.
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! When the Moon is bright around full phase it drowns out all but the brightest stars for about a week every month. And then you have plenty of cloudy nights that spoil those moonless nights. Everyone has a personal life that has lots of evening commitments—so there goes more unwatched clear, dark nights. 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 that only you can measure inside your mind. And for many stargazers that means a chance to center one’s thoughts as a simple human being, looking up from a very unique place in the Universe and visualizing what the eye can’t with what we know.
This Summer and Autumn of 2018 we have been treated to an encounter with Mars, still shining bright red in the south, but fading fast.
Mars is the Roman god of war, and that name has stuck to this red, wandering “star” that all cultures recognized as blood, a warrior or omen for conflict.
And as we look at Mars there is a connection with mankind that was never possible before the past half Century of space exploration. Mars is not just a pretty, red star in our sky. It is a visualized world, thanks to the robots from Earth circling it and roving its surface. And in late November 2018 a new NASA stationary lander named InSight touched down to begin drilling into the surface to understand the innards of Mars. Two other rovers and five more orbiters are giving humans a constant presence at this small world that is revealing itself as once drenched in water billions of years ago, but today is a cold, barren desert. Why? That’s what we want to know and hope it can’t happen on Earth.
So take advantage of these Autumn nights that have so many starry friends awaiting your acquaintance. Astronomers have discovered 3,000 exoplanets circling the closest stars. Look up and imagine each starry point as a solar system with several planets that could have somebody looking back at you!
Maybe you’ll find stargazing an hour or so a week so enjoyable that you’ll continue though the Winter and get in rhythm with the seasonal stars. You won’t be disappointed.