Gear up for some spring stargazing


Spring has finally arrived, fellow stargazers!

And this means we are supposed to have clear night skies more often, so keep checking the weather reports and be ready to head outdoors on short notice.

Friends of mine the world over (especially Europe) felt this winter past was one the worst they could remember in terms of infrequent clear nights—I agree! Let’s hope the rest of the year is just the opposite.

The moon is now three days past Full, so it will appear less bright and rise later in the evening as the days progress.

Last Quarter Moon is May 29.

Mars and Saturn are just clearing the horizon in the southeast at 10 PM, and remain relatively low until next month, when they will be higher in the sky earlier in the evening.

Mars is closer this summer than it will be in several years, so try and get a telescopic view of it!

Saturn is always spectacular, and viewing it for the first time can be a true epiphany for many people.

I have had observers stare at it for a moment, then break down and weep when they behold its singular beauty and elegance.

Jupiter is high in the sky in the south and appears as a very bright star. Good binoculars, if held steady, often show not only the disk shape of this giant of the solar system, but its four major moons are often visible as well.

Remember, all of the planets lie in about the same area called the “ecliptic.” If you imagine all of the planets arranged on a table top, they would all be in the same plane—that of the table.

They are arranged the same way in space, and thus appear to be in a narrow “belt” of sky running from southeast to west, about halfway between the point over your head (the zenith) and the horizon.

The next question is—“How big is 1 or 4 or 10 degrees in the sky?” An easy rule to remember is that your little finger at arm’s length covers about 1 degree of sky.

Your three fingers (not including the thumb or 5th finger) is about 5 degrees, and the span of your fist about 15 degrees.

Finally, your 5th and index fingers extended (as if you were making a pretend phone call) span about 25 degrees.

This is a lot of area; the moon is only about ½ degree in diameter when full.

Now is also a good time to get your observing things ready.

Always dress warmer than you think you will need, make sure you have insect repellent, a red flashlight (so a bright white light doesn’t adversely affect your night vision), and a comfortable place to sit.

If you plan to do much observing, bring a star chart, planisphere, or your favorite app to display and identify the night skies wonders.

I happen to be partial to “Sky Safari,” which is available for Apple as well as Android products.

If possible, plan a bit ahead and decide what you would like to see or try and find, and have a secondary list of other objects as well.

If you plan to use binoculars or a telescope, make sure you have any additional equipment needed as well (tripod, eyepieces, etc.).

Remember, NOMAC (Northern Michigan Astronomy Club) meets monthly. Meetings start at 8:30 pm at Raven Hill Discovery Center during the summer months.

After a brief talk on a space subject, we try and spend the evening observing with the numerous telescopes available to us. No experience?

We would be absolutely delighted to show you around and before long, you will be “pushing glass” like a pro! Just check the website or our Facebook page for details.

Until next time, clear skies and keep looking up!

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