27 February 2011

Take part in "The Globe At Night" project - just look up at the sky tonight!

For the next week everyone is invited to participate in a global effort to measure light pollution and to learn about stars and the sky in your neighborhood, especially for those in big cities like San Francisco. The "Globe At Night" project invites people from around the world to take a few minutes in the next 7 days and look at one of the most beautiful constellations in the sky, Orion, and simply report how much of it you can see. It's easier than you think. And it's a great family project to show kids what you can see in the night sky.

The Globe At Night website provides all of the details, but in summary you compare what you see in your sky (your backyard, rooftop or any other convenient observing location) to a series of images on the Globe At Night website. By finding the image that best matches your view and reporting this on the website, you are helping to gather data from cities around the world on the relative light pollution in the sky. The constellation Orion contains stars of varying brightness, and depending upon the darkness of your skies, you will see more or less of these stars. The charts on the Globe At Night website show you Orion with differing "magnitudes" of stars, so for very light polluted cities you might only see the 1st and 2nd magnitude stars, whereas in darker skies you will see 3rd, 4th, or even 5th and 6th magnitude stars (the higher the number, the fainter the star).

Join the worldwide "Citizen Scientists" supporting this effort to increase awareness of the night sky, and take part. And bring along a friend. It's fun!

22 February 2011

Seeing Summer in Winter - Scorpius and Sagittarius

The early morning sky this week holds some treasures for star gazers. As the view of the heavens changes from season to season, we have a chance to see the symmetry of our sky by looking south-east in the morning. In winter, we see the majestic winter sky in the evening, but by early morning we see the summer sky! How is this possible? Every 12 hours as the Earth rotates on its axis, we face the different constellations and in fact see the "opposite" season in the morning. This week, as the old Moon passes through the summer constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius, it accentuates the rich beauty of these two constellations, both of which contain many treasures for the unaided eye as well as for those who wish to get out their binoculars for a closer look.

Sagittarius is located in same direction as the center of the Milky Way, and Scorpius is just next to this, so both contain a richness of nebulae and star clusters that are easy to find in binoculars. It's worth the extra 2 minutes in the morning to take a look if you can get outside before the first light of dawn, before 6:00 am in San Francisco.

12 February 2011

The Winter Sky Beckons

The Winter Sky beckons me to stop what I am doing and pay attention, for the view of the heavens in this magical season is unlike any other. Here in San Francisco, when it is not raining (as was the case for most of January through today), the air is dry and the atmosphere clear, giving the casual observer sparkling vistas into the heavens. And as this kind of weather happens with regularity in the winter, and the hours of darkness are at their maximum, it is all but impossible to miss the winter sky.

Evenings right now are dominated by the slowly fading planet Jupiter high in the west at sunset, and the colorful bright stars of Orion high in the southern sky, Canis Major and Sirius to the lower left of Orion, and Taurus and Aldeberan to the upper right of Orion. Facing north, the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia trade places every 24 hours, circling Polaris, the North Star. And later in the night to the east are a variety of treasures in Virgo with Saturn in the vicinity. Two weeks ago the morning sky featured the old Moon passing through Scorpios and Sagittarius, creating beautiful alignments that accented the eastern horizon at dawn.

The most important thing to do, if you want to see these amazing sky spectacles, is to keep your eyes open and look up - - nothing more than that is necessary to be captivated by the spell of the sky. No need for a telescope or binoculars. This time of year the stars dazzle in the night, and appear to be asking all of us to take a moment to contemplate their majesty and come to appreciate the universe, awaiting your view each night of the year.