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Viewing the sky with the naked eye (Part I)

p 5 bigdipperdirections WEBNot all astronomy requires a telescope or binoculars. Going outside on a clear night and looking up at the stars is the best way to become oriented to the night sky.

How can we quickly tell which stars and constellations are above our horizon on any given hour and time of the year? With an easy to use planisphere! A more tech savvy way is to use an App, such as GoSkyWatch on your iPhone, or Google Sky Map and Star Chart on your android; or use an easily recognized constellation such as the Big Dipper as a guide.

Most people know this asterism (grouping of stars) in the constellation Ursa Major which is visible locally at all times of the year. The second star from the end of the handle is Mizar which, on closer examination, is actually two binary stars, Mizar and Alcor. Ages ago the ability to resolve the two stars with the naked eye was used as a test of a person’s eyesight!

The two pointer stars at the end of the scoop point to Polaris, and Ursa Minor, the Little Dipper. Polaris, the North Star, has been used by mariners for centuries to find ‘north.’

Follow the arc of the handle of the Big Dipper to Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation Bootes. Continue that arc to Spica in the constellation Virgo. Another useful guide coming up in the summer sky are the three stars of the Summer Triangle – Deneb, Vega, and Altair. With only these few signposts, you can star-hop to any place in the heavens.

The moon is always interesting to observe with the naked eye. Use lunar maps to pick out the various ‘seas’ and craters. Early impacts produced craters that were partially or completely obscured by the subsequent lava flows that created the dark maria, but younger craters like Copernicus and Tycho are surrounded by rays of bright ejecta not covered by lava. Particularly spectacular are events like the recent total lunar eclipse.

Through May and June the planets provide great naked eye viewing with Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in the evening sky, and Venus at dawn. But in the last two weeks of May and first week in June, Mercury rises into the western sky for its best appearance of the year.

The public is welcome to attend the Royal Astronomical Society meeting on Friday, May 9 at 7:30 p.m. at the Sunshine Coast Art Centre. Guest speaker Dr. Jeremy Heyl from UBC will speak on black holes and other phenomena in “The Multiwavelength Sky.” Donations gratefully appreciated!

Friday, May 16, we’ll help you navigate the sky at AstroCafe, 8:30 p.m. at Pier 17 at Davis Bay, with telescopes set up on the seawall (weather permitting).

Next month, watch for Naked (Eye) Astronomy Part 2!

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