Do you want to learn more about the night sky? Nicole Engleman, a graduate student in physics at Auburn who has taught the astronomy lab, suggests two simple things people can do to enhance their sky-watching enjoyment: purchase a pair of binoculars and locate a start chart.
"The night sky is awesome. There is so much up there, so a star chart, whether you print one out or download one to your smart phone, helps you to know what you are looking at, which is really cool. Once you know you are looking at certain constellations, the night sky is 100 times more amazing," Engleman said. "And using a pair of binoculars is an inexpensive way to enhance your view of space without investing a lot of money in a telescope."
Engleman said that there are many easy objects to identify, such as the Big and Little Dipper, Polaris, also known as the North Star, which is found in the Little Dipper, and the fifth-brightest star, Vega, which is part of the Lyra constellation.
"Honestly, the summer sky is kind of boring compared to other times of year," Engleman said. "Orion is not even up there in the summer, and you can see it at other times of year. It's also not as easy to see as much in the summer because the atmosphere is humid. The moisture makes it more difficult to see the sky because water vapor reflects light."
Despite variations in visibility from day to day and season to season, Engleman recommends everyone take an opportunity to enjoy the night sky for one primary reason: "I always looked at the sky with my dad when I was growing up. We never even got a sky chart. We just looked at the stars and talked. Dad would ask how I was doing, occasionally we would see something cool in the sky and point it out, but it was really about building our relationship. Sky watching can inspire bonding. Now as an adult, when I go home we still look at the night sky, but I can actually point things out to him, which he thinks is really cool."
Those with an interest in the night sky who live near the Auburn area should consider joining the Auburn Astronomical Society. The society, which has about 25 members, holds monthly meetings to discuss scheduled events, host presentations or share celestial information with one another. The group also sponsors a once-a-month "Star Party," where members gather at a location with minimal light pollution, set up their telescopes and gaze millions of light years into space. Star parties are held on the Saturday nearest the new moon. The party begins before sunset, and as daylight gives way to twilight, enthusiastic members are hopeful about seeing such spectacular phenomenon as sunlight reflecting off the International Space Station, the earth's shadow along the horizon, or anticrepuscular rays, which are beams of setting sunlight passing through clouds in the west which appear to visually converge opposite the sunset in the east. Once nighttime falls, the party really begins as members search for celestial objects like planets, variable stars, nebula of different types, and galaxies.
Upcoming celestial events, resources and tips:
On May 25, witness a penumbral lunar eclipse, which is when the moon passes through the outer portion of the earth's shadow.
On August 11 and 12, sky watchers can witness the Perseids Meteor Shower. In good viewing conditions, up to 60 meteorites per hour will be visible.
The best location to watch the night sky in the summertime is at a high altitude, above much of the moisture in the atmosphere.
It takes a while for the human eye to adjust to the darkness, so be sure to eliminate as many light sources as possible when viewing the night sky.
Sometimes light is necessary while sky watching. Use a red film over any light source to decrease any loss of night vision.
More information on the night sky, including star charts, can be found in "Sky and Telescope" or "Astronomy" magazines. There is also software available for download, such as Starry Night, and numerous apps that can be added to a smart phone, such as Google Sky Map.
For more information or to contact the Auburn Astronomical Society, visit the website at www.auburnastro.org. The group welcomes guests to monthly meetings and star parties, and can arrange special sky-watching events for groups.Astrophotography courtesy of Rodger Morrison