The weather forecast for today predicted over an eighty percent chance of rain so I either needed to make my observation before midnight or wait a couple of days for cloudless skies. Fifteen minutes before my Mythgard Academy class started last night (at nine o’clock Central Time), I decided to make my first observation. I set the timer on my smartwatch for ten minutes and hung outside while my neighbors to the north decided a fire in their firepit was warranted (not helping my light pollution survey one bit). My neighbor to the south also appeared to have search lights trained on my backyard so adjusting my eyes for optimal viewing already had steep hills to climb. I somewhat patiently waited for the timer to count down.
Meanwhile, I found Venus immediately, very high and extremely bright in the west. Next, both Procyon and Sirius shown brightly in the upper and lower southwest. Even though the sun had set over an hour ago, the western sky still seemed dimly luminescent and I detected a very slight haze obscuring the fainter stars. My timer buzzed and I began sketching out the brightest stars and the only constellation I could identify – Orion – sinking slowly into the southwestern horizon. To the north I could just barely make out Polaris but could not find the Big or Little Dipper (mostly because the trees are starting to leaf out).
Almost directly overhead but still on the eastern side of the zenith, I could barely make out a sickle, an asterism that can be found in the constellation Leo (see diagram below). I had checked the Sky and Telescope Interactive Star Chart before stepping outside so I knew where to crane my neck in the hopes of spotting the lion. In addition to the sickle, I could also make out, barely, the triangle of stars that form the lion’s rear and tail. I could not tell where Leo ended and Virgo began as the stars were so faint I gave up.
I returned to my computer, logged into the Webinar and while I waited for it to start, I verified my sketch against the star chart. I had found Leo, but only by the very brightest of it’s stars (which aren’t that bright when you compare them to Sirius, Vega or Procyon). Fast forward two hours, where I found myself nodding off and decided I’d consumed enough First Age elven antics for one session and bailed out of the webinar (I can always watch the last 15-30 minutes via YouTube later).
I went back outside and noticed immediately the haze had disappeared. The air was crisper and I didn’t even need to wait the full ten minutes before I could clearly see the constellation Leo, now slightly west of top-dead-center overhead. My northern neighbors were still enjoying their outdoor fire but my southern neighbors had toned down the search lights to just one very bright LED porch light.
I returned inside and recorded both of my observations via the Globe at Night web site. I plan to repeat my observations each night weather permitting until the middle of next week.
Tonight and for the next few nights, you can participate in a survey of your night sky and increase awareness of dark skies (and the converse of light pollution). While we are sheltering at home, we have vastly reduced the amount of air pollution, but have we given thought to the loss of our dark skies while we hunker down, sheltering at home? No? Well, here’s your chance to pitch in and save our night skies!
The Case of the Hidden Lion
Can you find the constellation Leo (for Northern latitudes)? For the next week, take a few minutes out of your late evening and follow these simple instructions to locate the missing lion in your night sky.
Use the Globe at Night website to find the latitude and longitude of the location where you are making your observation.
Go outside more than an hour after sunset (8-10 pm local time). The Moon should not be up. Let your eyes become used to the dark for 10 minutes before your first observation.
Match your observation to one of 7 magnitude charts and note the amount of cloud cover.
Report the date, time, location (latitude/longitude), the chart you chose, and the amount of cloud cover at the time of observation. Make more observations from other locations, if possible. Compare your observation to thousands around the world!:
I’ll be making my observations either tomorrow or Friday evening around 10 o’clock Central time. I’m just one degree shy of forty degrees north latitude. We’re in the last quarter of the moon, with the new moon occurring on the 23rd so this is the best opportunity to find that missing lion!
Times for Sunset and Moonrise for Kansas City, KS:
For the second night in a row, I spent fifteen or twenty minutes outside, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness before participating in the Great World Wide Star Count. I relaxed on my upper patio, hiding behind my pile of firewood, which blocks the bright lights from the doctors’ office to my west. Apollo joined me both nights, enjoying the cool autumn breeze and quiet evening.
I zoomed in on the Northern Cross, also known as the constellation Cygnus, as the target of my naked eye observations both nights. I printed the observing guide Friday before leaving work. Despite being surrounded by city streetlights, prison security lighting and a nearly full moon, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I could see down to magnitude five, but not quite to magnitude six, again according to the Northern Hemisphere Observing Guide.
Friday night I even setup the tripod and Canon camera to snap a three second exposure of the constellation Cynus:
Tonight, rather than setting up the camera, I brought out the binoculars to see if I could discern the blue and yellow stars that make up Albireo in the head of the Swan. Having to look almost directly overhead and holding the binoculars away from my eyes did not result in a steady enough magnification to confirm. Perhaps tomorrow night I’ll haul the telescope up out of the basement and get a better, steadier look at that gem.
I need to find another place at least one kilometer away from my house to do a second observation to report back to the website referenced above. If only Lansing didn’t lock up all of it’s parks promptly at sunset, I might have an opportunity to observe from the new park out west on 4-H Road.
So how many stars can you see of the Swan? Step outside tomorrow night, give your eyes fifteen minutes to adjust and look directly overhead.
Last year, a few days after my birthday, I scrapped my MySpace blog, mostly due to interface changes, and ventured here to WordPress with a backup blog at Blogger. My original intention was to journal my astronomical adventures here and do some inspirational topics on the backup site. While I didn’t blog daily, I did manage to craft over two hundred blog entries here (this being my 225th).
In honor of my original intention to explore the heavens, I wanted to encourage everyone (and motivate myself) to participate in this year’s Great World Wide Star Count. Don’t be shy! Anyone can participate and it doesn’t require any equipment beyond your eyes. This project is an annual survey of the night sky, held this year between October 14th and 28th (7-9 pm optimal viewing window) to record how many stars you can see in the constellation Cygnus (the Swan) in the northern hemisphere (follow the link above if you reside Down Under). This helps map the spread of light pollution. I plan to get out my telescope (for the first time this fall) and view the beautiful blue/yellow double-star Albireo. I can’t tell from the survey’s website if they are affiliate with the IDA (the International Dark-Sky Association), but I’m doing my bit (via this blog) to raise awareness about the value of dark skies and their preservation and restoration.
And now, a brief retrospective of some of my favorite blog entries (indicated with asterisks) from the past year and a few popular (according to the stats) highlights: