Swan Lake of Stars

Last week I posted about counting stars, assuming I’d have ample opportunities to star gaze any evening, thanks to one of the worst droughts since the early 20th century.  And that same evening, a week ago on Monday the 8th of October, I took my binoculars with me to the backyard at 8:30 p.m. and let my eyes adjust for night vision for fifteen or twenty minutes.  A few wispy clouds striated the night sky and a high school football game just a block away to my northeast made for less than stellar seeing.  I estimated I could see fourth magnitude stars in the constellation Cygnus, but knew I could see better if the conditions improved bit.  I’ve seen more stars in that constellation from the exact same spot in the past, including last year’s star count.  I decided not to report my findings on the 8th to the Great World Wide Star Count web site, opting to observe on a succeeding evening.

As the week wore on, I began to despair.  Clouds rolled in on Tuesday or Wednesday and stubbornly blocked the sky, but didn’t drop much rain, until Sunday morning.  I am overjoyed for the rain, but disappointed at the lost observing opportunities.  Rain all day, but please dissipate when the sun sets.

Installing Garage Doors - Sunday MorningMy next opportunity to observe came Sunday evening, after a long day of hanging garage doors.  We called it quits around 8:30 p.m. and sent my dad home to get some rest just after 9:00 p.m.  I didn’t remember about the star count until Monday morning, when I stepped outside and saw Venus, Jupiter, Sirius, the Pleiades and Orion for the first time in a week.  I went back in and got my binoculars for a quick fix of planet, star, open cluster and nebula observing before leaving on the morning work commute.

Monday evening, I got home to more progress on the garage doors and wispy clouds during sunset.  Grrr.  I took Apollo on a short walk after eight o’clock.  During our walk, I kept trying to look up at Cygnus, but with it being directly overhead, I risked tripping over something if I tilted my head back far enough to observe.  Once back home, I went right back outside and laid down on my patio.  After fifteen minutes or so, I determined I could see fourth and possibly some fifth magnitude stars in the constellation.

I texted my husband, asking him to bring me my binoculars.  I didn’t want to get up (still very sore from the garage door project and my strength training exercise class at work) and/or ruin my night vision.  He graciously brought them to me, and I went looking for the double cluster in Perseus.  I think I found it, but I couldn’t’ confirm it because my star atlas was locked in the backseat of the car on the other side of the house, where I’d left it after my final stint as a volunteer staff member at a Powell Observatory public night.  Saturday night, the one where thunderstorms and lightning further discouraged star gazing.

Tonight, after raking the front lawn under the odious burr oak tree, I will try to catch the new moon just after sunset and then drive to northwest Leavenworth County to places I frequented in my youth.  I will repeat the star count and compare notes, so to speak.

If you haven’t observed and reported your star count findings yet, you still have four days.  The deadline is this Friday, October 19, 2012.

Star Light, Star Bright, May I Count You All Tonight?

I missed the opportunity to count stars over the weekend.  Clouds obscured the heavens Friday and Saturday night, but I had absolutely no excuse not to step outside Sunday evening and participate in the Great World Wide Star Count.  Thank goodness that Sky & Telescope‘s Facebook feed reminded me with their article ‘A Star Count for Everyone‘ this morning.

I checked my local five day forecast and I should be able to find Cygnus and count stars tonight and Wednesday.  Tuesday, Thursday and especially Friday are iffy.  This year, I’m going to try to do it from a couple of different locations, not just my backyard (like I did last year).

Here’s all you need to know to participate:

All you’ll need are a clear evening sky sometime between October 5th and 19th, your own two eyes, and a set of simple star charts. First, download the handy five-page activity guide (available in 16 languages) and print the star charts. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you’ll be looking high up for the constellation Cygnus, and its Northern Cross asterism. If you’re south of the equator, the target area surrounds the Teapot in Sagittarius. Each of the seven maps shows stars down to a different magnitude limit, plus one for a cloudy sky.

Then, after stepping out under the early-evening sky and letting your eyes adjust to the darkness, match one of the charts to what you see overhead. Step back inside and report what you’ve found online. You’re done! (Unlike many contests, you can enter more than once! You might be surprised by how much the sky’s darkness can vary from night to night.)

A Star Count for Everyone, Sky & Telescope, Oct. 5, 2012

I Spy the Night Sky

I stepped outside just before 9:00 pm to let the dogs out and shocked myself with the sight of actual stars, something I haven’t seen in weeks (it seems) with the unrelenting cloud cover, rain and thunderstorms plaguing the Heart of America this month.  I grabbed my camera and tripod and setup just east of my mailbox, hoping to capture photographic evidence of the overwhelming light pollution saturating my neighborhood.

Due North (from in front of my mailbox)
Bambi Court Due North (from in front of my mailbox)

Not only does everyone on my court leave every outside light on, they feel compelled to illuminate their driveways, fences, sidewalks, trees, boats, etc., etc.  The clouds in the above picture are actually illuminated by the glow from the Lansing Correctional Facility (just a half mile north of my neighborhood).

Turning around 180 degrees on the tripod, and flipping the camera 90 degrees to the horizontal, I snapped a shot of my new ‘bright night light’ recently installed at the corner of Bambi Court and Fawn Valley:

New 'Bright Night Light' (Installed at the corner of Fawn Valley & Bambi Court)
New 'Bright Night Light' (Installed at the corner of Fawn Valley & Bambi Court)

Again, the neighbors to my south, on the south side of Fawn Valley, seem to be in competition with the Bambi Court Extreme Illumination Foundation.

I could barely see the handle of the big dipper, so I thought I’d try experimenting with long exposures using the Pentax K100D.  There was no wind where I was standing, even though I could see the thin wispy clouds moving casually from west to east across the backdrop of the Big and Little Dippers.  I set the camera to Shutter Priority Mode and selected a six second exposure for a half dozen shots of the northwestern, north and northeastern skies.  The most dramatic shot, after autocorrecting with basic photo editing software (and I apologize for the greenness of the resulting photo), follows:

Bits of Ursa Minor and Draco (behind the clouds)
Bits of Ursa Minor and Draco (behind the clouds)

I packed up the camera and tripod and thought about heading to bed.  I tried to read more from the Backyard Astronomer’s Guide but gave up around ten o’clock.  I got up to let the dogs out one final time and, as I always do, I looked up when I stepped outside.  I always look up.  The clouds had cleared away more and I could clearly see the Big and Little Dippers from my back patio.  I grabbed the tripod and camera again for some more experimental shots using an exposure of fifteen seconds.  The following two photos show Ursa Minor and Major in one shot:

Ursa Minor and Major (Polaris is at 1 o'clock compared to the tree sillouette bottom center)
Ursa Minor and Major (Polaris is at 1 o'clock compared to the tree sillouette bottom center)
Ursa Major and Minor
Ursa Major and Minor

And there I will leave you to dream of the stars.

Good night and sleep tight!