Winter's here: Things are looking up

Thursday, November 8, 2012 - 03:28

With winter’s darkened skies, all we have to do is look skyward to behold a celestial extravaganza that includes planets, bright constellations, an upcoming meteor shower, the aurora borealis and a good look at the galaxy in which we live: the Milky Way.

Of course, with everyone looking down at their I-phones, it might be difficult persuading them to look up for some star gazing. But I guarantee, there is a visual feast in the heavens if we just take time to look.

During the month of November, the planet Jupiter is the most prominent sight in the sky, aside from the moon. It appears in the eastern and southern sky, and on November 1st and November 28, it will pass to within one degree of the full moon.

If you have a clear view to the southwest and not much light interference, in November you might catch a glimpse of Mars about 10 degrees above the horizon an hour after the sun goes down.

One of the bright winter constellations includes Orion the Hunter, which appears in the southern sky. Beneath the three stars that comprise the hunter’s belt is a faint, fuzzy blur that is the sword. It is actually a gaseous nebula that appears green through binoculars or a telescope. Astronomers say stars are being born in this nebula. In astronomical terms, it is quite close to earth at 1,344 light years. (One light year is about six trillion miles).

Not far from Orion is the star cluster Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters. Through binoculars its blue-white stars are quite a visual feast. Easy to spot in the northern sky is the Big Dipper, with the end of its ladle pointing upward to the North Star, Polaris. Polaris is an average star, but it’s dependable --- always in the north.

Cassiopeia, the woman in the chair (which really looks like a “W,”) is easily recognizable high overhead, as is the Great Square of Pegasus.

Sometimes if we look long enough, we’ll see satellites passing overhead -- generally on a south to north orbit.

Our galactic home: In Alaska we have many dark-sky locations from which to observe the galaxy in which we live: The Milky Way. As it stretches across the sky high overhead, it appears as a faint, wispy cloud. From earth’s position on one of the galaxy’s outer spiral arms, we are looking at our galaxy edge on -- as if we were looking at the edge of a phonograph record. Our galaxy is about 100,000 light years in diameter but only about 1,000 light years thick. It contains about 200 billion stars.

My first glimpse of the Milky Way from an extremely dark-sky location occurred in southwest Texas. It was nothing short of awe inspiring. At first I couldn’t figure out why there were clouds stretching across the entire sky on a perfectly clear night, and then I realized it was looking at the Milky Way — brighter than I had ever seen it.

Mark your calendar for November 17, when the Leonid Meteor Shower peaks. Hopefully we’ll have clear skies for that event. Look toward the northern sky in the vicinity of the Big Dipper.

A dark sky, layers of warm clothing, a lawn chair and a thermos of hot chocolate are essentials for comfortable (and patient) meteor shower viewing.

And then we have the granddaddy of celestial events, the aurora borealis, which should provide good viewing all winter since the sun is in an active phase of its 11-year cycle. Equip yourself with the same viewing essentials as you do for the meteor shower, and bring along a camera that has settings that allow you to keep the shutter open; along with a tripod.

The Eagle River Nature Center has astronomy programs in which local amateur astronomers provide interesting lectures and viewing opportunities through their telescopes. The Astronomy Series began in November and continues on the first and third Friday evening of the month through March 2013. An astronomer presents a special topic (approximately 1 to 1.5 hours) and answers your questions. If skies are clear, be ready to go outside and view the night sky, using your own binoculars or telescope, or share the ones set up by the astronomers. Children can earn a Junior Astronomer Certificate by attending 6 programs and completing “Star Notes”. Free program; $5 parking for non-members.

If you’re thinking about getting into amateur astronomy, one book I’d highly recommend is “Nightwatch,” by Terrence Dickinson. The book provides user-friendly star charts and a wealth of information on getting started, including do’s and don’ts regarding the purchase of telescopes.

Down here on Earth, with our computers, McDonald’s and Facebook pages, we feel quite remote from the stars in the night sky. But Spaceship Earth is part of the starry heavens, and if we take the time to look up and become acquainted with some of these celestial wonders, we might begin to sense that connection.


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. [email protected].

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