A different version of this originally appeared in the Westchester Examiner newspaper’s April 28, 2020 issue. If you like it, I hope you’ll click through to their website.
On a warm, clear night a week or two ago, I got dinner on and off the table and stepped out to my favorite south-facing spot. As the last of the shadows dissolved around me, my phone rang. Not video, just a regular voice call from an old friend. While star after star popped into the night, like bubbles in a glass of champagne, we chatted about old times and talked about today’s scary, abbreviated life.
Though we need to be apart, we can still look out across the galaxy together. We can take comfort in knowing, with some differences, we’re all connected to, and by, the same sky. It’s all ours, and it’s all free. Every night, it’s the same sky all over your town, across the country, and around the world. The position and timing of the stars might change, but the patterns themselves are the same everywhere. Though, there are some stars that you can only see from one side of the equator or the other.
With nothing but your eyes, just you and the sky, there’s something amazing to see every night of the year, even without a telescope, pristine darkness. The Moon’s phases change, new patterns of stars come and go with the seasons, and the planets wander through the sky every night. This is an especially good time to look, too. While people have been traveling less, pollution is lower, and the night skies have seemed clearer than they have in recent memory.
These uncomfortable times give us a chance to have something of a social distancing star party! Invite anyone you want. No lenses needed! Here are few things to get started.
Do you ever spot the Moon one night and point to remind to yourself — maybe a little too loud for passers by — that it’ll be in that seemingly blank patch of sky tomorrow night? Well, now’s your chance. The next full Moon is tomorrow night, May 7, and it happens to be a supermoon.
Let’s check the Moon out tonight, and also as we go off into the weekend, and notice when it rises each night, and what the far-off stars around it look like when it does. What phase is it in? How does the terminator, the line that separates the lunar day from night look? Is it curved? Can you see any shadows stretching across its face?
Tonight, May 6, the Moon will look mostly full anslike it’s near the flamboyantly named Zubenelgenubi, in the constellation Libra. By Friday, (May 8), it’ll be near one of the most summery of stars, Antares, over in Scorpius.
Okay, now in the northern hemisphere, let’s look to the north and find the Big Dipper or Plough. For now, it’s high toward the top of the sky, upside down, pouring soup onto your neighbors’ roofs. If you watch from night to night, or even hour to hour, you’ll see the Dipper turn, and revolve counterclockwise around the sky. It’s there, as steady and reliable as the sky itself, every night of the year. Six months from now, it’ll be just above the horizon, catching the soup it poured this month (things move slowly on an astronomical time scale). Look closely at Mizar, the second star from the end of its handle. Can you also see the Alcor, the dimmer star just off to its side? These two were famously part of an ancient vision test. Try it for yourself! They’re actually six stars – two at Alcor, and four at Mizar, but their distance has squeezed them into just two dots in the night.
Next, follow the curve of the Dipper’s handle away from the bowl. The next bright star you see is Arcturus, the second brightest we can see in our night sky. It’s an old red giant, nearing the end of its life. Billions of years from now, when our Sun has used up most of the hydrogen that powers it, it will cool and grow into a star similar to Arcturus.
Or maybe do my favorite thing of all: just look. Don’t worry about names, or distances, or constellations or any of it. Just look, and imagine… space. What’s it like there or there, or there? What’s hiding in that seemingly empty gap overhead? Let your mind go anywhere it wants.
It’s tough these days, but little by little we’re making our way though. I hope you can look up this month. Drop me a line and let me know what you see. We’ll be on the other side, and be better for it, before we know it.
Thanks for stopping by, everyone. Be safe, and clear skies!