Distancing & Connecting Under the Sky

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.

Follow the Moon this week

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.

Don’t forget to

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!

11 Comments

    1. Hehe. Yeah, it’s true. I’m always… never sure if I should. I feel you, though, man. I don’t like the term and I feel a little dirty using it, but this time, at least, if it gets people to look up…

      Like, I don’t like nuts in brownies but if it’ll make you happy to have one, I’ll help you out.

      Like

  1. I used to dislike supermoon too.
    I’ve had a change of heart though – and here’s why.
    Outreach.
    People love being wowed by the astonishing facts of astronomy and supermoon holds one of them in an attractive package.
    The Moon gets closer and further away from Earth? Holy moly! I never thought of that before. I’ve got to tell my kid about the upcoming supermoon! That’s viral. That’s education. That’s outreach.
    Dan

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    1. Yes, it’s all about outreach and education. Everything that happens on this and many other wonderful sites are all about outreach and education. My hang-up with putting a lot of emphasis on supermoon (etc), as I say often, is that reality won’t live up to the hype.

      In all of the speaking I do, I make a point of using the word frequently (whenever it makes sense, not like… Supermoon supermoon supermoon supermoon over and over..) but also explaining that the *super* is only a little.

      The absolute last thing I’d want is for people to turn away disappointed, as some have commented here and on other sites I’ve been involved with. I’ve seen that wonder in people’s eyes, but also the frustrated disappointment, That’s the opposite of outreach.

      So, use sparingly and intelligently, I say, and manage the hype. With great power comes great responsibility.

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  2. The term supermoon itself doesn’t bother me, but the way supermoons are described in the popular press can be super misleading. Some people think the moon’s supposed to be two or three times bigger than usual, or something ridiculous like that, and then they’re disappointed when it looks basically the same as always.

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    1. See, but this is precisely why the term supermoon bothers me. It promises something that’s far from super.

      (Also, because all these “super wolf blood moon” terms derive from ASTROLOGY. Ugh.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, I’m definitely with you on wolf blood strawberry harvest etc moons. Super moon at least relates to the moon’s elliptical orbit, and there are interesting discussions to be had about that. Those other terms don’t really have anything to do with anything astronomy related.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I actually kind of like the names (wolf, etc) and used to use them until I got tired of them; just my own preference. Those names give us insight into the minds of people ages before us, and help connect us with our own past. Even the astrological connection, from that point of view, doesn’t bother me that much.

        For that, I’m very thankful. I just got tired of using them and then when you add in “super blood wolf moon,” it just becomes a muddy mess like “oven roasted organic free-range beet salad.”

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Right… (re. “super”)… that hype can be hard to manage, but it also suggests that there’s no reason to bother looking if it’s *NOT* super. But there’s something amazing every night of the year! Don’t wait for the super moon.

        Like I said in my other comments, I’ve seen people disappointed by the lack of super-ness. But, then again, if it gets even one person to look….

        Liked by 1 person

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