There’s a lot going on in the sky for the remainder of this year and our guests discuss the upcoming astronomical events and how you can watch them with the naked eye or with inexpensive binoculars and telescopes. We also discuss the importance and the fun of stargazing, where the best places are to watch the skies and how urban areas can change their lighting to make more heavenly bodies visible to their residents.
- Mario De Leo-Winkler, post-doctoral researcher for NASA-JPL and the University of California-Riverside
- Alan MacRobert, Senior Editor, Sky & Telescope magazine
16-14 Astronomical Wonders: What’s coming up this year?
Gary Price: Longfellow said that the stars are “The forget-me-nots of the angels.” Back in the 19th century when he lived, most people wouldn’t know much more than that about those magnificent objects twinkling in the heavens. Today, though, we know quite a bit about stars, as well as the moon, the planets in our solar system, comets, and asteroids. Yet, there is still something mysterious and poetic about gazing at the night sky and seeing a shooting star or the planet Venus. Why do we still wax romantic about the heavens?
Mario De Leo-Winkler: What still draws us to these beautiful, celestial phenomena is just how astonishing they are and how absolutely beautiful they are for all of us. I mean, just to watch a comet with your naked eye, or to see a shooting star in the night sky, or to be able to see these fantastic phenomena that happen just because everything is perfectly aligned such as lunar and solar eclipses just makes us feel how tiny we are compared to the universe and how much humankind has evolved to perfectly understand what is going on.
Price: That’s Mario De Leo-Winkler, a post-doctoral researcher for NASA-JPL and the University of California-Riverside, where he specializes in public outreach and education. Alan MacRobert agrees, and says there is nothing like being able to watch and learn about extraterrestrial objects first-hand. MacRobert is the Senior Editor at Sky & Telescope magazine…
Alan MacRobert: This is an outdoor nature hobby. It’s one thing to learn about these things out of books, magazines, websites. It’s another thing to go out and participate in the universe observing it yourself with your own eye. There is no privilege like being able to stand with and commune with the original, unmediated as opposed to reading about it in books.
Price: We asked both guests to let us in on what’s going to be going on in the sky over North America for the remainder of the year and the best way to view these events. There were already two eclipses: a total eclipse of the sun visible in Alaska and Hawaii on March 8th and 9th; and a penumbral lunar eclipse on March 23rd. That’s all of the eclipses for 2016, though next year there will be a lunar eclipse in February and a magnificent solar eclipse in August. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to see this year, though. De Leo-Winkler says there are several meteor showers on tap for sky gazers…
De Leo-Winkler: So there are three major showers that we will be able to see in the United States this year. The Eta Aquariids will happen before dawn on May the 5th. And the predicted number of shooting stars is 40 per hour. And this one in particular happens during a moonless night. So this is absolutely fabulous to be able to see in the United States this year.
Price: The next two meteor showers are huge – the Perseids and the Geminids…
De Leo-Winkler: The Perseids will happen before dawn on August the 12th and that one is the greatest meteor shower of the year with a prediction of 150 shooting stars per hour – that’s three shooting stars, more or less, every minute. Unfortunately this year it’s paired with a full moon. So what you will see is the brightest of those meteor showers and possibly not the 150 shooting stars that are predicted per hour. But it’s still worth to go out and see Perseids which is going to be on the eastern horizon on August the 12th. The Geminids, which you should be able to see before dawn on the eastern horizon on December 14th is the second biggest meteor shower of the year with 120 shooting stars per hour – that’s two per minute – predicted during the maximum. Unfortunately, too, this meteor shower will happen also during a full moon. So you will only be able to see the brightest shooting stars out of those 120 that are predicted during the maximum.
Price: De Leo-Winkler says that you don’t need any equipment to watch a meteor shower except a comfy lawn chair and maybe a thermos of coffee. No telescopes or binoculars required! And try to get away from light pollution if you’re in a larger urban area. The countryside is nice for the best viewing, but you can see those “shooting stars” even in the largest cities – if you’re patient. But what are those meteors showering down onto Earth anyway? And where do they come from?
De Leo-Winkler: It’s just debris that is left over from a comet that came by either some years ago or centuries ago that enters Earth’s atmosphere at thousands of miles per hour and just burns up. And it emits light as it’s burning up.
Price: There are some very interesting alignments of the planets this year, and we’ll get to that in a moment. First, though, if you want to look at planets in the sky, what kinds of equipment do you need? MacRobert says you can see many planets with the naked eye, but if you want a better look, an inexpensive telescope will work…
MacRobert: At the low-price end be very careful of what you get. Look for something on a dobsonian-style mounting. That means rather than a tall, flimsy tripod, a low boxy sort of mounting that swings up and down and side-to-side and maybe goes on a firm table, and that doesn’t advertise that it goes to very high power because you’re probably not going to be able to use very high power until you get skilled at finding things in the sky. The lower the power, the wider the field of view and the easier it is to point at something. And a small, portable, low-power, wide-field scope like this, if it’s high quality, is something that you’ll keep and use all your life – even if you go further in the hobby and get something really big and fancy and expensive later on.
Price: MacRobert says that you should avoid the trap of someone trying to sell you a “high-powered” telescope, too…
MacRobert: Scopes that are sold by “high power,” – if it says, “350 power” on the box – you know right away it’s being sold to ignorant people who don’t know what they’re getting. So you want to avoid it. If that’s what they think of you, you don’t want their product. Instead, be thinking of the aperture, that is how big the front lens or mirror is, and the general quality of construction and stability.
Price: You can also just use binoculars for a good look at the heavens…
MacRobert: Any binoculars that you happen to have already will be good; will be better than the naked eye. But if you’re getting binoculars specifically for astronomy, the bigger the front lenses the better. Up to about 10 power is about as high as magnification as you want to get if the binoculars are hand-held. Above that, they really need a tripod because they jiggle too much. So probably the favorite for amateur astronomy are the 10x50s or 8×50 size. But, again, anything you happen to have, make the most of it.
Price: So what about those alignments of the planets this year? De Leo-Winkler says there is going to be a spectacular one coming up this summer…
De Leo-Winkler: What we will be able to see in the night sky from August 13th to August 19th 2016 is the five major planets. So we’ll be able to see Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter at the same time. They’re easy to see, you don’t need a telescope, you just need to know which part of the sky you’re looking at and which ones are the planets. So Mercury is always the closest one to the sun, so it’s usually the one that’s closer to the horizon. Then Venus looks like a very bright star. Saturn is yellowish in color; you can detect it with the naked eye. Mars looks like a red star, although it’s a planet, so you can detect its reddish hue. And Jupiter looks like a very bright star.
Price: De Leo-Winkler says that if you have a small telescope, you can see the rings of Saturn and the four major moons of Jupiter. Speaking of moons, there are several “super moons” scheduled for this year, and according to EarthSky.org, the biggest one will appear this fall, on November 14th. De Leo-Winkler says that they’re “super” because of the distance between the Earth and the moon…
De Leo-Winkler: That’s the biggest full moon in the year. So, our moon has an elliptical orbit around the Earth, that means that it’s going to be sometimes farther or closer away from the Earth. And when one of those times when it’s closer to Earth matches the full moon, then it’s called a “super moon” and it’s very beautiful to see. It’s usually around 13% brighter and 33% larger, so it’s very nice to see.
Price: Light pollution in cities doesn’t affect how we see the moon and planets, since they’re so bright, but it can hurt viewing of the constellations and other astronomical phenomenon. MacRobert says that cities need to rethink their lighting needs to let everyone enjoy the night sky…
MacRobert: A lot of people are agitating, basically, for lighting, artificial outdoor lighting that is not stupid. That means fixtures that don’t waste light by sending light needlessly up in the sky wasting light, energy and electricity, but send all of their light down to the ground where it’s supposed to be. I mean, there’s no point in over-lighting, that is more light than is needed for the job at hand. And also, the best light for visibility at night it turns out is warm, white, amber-colored white light – not the dazzling blue-white light that too many municipalities are installing right now because that’s the cheapest LED lights that they can get. Then they think, “Oh, that LEDs just save money. We can make them brighter, and yeah if they’re blue, blue looks cool.” No, it doesn’t. It actually interferes with visibility at night and there’s no reason to have more light than is necessary. And, anyway, end of rant.
Price: Despite knowing so much about the planets, asteroids, comets and stars, De Leo-Winkler says that we’re still learning about how these heavenly bodies came to be, what they’re made of and how they might impact our little blue planet – and our lives – in the future. You can find out more about astronomy and see pictures and videos of space exploration and the night sky on the NASA website at NASA.gov. You can also learn more about UC-Riverside’s astronomy department and Mario De Leo-Winkler at physics.ucr.edu. Alan MacRobert invites listeners to visit his magazine’s website at Sky-the word “and” – Telescope.com (www.skyandtelescope.com). There you can find sky charts, podcasts and information about everything astronomical. To learn more about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.
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