Star-gazing (the old-fashioned kind)

I went out star-gazing last night with some astronomical binoculars I purchased a month and a half ago.

We’ve been having the most incredible beautiful clear sunny days here … and clear sunny days mean clear night skies – an amateur astronomer’s delight. I made my way down to McDonald Park, a nice reasonably-dark-sky site near Abbotsford that the Fraser Valley Astronomy society has worked to keep dark.

I’m just starting out in amateur astronomy, so I made a classic rookie mistake: not checking or remembering the position and phase of the moon. It was almost full, and VERY bright. Seriously, it was bright enough to cast high-contrast shadows. It was bright enought to read by.

Still, I had some fun scanning the brigher objects in the night sky, such as Orion. It always amazes me that so many people have no clue where the Orion constellation is or what it looks like. It’s so clear, so bright, and so obvious, that if it is once pointed out to you, you will recognize it for the rest of your life.

Look for this pattern in the night sky:

Three bright stars make up Orion’s belt. He’s a hunter, and his left shoulder is Betelgeuse, a red giant star that is the 12th brightest in Earth’s night sky. His right leg is Rigel, even brighter. And to the right an arc of stars shows the position of his bow.

Once you see this pattern, you’ll never forget it. But you’ll only see it in winter, at least if you’re in the Northern hemisphere, since that’s when our part of the planet points in his part of the Milky Way galaxy.

I also looked for a time to the north, trying to pick out comet Macholz, but with no success. I’m not sure if that was due to a mountain range between me and the northern horizon, or just my inability to pick it up.

And, of couse, I had to spend some time just ogling the moon – so bright in my binoculars that my eyes almost started watering. The huge rayed crater Tycho was spell-binding. (Go to this picture, look at the bottom part of the moon, and see the large impact crater with rays springing up across a quarter of the moon’s surface: that’s Tycho.)

It was short but sweet … next time I’ll have to time it better and get a darker sky.