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It’s prime time for the sky show in your backyard

Ready for a star party?

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on summer star parties and other public gatherings, and skywatching isn’t exactly the kind of thing best done via a Zoom session. But you can still experience the wonders of the universe, just by looking up into dark, clear skies.

“The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide,” a newly published handbook by science writer David Dickinson, can help you do it.

“I pitch it as a star party in a book,” Dickinson explained.

This week is the summer’s big week for skywatchers:

  • The Globe at Night campaign is asking citizen scientists to report what they see in evening skies, to assess the effects of light pollution.
  • The Perseid meteor shower peaks on the nights of Aug. 10-13.
  • Four planets are on view: Jupiter and Saturn after sunset, and Mars and Venus before sunrise.
  • Although now is not the best time for Americans to spot the International Space Station, you just might be able to track the latest batch of SpaceX Starlink satellites as the stream across the sky. (Plug in your coordinates on Heavens-Above.com to check viewing times.)

Dickinson’s guide is designed to cover the more established targets of the night sky, ranging from the constellations to star clusters, nebulae and galaxies.

Forty-four sky charts, organized by month, point out wonders that can be found with the naked eye, with binoculars or with a telescope like the one that Dickinson sets up in his backyard or on the top floor of a nearby parking garage.

“Your observatory is wherever you’re observing,” he said.

Backyard Astronomer's Field Guide
“The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide” is spiral-bound for convenient use in the field. (Page Street Publishing / Laura Benton)

Dickinson also provides context that goes beyond latitude and longitude: Which naked-eye stars have planets orbiting them? What are the myths behind the constellation’s names, and what did other cultures see in them? What makes a planetary nebula “planetary”?

The guide includes a list of online tools, websites and publications to help you plot out your observing strategy — including Stellarium, a free planetarium program that’s priceless.

So what are the best deep-sky objects to turn your telescope toward while you’re waiting for the Perseids? Dickinson recommends M13, a globular star cluster in Hercules, the Ring Nebula in Lyra, the variable star Algol (a.k.a. the Demon Star) in Perseus … and Epsilon Lyrae, the “double-double” star in the constellation Lyra.

The double-double is famous, but somehow it was left out of the deep-sky catalog created by French astronomer Charles Messier in the 1700s. “I was always amazed that he missed things like the double-double,” Dickinson said.

You’re unlikely to repeat Messier’s mistake, as long as you have Dickinson’s field guide sitting next to your lounge chair (preferably consulted by the light of a red flashlight to preserve your night vision).

To celebrate the summer’s big week for skywatching — and reward you for reading down this far — I’m giving away a copy of “The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide.” Just be the first to answer this Cosmic Log quiz question in the comment section below:

What is the name of the closest planetary nebula to Earth?

The first person to answer correctly, based on my assessment of the time stamp, will be eligible to receive the book by mail (U.S. postal addresses only). If I can’t get in touch with that person via email in a timely fashion, I’ll move on to the next person on the list.

Back in the old days, Cosmic Log was known for its community of commenters, and I’m hoping we can revive that spirit. If you have a favorite night-sky object to observe, or a favorite resource for skywatching, pass it along in a comment. Your recommendation may end up in a future Cosmic Log roundup.

Update for 11:25 a.m. PT Aug. 9: We have a winner! Boris Zuchner was the first to answer the quiz question correctly, with an assist by Professor Google. As revealed on page 160 of “The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide,” the closest planetary nebula to Earth is the Helix Nebula, a.k.a. NGC 7293. Assuming that Boris’ mailing address is in the United States, he’ll be able to look that fact up himself in the future, thanks to the book I’ll be sending him.

As I wrote in the comments, don’t be a stranger! It took me a while to approve the comments this time around, but I’ll try to be faster on the draw for the next book giveaway.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

16 replies on “It’s prime time for the sky show in your backyard”

I’ll watch the comments here … If it looks as if you’re the first to answer the quiz question correctly, and I haven’t responded within, say, three hours, feel free to send a message to alan-at-cosmiclog-dot-com.

Hi Alan. The Helix nebula is the closest. I love looking at this object when I get a chance, affectionately known as God’s Eye!

Hi Alan. The Helix nebula is the closest. I love looking at this celestial object when I get a chance, affectionately known as God’s Eye!

Hey Alan, it’s the Helix nebula, affectionately known as God’s Eye, and one of my favorite celestial objects to look at in the sky!

Took me a while to get back to this and approve the comments (including some that WordPress incorrectly marked as spam). Based on the time stamps, Boris Zuchner is the winner. Boris, I’d love it if you could send your postal address to me at alan-at-cosmiclog-dot-com. And to everyone else, thanks for commenting … don’t be a stranger! It won’t be long until the next book giveaway.

Do you mean how to set up a backyard telescope? I’ll put that on the list, but entire books could be written about choosing and using a telescope.

Here are a few links to get you by:

Space.com: https://www.space.com/14485-skywatching-telescopes-beginners-guide.html

Universe Today: https://www.universetoday.com/19222/how-to-use-a-telescope/

Sky & Telescope: https://skyandtelescope.org/astronomy-equipment/telescope-buying-guide/

For what it’s worth, I have an 8-inch Orion reflector with a Dobsonian mount that I can carry out of the garage to look at the moon and planets … and maybe some deep-sky targets with the aid of David’s book. David has an 8-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with a heavy-duty equatorial mount.

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