Become a backyard astronomer

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The Milky Way, visible at the Green Bank Observatory, with the Tatel Telescope in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Green Bank Obseravtory

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

In the summertime, the night sky is aglow with stars, planets and, of course, the moon. It’s a tapestry of twinkling specks you can enjoy from the comfort of your own backyard.

Pocahontas County residents and visitors to the area usually seek out the experts at the Green Bank Observatory to gain a better understanding of what they are seeing at night, but in these days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are left to ask ourselves – “What constellation is that?”

Never fear, star lovers, there are plenty of online resources, and GBO employees Amanda White and Luci Finucan have a few tips that will help anyone become a novice astronomer.

“West Virginia has some of the darkest skies in the eastern United States, and stargazing is a great activity for this time of year – and this time in our society,” White said. “There are a few great resources that I always recommend.

You can find free, printable resources at skymaps.com

“The evening sky maps are a useful tool for navigating the night sky and beginning the journey into stargazing.”

There is also free planetarium software available for download at stellarium.org

For those who need guidance in using the software, Finucan has created an instructional video series which can be found on the Green Bank Observatory YouTube channel.

Finucan added that stargazers can find information on websites Sky and Telescope – https://skyandtelescope. org/astronomy-resources/getting-started-in-astronomy/ – and SeaSky – http://www.seasky.org/astronomy/as tronomy-calendar-2020.html
As for identifying constellations, planets and individual stars, Finucan provided the following:

• The Big Dipper and the Little Dipper are not actually constellations. They are asterisms. Asterisms are shapes that are easily recognizable in the night sky by connecting the stars. They, in fact, are not part of the 88 official constellations astronomers use to map the sky.

• The Big Dipper is part of the Ursa Major – big bear – and the Little Dipper is the Ursa Minor – the little bear.

• Ursa Minor is very important for navigation as the star at the end of the bear’s tail – or the dipper’s handle – is the North Star, Polaris. The most common way to find Polaris is by following the two stars at the end of the Big Dipper’s cup.

• Because Ursa Minor and Ursa Major are so close to Polaris, they will be in the sky all year.

The visibility of constellations depends on the season – certain constellations are only visible during certain seasons. For example, Orion is only visible during the winter.

In the summer, constellations such as Lyra, Cygnus, Aquila, Pegasus, Hercules, Sagittarius and Capricornus, Cassiopeia and Leo are all visible. See sidebar for instructions on how to make constellation cards for some of these.

The night sky has much more to offer than stars.

On July 5, there will be a lunar eclipse throughout most of North America.

“It’s always a beautiful sight,” Finucan said.

Mercury will be visible on the mornings of July 15 through August 1 and the evenings of September 17 to October 8.

Venus will also be visible in the morning sky at dawn through December 31 of this year.

Mars can be seen in the morning sky through October 12.

Jupiter will be at its brightest July 11 through 16, and for those who are super early risers or maybe late to bed types, Saturn will be visible before dawn between now and July 19.

Uranus and Neptune are also visible in the morning during the summer – Uranus from now to October 30; and Neptune, through September 10.

It doesn’t take high-tech instruments and a Master’s degree to be an amateur stargazer.

Anyone can take up the hobby and become well-versed in no time.

Finucan offers the following tips for stargazers of all ages:

• You’ll be able to see the most stars and planets on a clear night with a new moon.

• If you’re trying to determine what color an object is, look at it straight-on. If you’re trying to see a very dim object, try to view it from the “corner of your eye.” This will help, due to the structure of your eyeball.

• Wait about 10 minutes before trying to find something pretty faint. That will give your eyes time to adjust to the darkness.

• You don’t have to use a telescope or even binoculars to see some fun things. Jupiter and Saturn will be in the southern sky all summer and when there’s a new moon, residents of Pocahontas County should be able to see the Milky Way.

• Hunting binoculars or scopes on rifles can be used to get a closer look at some stellar objects, too. If you point your lens at Mizar in the Big Dipper, you should be able to distinguish two different stars – Mizar and a second, Alcor. They’re not a binary star system – they don’t orbit each other. They just appear very close because of the position of our solar system in line with them.

• If you need to bring a flashlight or lantern outside with you to stargaze and/or look at a map, cover it in red cellophane or paint it with red nail polish. Red light won’t ruin your night vision as much as white light.

With a summer full of night skies ahead of us, there will be plenty to see and experience.

How to make Summer Constellation Cards

Printed with this article are illustrations of seven summer constellations.

Cut the illustrations out, lay them on top of a piece of paper to use them as a guide. Take a needle and poke through each star on the illustration, ensuring the needle goes all the way through.

Once that is done, use a marker or pen to connect the dots.

Cover the dots with star or glow-in-the-dark stickers to complete your very own constellation card.

On the back of each card, you can include descriptions – which are included below – of the constellations.

Use the cards when you are stargazing to help with identification or play a fun match the card to the sky game.

Lyra – The Harp

One of the 48 listed by the second century astronomer Ptolemy and one of the 88 constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union. Its name was inspired by Greek Mythology. Orpheus, the musician, so skillfully played his lyre that even the beasts were mesmerized by his beautiful music. When he died, his lyre was put in the night sky by Zeus.

Cygnus – The Swan

A northern constellation lying on the plane of the Milky Way. Cygnus is one of the most recognizable constellations. Cygnus features the asterism named the Northern Cross. Cygnus is Greek for swan. Mythology states that after his death, Orpheus was transformed into a swan and placed next to his lyre.

Aquila – The Eagle

Aquila is a constellation on the celestial equator. Its brightest star, Altair, is one vertex of the Summer Triangle asterism. In Greek Mythology, Aquila was the eagle who carried Zeus’ thunderbolts.

Pegasus

A constellation in the northern sky, named after the winged horse in Greek Mythology. The Greek hero Bellerophon captured Pegasus and rode him to defeat a monster. However, Bellerophon fell off the winged horse and Zeus turned him into the constellation Pegasus.

Hercules

This constellation, named for one of the most famous heroes in Greek Mythology is the fifth-largest of the modern constellations. Hercules was the son of Zeus and was known for his strength and acts of heroism.

Sagittarius – The Archer

Located in the southern celestial hemisphere, Sagittarius is one of the zodiac constellations. Its name is Latin for The Archer. Sagittarius is a centaur – half-human, half-horse, holding a bow and arrow. His arrow is pointing at the heart of Scorpio – The Scorpion – represented by the reddish star Antares – in the night sky.

Capricornus – Capricorn

Another zodiac constellation, Capricornus is Latin for horned goat or goat horn. In Greek Mythology a Capricorn is a half-goat, half-fish creature. The constellation is also considered to symbolize the horn of Capricorn, or the horn of plenty.