A Road Map To The Night Sky

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One of the Rim Country's nicest traits is its dark skies.

Because Payson is 50 miles from the glow of street lamps and porch lights in Fountain Hills, it is an easy place to view the stars.

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Ursa Minor illustration (from www.amastro.org/at/ds/dslmld.gif)

Just head outside on a clear night and gaze up -- entertainment humanity can still indulge in for free.

Skies will be darkest when the moon is new on Oct. 22, Nov. 20 and Dec. 20.

The Big Dipper which is part of the constellation Ursa Major can be found by looking north. It appears upside down.

From the bright star at the edge of the cup trace a line south by southeast to Polaris, the bright star on the handle of the Little Dipper or "Ursa Minor."

You can use the Little Dipper to determine how able you are at discerning faint stars, satellites and planets.

Polaris is a magnitude 2 star. (There is a 2.1 magnitude star at the base of the cup but it is further away and so does not look quite as bright.) Other stars comprising the Little Dipper range from magnitude 3 to 6. For perspective, six is considered the naked-eye limit, 9 or 10 is the binocular limit and 12 or 13 is the six inch telescope limit.

Constellations near Polaris --"The North Star" -- are visible year round.

East of Polaris is the ‘w' of constellation Cassiopeia. East of it are the ‘V' of Pisces and Aries.

The Pleiades star cluster can be seen of the northeast tip of Aries.

Binoculars can be helpful to see primary stars in constellations. The East Valley Astronomy Club also recommends a flashlight with a red LED lens and a planisphere.

If you do not have a planisphere, you can download a star map for your own educational purposes from www.skymaps.com.

East by southeast of Polaris and Cassiopeia is the fuzzy light of the Andromeda Galaxy.

The constellation Orion is visible east by northeast of Cassiopeia later at night and as fall gives way to winter, his "feet" may seem to scrape the treetops.

The red planet Mars is hidden in the sun's glare until mid-December when it can be found again in the early morning skies.

Keeping a note pad and pen handy to jot down your constellation observations, what time and where in the sky you observed a particular constellation (there are a total of 88), will help you become familiar with the movement of stars.

Anything beyond the Earth's atmosphere will twinkle due to its distorting effect, so planets and stars appear to twinkle.

Planets move relative to the background of stars.

For instance, on Jan. 13, 2002 Mars was near the Circlet in Pisces. A month later it was inside the constellation.

The best chance of seeing a meteor burn up in the atmosphere will be around 2 a.m. on Nov. 19. So, a thermos of hot cocoa, coffee or tea is another handy item for the amateur astronomer.

A good guide for viewing can be found on the Internet at http://stardate.org/

It tells what planets and constellations are visible from your vantage point on any given day and the points of reference to find them.

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