Going the distance

A telescope at John Bryan State Park in Yellow Springs. A telescope at John Bryan State Park in Yellow Springs.

Stargazing into the final frontier

By Emma Jarman

A telescope at John Bryan State Park in Yellow Springs.

A telescope at John Bryan State Park in Yellow Springs.

Did you know that a meteor shower is not made up of shooting stars or comets? Or that the North Star is not the brightest star in the sky? In fact the glowing flashes we see alighting through the night sky during a meteor shower are tiny bits of dust, about the size of a grain of sand and actually part of a comet’s tail, burning up as the earth’s atmosphere envelopes them. And the North Star is actually pretty dim; it’s just the only star that is always in the same place every night (Look north and find the Big Dipper. The two stars furthest from the handle point to the North Star). The nuances of the night sky may seem elusive and untouchable, and while you can’t actually reach out and touch them (no one has except for the moon – and even that’s under speculation), there are many ways through which we can feel closer to our universe and discover the secrets of the stars.

In fact, remnants of the Perseid meteor shower that peaked last weekend can still be seen up to a week before and after the main event, so if you can find a clear, dark spot once the sun goes down you may see some activity. Get your wishes ready, folks.

If you really want to get in on the astral action, there are first a few things you should know. If you’re a beginner stargazer, or someone with mild interest and undetermined span of attention towards hobbies, don’t run out and purchase a telescope right away. You don’t need many bells and whistles to see what you’ll be able to find as a beginner.

“Telescopes will set you back about $400,” said Bob Connell, president of the Miami Valley Astronomical Society (MVAS), “but they can go up as high as $4,000.”

“We really suggest people find a nice star map or a book and a pair of binoculars instead of jumping out and purchasing a telescope,” said Cherie Adams, director of the astronomy department at the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery in Dayton.

Binoculars, unlike the intense focus of a telescope, let beginners and children see a much broader view of the night sky. Rather than looking at single stars or pinpointing particular planets as more advanced astronomers or astrophotographers are inclined to do, a good pair of binoculars allow you to see not only magnified stars, but also their relationships with others and their positions in comparison with others and how they fit into constellations. While telescopes isolate images, binoculars see the entire sky. If you bring along a star map (which can be easily printed off the Internet from a google search of the term) and plan on using a flashlight to see it, make sure to cover the flashlight with a piece of red paper or cloth before clicking it on.

“Use a red filter flashlight to view your star map,” said Adams. “Then it doesn’t hurt your night vision and allows you to be able to acclimate to the darkness.”

But a red filter flashlight won’t help much if the light pollution in your chosen stargazing spot clouds the night sky to begin with. When choosing the perfect spot to see the most stars, look for areas without too many tall trees or buildings that may hinder your ability to get a good view. There should be complete darkness, away from any city or neighborhood lights.  Connell recommends state parks such as at the Englewood Dam or John Bryan State Park, where an observatory is set up and plenty of open air is readily available.
Unfortunately for you, if you’re in the circulation area of this paper, you probably live near a city or in a suburb with lots of trees and neighborhoods. Fortunately, though, for the amateur stargazer, you don’t need perfect dark to see some fantastic things.

“Being near a city or in a city you definitely have issues with lighting that really hamper things. In a neighborhood where you might have older trees that would be obscuring our view or houses close together or multistories, that makes it hard,” said Adams. “But it doesn’t mean that you can’t do it. You might be limited but it’s always accessible to some extent. Just because you might not be under pristine conditions doesn’t mean you can’t observe and enjoy. The sky is available to everybody.”

The best times to gaze at the stars are in the winter, said Connell, since the nights are longest and the air is clearest. Full moons, while romantic and eerie, are not the best times to peer into the heavens, added Adams. But summer and fall are the most comfortable times to and there is always plenty to see. New moons (about halfway between each full moon – moon calendars are also available to print off the Internet through a quick Google search) are the best time to see the most during any season. For summer, though, the best thing to look for and the most readily identifiable is the Summer Triangle.

The Summer Triangle is a conglomeration of three stars, all part of different constellations, that form -you guessed it- a bright triangle in the middle of the up-high. It can be viewed with the naked eye, through binoculars or with a telescope. Seeking out these groupings of stars makes the activity of stargazing worthwhile. It’s always nice to feel accomplishment, and when your progress can be documented, for instance, through checking the Summer Triangle off your star map, it’s great incentive to keep looking.

If you’d like a little help getting started, or would rather have the constellations pointed out to you rather than fumbling over a star map (shouldn’t there be an app for that by now?), a good idea would be to attend a meeting or two of MVAS. The society is open to the public, to amateur and seasoned stargazers, and holds meetings every second Friday of each month at the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery. Membership is free and resources are endless should you be interested in pursuing this hobby. The Boonshoft Museum also has a number of programs for kids and adults focused on learning about not just the night sky, but the sun and the moon as well.
For more information regarding the Miami Valley Astronomical Society visit their website at www.mvas.org. The Boonshoft Museum of Discovery’s astronomy department can be reached at (937) 275-7431 and information can be found online at www.boonshoftmuseum.org.

Reach DCP freelance writer and editorial intern Emma Jarman at EmmaJarman@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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