Have you ever found yourself staring up into the sky wishing you knew the name of that odd shaped star pattern, or had an endless debate with someone about what exactly that really bright object was; a planet or a star but never went as far to find out?Well that is the naturally curious astronomer seeping out of you and it definitely should not be ignored.Many people find they have a strong desire to know more about what they gazing at on those beautifully crystal clear nights but feel thanks to the likes of popular culture we imagine we have to be a brain box like Jodie Foster in Contact to really grasp the wonders the sky has to offer! To be honest, astronomy is one of the sciences left where amateurs can still make important discoveries and aid the advancement of the celestial science! Take for Instance Thomas Bopp who was a construction worker by day and an amateur astronomer by night. You might remember what spectacular celestial object he helped co-discover back in 1995….that’s right the famous Hale-Bopp Comet! What’s even more humbling about the discovery is that he spotted it using a friend’s telescope! So grab your binoculars and telescopes or just use your unaided eye and we’ll use the beautifully crisp and clear skies of November to get your astronomy bug started!
To begin with it may be simpler to start off using the naked eye to work your way around the night sky, get yourself familiar with your bearings and basically figure out if your chosen area for stargazing has too much light pollution for you to see anything.Also do not forget to wrap up warm before venturing outside as it is extremely chilly at this time of the year but these early dark skies are well worth it!An excellent pattern to discover if you live in a heavily light polluted area is the Great Square of Pegasus!Looking high to the West at about 11:00pm search for a pattern of four stars that form a big square which can guide you through the autumn sky.If you can’t see any stars within the Square you live in an area that is affected by lots of light pollution.But remember give your eyes 20 minutes to adapt to the dark sky before you pass any judgement, our eyes need those 20 minutes to fully adapt to the darkness and therefore pick up more of what the night sky has to offer.Now when your outside and you have got your bearings you will most likely need something to aid you in discovering exactly what you are looking at and the best tool for that is the planisphere!Click here for a free downloadable Planisphere! Some prefer the sturdiness of a bought planisphere and we have a great Philip’s Planisphere available here at the Armagh Planetarium, you might find it could make a great Christmas gift this year! The Planisphere itself is quite simple to use, comprised of two adjustable disks that rotate on a pivot that you can adjust to the exact date you are looking up at the sky. Another useful tool if you find you have a good memory is the use of Stellarium on your desktop or laptop. This is an excellent and free 3D planetarium with realistic skies that you can download onto your computer and adjust to your location and time! As well as these if you are quite into gadgets with the modern android mobiles and iPads you can also download many great stargazing apps that can help you get to grips with the night sky by just holding up your android phone or tablet to the sky to reveal what exactly you are looking at, such as the planetariums own “Pocket Sky”app available from iTunes!
Now you are in your back garden or you’re on a cosy camping trip in the mountains for your first big night dedicated to the night sky, what do you look for first!Well with the naked eye there are so many treats in store for you, especially during the autumn months and luckily we have one of the brightest constellations the night sky has to offer glaring at us in the South-East, the great Orion the Hunter. You may have heard of this pattern in passing before or may have heard just about his belt in famous movies, but it’s not just the name of a cat that had an entire galaxy on its collar, (for any Men in Black movie buffs out there) it’s the constellation that is hoarding the largest amount of bright stars in the night sky. It is a constellation that is very hard to miss due to the amount of bright stars and their distinctive layout. There are a few particular stars that are amazing to behold. First up we have Betelgeuse, the Red Supergiant star that marks Orion’s left shoulder, shining at an impressive -6.02 absolute magnitude it is very hard to miss taking its place as the 2nd brightest star in Orion and the 8th brightest star in the night sky!! Moving to the right shoulder we have Bellatrix, and no it’s not the creepy ‘Deatheater’ from the popular Harry Potter movies but a Blue Giant Star, smaller than Betelgeuse but still infinitely superior to the size of our Sun measuring over 8 times larger than our humble home star. Unlike most stars it’s the high temperature of Bellatrix that accounts for its luminosity rather than its size with a magnitude of 1.64. Lasting we have a blue jewel on the right foot of Orion, Rigel, the Blue Supergiant which is beautiful to behold! It is the brightest star in Orion with a magnitude of -7.84 and the 6th brightest star in the night sky. It is so bright it is over 110,000 times more luminous that our Sun! So to the naked eye these are great stars to pick out to define Orion and once discovered you can extend your knowledge of the night sky easily with this fruitful pattern.
Orion is just one of my personal constellation favourites but there are many other that can help you get started.Orion himself is apparently about to ‘hit’ another very popular pattern in the shape of Taurus the Bull, a bright pattern that has a very distinctive fiery red eye by the name of Aldebaran. The Arabic meaning of the word Aldebaran is the ‘Follower’ as it appears to follow a very well-known star cluster across the night sky, the Pleiades, located in what would be the shoulder of the bull.Also known as the ‘Seven Sisters’ this beautiful open star cluster is easily spotted by the naked eye with an apparent magnitude of 1.6.
Planets are also visible to the naked eye if you know what you’re looking for.The best planet to look for during November is the gas giant Jupiter. It rises within Taurus in the east and looks like an abnormally bright star. Over a few weeks and months it will travel throughout different patterns as planets are much closer than the stars themselves.
Furthering your astronomical curiosity with stargazing toys!
So you have seen the wonders of the night sky that’s available to the unaided eye and your itching to see more, well maybe it’s time for the next step, Binoculars, or depending on how brave your feeling, a small telescope!The patterns we have already discussed alone can reveal some extra details and wonders hidden within them.Binoculars have many pro’s that can encourage you to venture down this field.Obviously they give you the ability to use both eyes and give you a wider field of view, so can be excellent for learning the constellations in more detail without the complications you can find with telescopes.Many deep sky objects are clearly visible using a pair of binoculars including the Orion nebula located just slightly to the right of the ‘sword’ hanging from the majestic Hunters belt or even the most distant object we can see with the naked eye, the Andromeda galaxy! For more detailed information on magnifications and so forth when buying a pair of binoculars take a look at the video below.
If you’re feeling you can go that bit further you can also consider a telescope.With many types, brands and makes out there, it can get confusing.Basically there are four types of telescopes with the refractor and reflector being the main types. The refractor would be the telescope most commonly thought of in popular culture with a large scope and one eye and a small eyepiece at the other. In smaller sizes they can be good value for money but the bigger you go, as with most things in life, the more you pay! The reflector telescope is similar to the refractor but instead uses a mirror instead of a lens. The light travels down the tube and is collected by the mirror which is then reflected to a smaller mirror into the eyepiece. A big advantage of this type of telescope is you would get more light gathering ability for your money as a 10 inch mirror would cost you much less than a 10 inch lens on a refractor telescope. Although the disadvantage is if you put a refractor and a reflector against each other in a war of stellar viewing, the refractor would produce the higher quality show. For more details on which type to go for or if you and your wallet are feeling adventurous and think you could take on the more expensive Catadioptric telescopes click here.
The month of November give great skies for both the amateur and the experienced astronomer.There is even the chance of the Leonid meteor shower radiating from the constellation of Leo on the 17th but unfortunately it peaks whilst the Sun has well and truly disguised them in her glow around 9.30am on the 17th. It is still worth well trying to catch any premature specs of dust in the dark hours before morning if you are willing to bear the cold and lack of sleep. And don’t forgot any who are starting off stargazing this month the many wonders some of the closest objects have to take in, including our wonderfully bright Moon. A pair of binoculars can easily reveal a view of the Moon which you will never forget. The best time for lunar gazing is early in the November months just after the full moon in October and the end of November with the full Moon on the 28th. All’s left to say is good luck if you’re just starting out and fingers crossed we have crystal clear skies throughout this chilly month! And remember there are many great magazines and apps to help you if you ever get stuck and also our website if full of information on the night sky.
(Article by Kerry Scullion, Education Support Officer)