This week, let’s dip into the email bag and see what we find.
You are a big nerd. I went outside with one of those star maps you sell at Perkins Observatory to try to find the Big Dipper. I could see the stars okay, but I couldn’t see those little lines. What gives?
Jimmy Smith, age 10
Because of light pollution, you can’t see those little lines from inside the city. You have to observe under dark, rural skies to see them.
Ha! Old Tom is just kidding. But seriously, I’m not a nerd. I’m an astronerd — and proud of it.
Even when you can see the lines, stargazing can be difficult. Some of the stars will be invisible because of outside lighting. What you need is a handy-dandy, sure-fire, four-step, springtime program to find your first constellations. Here goes:
Step 1 — Point to Polaris: Around 10 p.m., go outside and look north and hold your star map with the word “North” at the bottom. High in the sky will be the familiar stars of the Big Dipper, which this time of year looks upside down before midnight. Around the Dipper, you may see some fainter stars that form the head and body of Ursa Major, the Big Bear, of which the Dipper is the brightest part. Hint: The handle of the Dipper is the long tail of a very strange-looking bear.
Now find the far left stars of the Dipper. They are called the “pointer stars” because they point down toward the horizon to a relatively faint star called Polaris. The North Star, as it is more commonly known, always maintains its northerly position because the entire sky apparently rotates around it. Follow the faint arc of stars to the right to locate the rest of the Little Dipper, known to astronerds like me as Ursa Minor, the Little Bear. Congratulations! You’ve found your second constellation.
Step 2 — Arc to Arcturus: Now shift you eyes back to the Big Dipper and turn the map until “East” is at the bottom. Find its handle, and follow the arc of stars toward the east until you come to a very bright star called Arcturus. You are now looking low on the eastern horizon.
Look to the left of Arcturus to find the rest of the bright stars in the kite-shaped constellation Bootes, the Herdsman. Bootes is apparently lying down on the job, since he extends along the eastern horizon.
Step 3 — Speed on to Spica: Continue the arc to the southeast, tilting the map accordingly, until you come to a slightly fainter star called Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, the Maiden. Don’t confuse Spica with the bright planet Saturn, which is to its left. Since Spica is so close to the horizon, you probably won’t be able to see the other, much fainter stars in Virgo.
Step 4 — Reach for Regulus: Go back to the Big Dipper and flip the star map over so that “South” is on the bottom. Use the pointer stars to direct your vision south, over the top of the sky, until you come to a group of stars that look like a backwards question mark. The bright star at the bottom of the question mark is Regulus, the Little King, the brightest star in Leo, the Lion. You should be able to trace out the outline of Leo, since its stars are relatively bright. You won’t find that bright “star” at the bottom of Leo on your star map because it isn’t a star at all. It’s the planet Mars.
Take heart, Jimmy. Permanent astro-nerdhood is just a trip outside away!
Yes, they are still there, but if you want to see the Great Jupiter/Venus Conjunction of 2012, you’d better get outside pronto.
Bright Jupiter is low in the western sky during deep evening twilight. Even brighter Venus is above it. Above them both is a pretty, naked-eye star cluster called the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. Venus will pass right through the Pleiades during the evening of April 3. Get out your binoculars that night.
By 10 p.m., ruddy Mars is high in the SSE in Leo. Saturn is just peeking over the southeastern horizon. Look for it to the left of the bright star Spica in the constellation Virgo — a nice view!
Tom Burns is director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory in Delaware and he’s glad to hear from you. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.