Backyard Astronomy

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"Backyard Astronomy"
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Gazing into the sky amounts to more than searching for the Big Dipper, although this well known constellation is certainly the appropriate starting place. Stargazing also includes other constellations, meteors, auroras, and comets. Recreational astronomers can begin sky-watching right in their own backyards by viewing craters and peaks on the Moon - plainly visible through binoculars

Many celestial objects are visible to even the naked eye - including meteors, auroras, and solar and lunar halos. Other views that the unaided eye may behold are moon-planet conjunctions and noctilucent clouds. The former represents a close gathering of planets or of planets and the Moon. Noctilucent clouds are seen at night around the time of summer solstice. One of the best places in the world to view these silvery-blue cirrus clouds is Edmonton, Alberta.

Before purchasing a telescope, it is recommended to use binoculars to view the sky. Binoculars are useful in viewing star clouds of the Milky Way, bright comets, lunar eclipses, and nebulas (gas clouds). Binoculars will also reveal star colours, four of Jupiter's largest moons, Uranus, Neptune, and the Andromeda Galaxy. They can assist the unaided eye to see through the light pollution of urban areas.

Binoculars are sold in a wide range of varieties, price ranges and weights. Popular sizes of binoculars include 7x50 and 10x50. The first number represents magnification; the second is the diameter in millimeters of the front lenses. The 7x50 binoculars have a 7-degree field of view. Many wider angle views distort the outer edges, making the narrower field of view the optimal choice in many cases. A comfortable weight for a binoculars used for backyard astronomy purposes is 22 to 32 ounces. Smaller and lighter sizes that are also popular are 7x42 and 8x42. Prices for a good set of binoculars range vastly in price from $100 - $1000.00. Tripod mounted binoculars offer the best view, however, for comfortable celestial viewing, "The Backyard Astronomer's Guide" recommends lying down in a child's inflatable boat to gaze upon the sky with more support being distributed to the head, legs, and shoulders. High-eyepoint binoculars are useful for those stargazers who wear eyeglasses.

Philip S. Harrington recommends dew caps to reduce fog on the front of the binoculars' objective lenses. In "Touring the Universe through Binoculars," he writes that dew caps are easily made by placing soup cans (blackened on the inside) over the lens barrels. One end of the soup cans requires adhesive foam weather stripping as a liner to keep the cap in place and to protect the binoculars' barrels.

A great starting point as a guidepost to major stars in nine other constellations is the Big Dipper. By locating this well known constellation, and learning a simple system of degrees using the hand held out at arms length, one can find every major star and constellation visible (from Canada).

Often called falling or shooting stars, meteors appear as streaks of light in the sky. Of the approximately eight major meteor showers each year, the Geminids, on December 14, offer the best show. Summer meteor showers are the S. Delta Aquarids, July 28 and the Perseids, August 12, which are second in quality only to the Geminids. For optimal viewing, the viewing site must be dark, with no Moon in the sky. You will notice that the trails of shower meteors lead back to the some destination point in the sky.

Light pollution can unfortunately obscure our view of celestial bodies by projecting beams of light for hundreds of yards in each direction. Shielded street lamps eliminate wasted horizontal light beams and reduce the glare in the eyes of drivers. However, until more municipalities start employing methods to reduce light pollution, sky-watchers will have to head out of urban areas to a dark spot to view sights - like the one that appears almost nightly - the Milky Way. During the summertime, the Milky Way arches high across the sky. Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer describe our galaxy in the following way: "The Milky Way appears as a delicate, misty band of light punctuated with bright glowing clouds of stars and split by obscuring lanes of dark interstellar dust."

Backyard astronomy can be a fun hobby for people of all ages. Since there is no need to rush out and buy a telescope, this can be a relatively inexpensive pastime that becomes pleasantly addictive.

More about this author: Louise Schutte

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