March 2008 Archives

Space-Navigating the Spring Sky

Something that I like to think I was always aware of on some level but never thought too much about until I started backyard starfucking is the fact that the sky changes over the course of the year. As such, after the recent extended bad weather cleared up and I decided to take to the skies once more, I saw that my familiar winter sky had given way to a brand new spring sky.

Throughout winter, Orion dominated the sky, looming overhead and acting as a sort of compass toward the other major sky-landmarks. Once I spotted Orion it was generally a simple matter to find the nearby constellations of Taurus and Gemini, and Orion's imaginary arrow points at the Pleides, which were almost always directly overhead.

Last night I decided to explore the spring sky and see if I could make some new dot-and-line friends. To help me on my adventure I brought along my Space Navigator, a Christmas gift from my inlaws. This device is basically a hand-held version of the onboard computer on my first telescope, except that it actually functions properly. The operation is sort of difficult to explain, but basically, you punch in your longitude, latitude, date, and time, and it knows what's in your sky. It gives you a list of visible objects and then helps you find them through a combination of text and interchangeable star maps.

What's even niftier to my mind is the fact that the Space Navigator also performs this function in reverse. If you tell it what direction you're facing and how high in the sky you're looking, it can tell you what you're looking at. Or, more precisely, it will tell you what map to look at to find what you're looking at.

So, with the help of the Space Navigator, I discovered a few things about the spring sky in my neck of the woods. First, there were a few things I was able to figure out on my own -- Orion (and his friends) are now hanging lower in the sky than they were a few months ago, and I could barely find the damn Pleiades (this was due mainly to light pollution and moisture in the air, but still striking -- when the seven sisters were directly overhead they were often immune from these effects closer to the horizon). Also, Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) has been clearly visible in the northern sky for several weeks.

In addition to these two, admittedly pretty easy to spot and recognize, constellations, I found that Leo has taken over Orion's post as the dominant figure overhead, while Auriga is also making quite an appearance. Right near Auriga is Camelopardalis, the Space Giraffe (seriously, follow the link), which I think should be designated the official imaginary sky object of the Heuristic Squelch. Other constellations that I don't have the energy to link to were Lynx, Perseus (both near Auriga), and Virgo. Sirius is still the brightest star in the sky but it was so close to the horizon that I didn't immediately recognize it.

Also, continuing the saga of my quest to find Andromeda, I had high hopes that the Space Navigator would be my key to trapping the elusive galaxy once and for all, since in addition to stars and planets the Space Navigator has a full database of deep space objects. Unfortanately the deep space objects are listed only by number, not name, and my dumb ass didn't know that Andromeda is M31. Next time, perhaps.

No Yodeling on Mars


Bad Astronomy Blog is reporting on a nifty image fromHiRISE: An action shot from Mars, showing an avalanche in progress. I concur with BAB that this is, indeed, very cool. Our fellow dumb planets aren't just inert lumps of rock -- they have their own sounds, smells, accelerations due to gravities, good days, and bad days. It's just strange to think that no one is experiencing these things in person on a day to day basis.

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