Making most of best sky

February 09, 2018

When it comes to Christmas telescopes, the short answer is, buy the dearest telescope you can afford.

Welcome to the best skies in the world. Out of the 88 constellations ,we have the pick of the crop. So, it’s just you, me and the starry night.

Depending on your age and your eyesight, you can see up to about 1500 to 2000 stars on a clear night. Ready? Then let’s go. You will need a blanket to sit on, a pair of binoculars, and a pillow.

If you have ever wondered how many stars there are in the universe, think about this.

There are more stars in the universe than heartbeats for every human being who ever lived. Fantastic, isn’t it?

Ordinary stargazing need not be complicated. If you can find the moon, you are on your way to becoming a backyard astronomer.

On some nights, the moon can serve as a great locator to help find other objects, including the constellations and planets.

Once you have found the constellations, you can then identify a handful of bright stars, even if you live in a city.

The brightest is Sirius, which can be found just to the right of the famous constellation we call the Saucepan and it is visible all night. Download an app called Star Chart to find it easily.

You do not need a telescope to view it — a pair of binoculars will do just fine.

Sirius is 8.6 light years away, meaning that the light you see tonight took 8.6 years just to get here. You have now learned to look back in time.

Remember, stars rise about four minutes earlier every night — that is about two hours a month.

Looking at the moon is a sneaky way to look back in time, too. Most of the craters are ancient, many having formed more than three billion years ago by impacting meteors.

Look also for bright streaks radiating outward from craters. These are formed by material cast out by those impacts. Such violence!

Equally as stunning and hard to miss at the moment is reddish Mars, shining brilliantly in the eastern sky an hour or two before sunrise, with brilliant Jupiter close by.

Venus is coming into the evening sky this month. It is our closest planet, but we know it better as the evening star.

You are looking back in time with all these objects. It gives you a sense of perspective, doesn’t it?

Here is something else to think about: if the sun were the size of a dot on a sheet of A4 paper, then the nearest star would be 16km away. Cool huh?

David Reneke is a feature writer for Australasian Science magazine and a science correspondent for ABC and commercial radio. If you have any questions or would like to get David’s free astronomy newsletter, go to www.davidreneke.com

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