Looking Up: Enjoying the stars at any angle

Peter Becker More Content Now ‘Looking up” is great but be careful not to get a kink in your neck! There are also stars to see at lower angles a
A moonrise, as seen from France, March 5, 2015.

[Maxime Raynal/via Wikimedia Commons]

I could call this weekly astronomy column “Looking Straight Ahead” and still be talking about the wonders of the Universe waiting for you to behold. After all, every time you see a sunrise or a sunset- you are watching a star (the Sun) being covered over by a planet (the Earth)! Both heavenly bodies are very essential to our well-being!

The same goes with a moonset or moonrise. 

There are also numerous stars you can pick out in the nighttime sky, not far from the horizon. The have their own mystique. In part this is because for most of us, our horizon is far from FLAT. Around where I live in Northeastern Pennsylvania, one has to to know where to go to see a sunset on a flat horizon, or catch the planet Mercury or a very thin crescent Moon, both of which must be glimpsed low in the sky. There are simply too many hills, trees and roof lines with which I contend on a nightly basis. Sometimes when I see an all-sky star map which shows the constellations right to the very, flat horizon, I want to sketch around the rim, MY horizon, as seen from MY yard, which shows maybe only 60% of the sky at most, as I bounce around in the dark, dodging the landscape!

Some of our readers of course may live in the Mid-Western Plains, and have a full half dome of wide open sky! Or you may be stargazing from a yacht out on the open sea and have the same effect (just don’t fall overboard trying to dodge your sail).

In late October evening skies, if you live in a valley you probably wonder what happened to the Big Dipper. Just go on top the hill to get a flat northern view, and there it is. The Big Dipper appears just above the horizon, as seen from mid-northern latitudes, upright as if it the Dipper was carefully laid down on a counter. The front two stars of the Big Dipper’s bowl faithfully point straight up in this orientation, to the North Star, which never seems to go anyplace. 

Over to the northwest at around 9 p.m., the bright yellow star Capella is still low, but rising. In the east-northeast is the glimmering star cluster, the Pleiades. Low in the south-southeast is a rather bright blue-white star, Fomalhaut. With no other fairly conspicuous stars nearby, Fomalhaut is a welcome sight. Low in the southwest is a lingering view of constellations so prominent on summer evenings, including the marvelous “Teapot” shape of Sagittarius. Low in the west-northwest is the bright orange star Arcturus, so brilliantly seen in the spring but now about to fade into the Sun’s glow as our planet orbits along.

If you are anywhere near a town or city, you will likely have the most light pollution low on the horizon. In fact you can tell the direction of a major metropolitan area by its annoying “light dome” thanks to the thousands of street lamps, neon signs and other lights not properly shielded.

Even in a very dark, rural location, you will note that fewer stars are seen low to the horizon, and stars you know to be bright when up high, look diminished. This is due to the thicker layer of atmosphere you must look through, with all its dust and water vapor- further proof the Earth is round! This is why the setting Sun is dimmer, and reddened. Stars also seem to twinkle more, when seen at low angles.

Looking very low in the south it is interesting to see portions of far southern constellations, that are in all their glory up high only when travel far south! Just a couple hundred miles north or south is enough to easily see the shift in the sky.

The best view of the stars, however, is always by “looking up” where the sky is darker and the most clear.  At any angle, be sure to enjoy the view of our wonderful Universe.

First quarter Moon is on October 27.

Keep looking up!

Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, PA. Notes are welcome at news@neagle.com. Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.