Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University
To some, it may seem like Astronomy has a tricky barrier to entry. It might seem that to do any meaningful astronomy, you'll not only need a big, bulky, high-powered telescope, but you'll need to know how to use it. But rest assured, it is not necessary to have a massive contraption in your backyard in order to enjoy the night sky. Your ancestors did it for thousands of years with just their naked eyes.
Image Credit: Halfblue
What can you actually see?
Well, of course, we recommend you spot Mars before anything (though we may be a little biased). Mars is at opposition on May 22nd, 2016 (when it will be brightest) and closest approach on May 30th, 2016 (when it will appear biggest). This week, and the few weeks following, Mars will be unmistakable, rising in the east not long after sunset and best viewed around midnight or so. It's fiery red-orange will set it apart from the other stars, and its brightness will be matched only be Jupiter, the Moon, and the Sun.
But Mars is not the only thing you can check out. See the guide below for some common targets for naked-eye astronomy, and some fun activities to get you started.
Arguably the best target for any beginning astronomers, the Moon offers many things to newcomers. It orbits the Earth in a short, predictable cycle which means you never have to wait long to see it. It's large and bright, easy not only to find, but to make out surface features on. And it goes through phases, which makes it visually interesting, and allows for different kinds of observations.
The moon's phases. Credit: Tomruen
Moon maps like this Orion version offer loads of targets to spot, including geographical areas and landing sites for spacecraft. It's incredible to be able to spot Mare Tranquilitatis, the same flat area where Armstrong and Aldrin landed in 1969, without any equipment. And because the Moon is tidally locked to Earth, the same side always faces you. Therefore, you never have to worry about the body rotating and moving your targets out of view. Everything will always be right where you left it!
Astronomy Activity - Phasing
Pick a two-week period between New Moon and Full Moon. You can find the next lunar cycle using this website. Observe it at night at around the same time every day or so, and watch the terminator line move (this is the line that marks the lit side from the dark side of the moon. Objects like craters along the terminator are easier to spot because of long shadows - the crew of Apollo 11 used the same tactic to make landing easier!
In our solar system, five planets are visible with the naked eye from the surface of Earth. Inferior to Earth (closer to the Sun) are Mercury and Venus, and superior (further from the Sun) are Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Uranus, Neptune, or any of the dwarf planets are invisible to our unaided eyes.
Due to brightness, Jupiter is one of the easiest planets to spot. After Venus, the Sun and Moon, it is the brightest object in the sky. Because of it's slow orbit (about 12 years around the Sun), it's visible about 12 out of every 14 months (it appeared last September and won't disappear again until this coming September, and only for 1.5 months or so). It has a white-yellow colour, and if you get even the cheapest binoculars or telescope, you'll be able to spot it's 4 large Galilean moons in orbit around it.
Venus (centre) and Jupiter (top left). Credit: Broken Inaglory
Venus is another good target to find. It's proximity to Earth and the Sun make it the brightest planet visible to us. Because it's inferior to us (closer to Sun), it actually experiences phases like the moon, though you'll need a telescope to observe them. Venus is sometimes called the "Morningstar" or "Eveningstar". Because it's inside our orbit, it only rises near our terminator and won't be out during the middle of the night. You won't find it right now - Venus is at conjunction (other side of the Sun) on June 6th - but it'll be visible just past sunset starting in July.
Mars at opposition (as we've mentioned) on May 22nd will be incredibly easy to spot, and will remain that way for some time. If you're in the Northern hemisphere it won't rise very high in the sky before setting again, but you won't have trouble spotting its bright red hue. Of course, we'll have more on Mars as this event gets on, but do not miss this opportunity (which only happens ever 26 months) to get out and see it!
Saturn is another planet that you can spot without equipment, but it's hard to make out features. The famous ringed planet is actually at opposition on June 3rd, but the difference in brightness will not be noticeable without a sensitive telescope (unlike with Mars). Saturn hangs out low in the south (if you're in the Northern Hemisphere). If you do upgrade to a telescope, you'll be able to make out its rings, too!
The final planet, and most elusive to spot, is Mercury. Being so close to the Sun, it is, like Venus, only visible at sunrise and sunset, but stays even closer to the horizon than the next planet over. Low buildings and treelines can completely spoil your view of Mercury, and it's not that bright even when you catch it. Plus, only certain times are possible for it's observation. Because of this, it's a very rewarding find. Look for it around June 5th at sunrise, or wait until mid-August for a sunset glimpse.
Beyond our solar system, some deep sky objects are still visible to the naked eye. When viewing deep sky objects, being away from light pollution is really important to enhance the experience. You may be able to spot the Orion Nebula in a city, but it will be nothing more than a splotch of light. Take any opportunity you can get while camping, in remote areas, or on island vacations to check out some of the Messier objects, a list of well-known, easier to spot deep space targets.
Because Messier objects to not orbit our Sun, they are always in the same seemingly fixed location in the sky. Therefore, we use constellations to find them. Be sure to download one of the astronomy apps we recommended in our previous blog entry to help locate them! Here are a few examples to look for (all of which are numbered so you can search for them in apps).
The Andromeda Galaxy (lower left). Credit: NotFromUtrecht
The International Space Station
Not exactly astronomy, but if you're out looking at the night sky, this is perhaps the most exciting thing to spot, and it's brighter than most stars. Spotting the ISS (only possible just after sunset or right before sunrise) requires some timing and planning. Best place to start is NASA's "Spot the Station" site, where you can input your city and look for upcoming passes. You can also use an app (my favourite is "Heavens Above") to look on the go or set up alerts.
Look for a pass coming up at a time convenient to you. Pay attention to the "Maximum Height". This tells you how high in the sky the ISS will climb. Higher is easier, and it ranges from 10 degrees (just popping over the horizon and then leaving again) to 90 degrees (right at the top of the sky, or Zenith). Generally, 50+ degrees means a great sighting.
When you finally get a chance to see it, it will be unmistakable. Appearing as a solid light, it will zip across the sky very quickly at a constant speed. Some people mistake it for a plane, but it does not blink, change direction or dim/brighten. Sometimes, you get especially lucky and you can spot a trailing cargo or crew craft (like a SpaceX Dragon) on a clear night.
One Last Thing - Seeing
This is a lot to get you started, but remember one thing - naked eye astronomy is great, unless you can't see the sky. Clouds, humidity, and temperature can all affect what astronomers call "seeing". An easy way to determine if there are good conditions is to locate the Big Dipper (constellation Ursa Major). If you can make out all the stars, you've got reasonable seeing.
For more detailed planning, check out Clear Sky Chart. You can input your city and get detailed seeing forecasts for the next day or two. Great for planning which hour you want to head out and look!
Good luck, and happy observing! Let us know if you find Mars or anything else worth checking out!
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