Light pollution is a big issue these days. How does it impact you? Summer is a good time to check by looking north about two hours after sunset and seeing what stars you can see in and near the Little Dipper. Why summer? Because this is when the Little Dipper should be highest in your sky – standing upwards from Polaris, the North Star. Here’s what you should see on a typical July evening when you look north from mid-northern latitudes.
The Big Dipper is diving downward in the northwest but is still very high, and its handy “pointers” should get you quickly to the North Star, Polaris. Roughly opposite the Big Dipper you should see the “W” of Cassiopeia starting to make its way upward in the northeast. And unless you suffer from really terrible light pollution, you should see the two “Guardians of the Pole” – the second and third magnitude stars that mark the end of the Little Dipper. The brighter of these two is just a tad dimmer than Polaris, but since it’s higher in the sky right now and thus shining through less air to get to you, it will probably look just the same as the North Star in brightness.
To do this test you first have to wait until it is genuinely dark, and in summer that’s a bit longer than in winter. Twilight actually is divided into three steps. We have civil twilight which goes from sunset until when the Sun is six degrees below the horizon. Nautical twilight is the next period, which continues until the Sun is 12 degrees below the horizon. Then you have Astronomical Twilight until the Sun is 18 degrees below the horizon. At that point it is as dark as it will get and will remain that dark until we run the sequence in reverse as the eastern horizon nears the Sun. As a general rule of thumb, you can consider each twilight period to last half an hour – but the exact length depends on where you are on Earth and the time of year. If you want to get precise, go to the U.S. Naval Observatory site, fill in the form you’ll find there, and you can get a table that will give you the start and end of these twilight times – or for that matter when the Moon rises, or the Sun sets. It’s very handy. (Note: the preceding link takes you to a page for US cities and towns – but there’s a second page here where you can put in the latitude and longitude for any location in the world, including in the US. )
The second thing you need to do is make sure your eyes are dark adapted. They are casually dark adapted after you have been out for 15 minutes and have not looked at any white lights. But it can take from half an hour to an hour of protecting your eyes from any white light for them to become fully dark adapted. That doesn’t mean you have to sit around in the dark doing nothing waiting for this to happen. In the last hour or so before full darkness there are plenty of things to see – just avoid bright lights. That also means moonlight. You’re going to want to do this when the Moon is not in the sky, for it will make it difficult to see faint objects anywhere near it. In July of 2011 the first five days or the last 10 days should work pretty well. In the middle of the month, the Moon will dominate the evening sky. (A good Moon-phase calendar can be found here, though for this purpose I find the table from the Naval Observatory for local Moon rise is also handy!)
So here’s the test:
How many stars can you see in the Little Dipper?
The Little Dipper consists of seven stars. Three are easy – Polaris and the two “Guardians” marked “21” and “30” on the chart below. If you can see only one of the “Guardians,” then your skies are limited to magnitude 2 stars and brighter – very poor. If you see both, but no other stars in the Little Dipper, then your limit is magnitude 3.
On our chart below, the magnitude of each star is listed as a whole number so as not to put decimal points on the chart that might then be confused for faint stars! So when you see a star listed as “21” that means “magnitude 2.1.”
Even in good, dark skies the other four stars in the Little Dipper may not be that easy to see – and the faintest ones may require averted vision – that is, don’t look exactly where the star should be. Instead, look a little to one side or the other, and the star may pop into view. That’s because the center of your eyes are not as sensitive to faint light as the outer regions of your eyes.
Here’s another little trick that may help you locate these faint stars – use binoculars. With typical, hand-held binoculars you may be able to fit all four stars of the Little Dipper’s “cup” into the same field of view. If not, get the “Guardians” in your field of view, then move just a little to where the other two stars of the “cup” should be. This does not count, of course, for the light pollution test. For that test we’re trying to determine the faintest star you can see with the naked eye. But looking first at the stars with binoculars helps assure you that they really are there! You also can trace out the handle this way, though you will have to move your binoculars to do so.
If you can locate all the stars in the Little Dipper with your naked eye, you have very dark skies – congratulations. To see how good they are – and continue to test your eyesight and dark adaption – look for the stars marked “55” and “60” on our chart.
The star marked “60” is traditionally thought of as the faintest you can see with your naked eye. That’s a magnitude 6 star. In really pristine skies, such as those over Mauna Kea in Hawaii, experienced observers with excellent eyes can detect stars down to magnitude 8 with the naked eye. Personally, I’m happy when I can see all the stars in the Little Dipper and especially happy if I can get that “55” star – I’ve never seen the “60” one with my naked eye. But relative to the heavily light-polluted eastern seaboard of the US, I have dark skies.
This is not simply a good guide to light pollution in your area. It also is a handy guide to tell you just how good the skies are on any given night – and to show you how well you have dark adapted at any given moment. So whenever I go out to observe I frequently glance at the Little Dipper to test both my developing night vision and the clarity of the skies. (It never fails to amaze me how much and how quickly my night vision changes. )
To the casual observer all clear nights are equal. But the experienced star gazer knows they are not, and the stars in and about the Little Dipper are a good guide, especially in the summer months when they are so high in the sky.