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    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

    Think of this as a "companion text" to this, the main web site. Not required reading, butI hope you'll find it interesting and helpful.

Prime Time – let the journey begin!

Prime time is a basic introduction to observing the night sky and building a long-term familiarity with it. The Start Here!” green tab at the top of the page is a site guide . The tab next to it, “Where to?,” describes the purpose of the site and your destination.


Start your year with Mercury!

Start looking for Mercury in your southwestern sky  half an hour after nightfall. Use the crescent Moon as your guide. Move from it to brilliant Venus. Mercury and Hupiter will be much dimmer - about as bright as the two "signpost" stars, Fomalhaut and Altair. An arrow drawn from the Moon to Jupiter points roughly to the Sun and illustrates the approximate location of the plane of our solar system - the area of the sky where you'll always find the planets, (Adapted from a Starry Nights screen.)

Start looking for Mercury in your southwestern sky half an hour after nightfall. Use the crescent Moon as your guide. Move from it to brilliant Venus. Mercury and Jupiter will be much dimmer - about as bright as the two "signpost" stars, Fomalhaut and Altair. An arrow drawn from the Moon to Jupiter points roughly to the Sun and illustrates the approximate location of the plane of our solar system - the area of the sky where you'll always find the planets, (Adapted from a Starry Night screen.)

Update: What I actually saw January 1, 2009 – First, I was surprised how much Mercury had moved in just two days – it is fast! Having Jupiter nearby made it easy to see the changes from night-to-night. Second, it’s still a difficult object for my old eyes without binoculars.  However, it was very easy in binoculars – much easier than my attempt t at pictures may indicate – though the pictures do give you a sense of what to expect as Mercury climbs higher each night for the next several nights.  Here’s a wide view, typical of what you see with th naked ye. The moon and Venus are obvious – Mercury and Jupiter certainly aren’t.

That's the crescent moon up to the left, then Venus. The arrow points to the area near the tree where Mercury and Jupiter could be seen easily with ordinary binoculars.

That's the crescent moon up to the left, then Venus. The arrow points to the area near the tree where Mercury and Jupiter could be seen easily with ordinary binoculars.

And here’s a view where I used a 300mm lens to zoom in on that area near the tree line.

Mercury is the higher, fainter of the two planets. This picture was taken just seconds after the one above, but zoomed in on the tree line.

Mercury is the higher, fainter of the two planets just visible in the notch in the trees to the left. This picture was taken just seconds after the one above, but zoomed in on the tree line.

Update: December 30, 2008 – Just checked and with 12X36 IS binoculars I found Mercury about 20 minutes after nightfall. It was seen easily against a yellow sky with Jupiter – much brighter and easier to spot – above it, but both fitting easily in the same binocular field. I could not see it with the naked eye,however, although sharper eyes than mind might have. At this time it was only about 7 degrees above the horizon – less than a fist. Ten minutes later I could see it with the naked eye, but it was already inthe tree branches!

Original post:

Of the five bright planets known since antiquity, Mercury is the most elusive.  I had been an amateur astronomer for at least 10 years before I tracked it down one morning. It’s funny. When you do see it, you say “what’s the problem. That was easy.” But without knowing exactly when and where to look it can be difficult – and it is always near the Sun and thus near our horizon.

Everything appears dimmer near the horizon because you’re looking through more of our atmosphere than when looking straight up. In addition, there are frequently low clouds and haze on the horizon that may not be apparent – except that you can’t see what you expected to see!

The final issue is a little game of hide and seek. With each passing minute the horizon creep up threatening to swallow Mercury. But with each passing minute the sky gets darker making it a little easier to see a bright planet. Objects higher in the sky, such as Altair and Fomalhaut, may be visible when Mercury isn’t simply because the sky behind them is darker.

Jupiter, significantly brighter than Mercury but not nearly as bright as Venus, should be a handy guide on January 1. As the month wears on Mercury put more distance between itself and the Sun and thus will appear to climb a bit higher in our sky, being near its peak on January 7, 8, and 9th. By that time, however, Jupiter will have sunk lower and may be quite difficult to see. The two planets are  closest to one another this month on January 1.

Such a pack of variables are typical of observing and make it always interesting. You can see Mercury with your naked eye, but it will be easier to find it first in binoculars. Both it and Jupiter should appear in the same binocular field of view on January 1.  By the 7th, 8th and 9th the two may just barely fit in the same field of view, but don’t count on it. Depends on your binoculars. By the middle of the month Mercury will be too low to see easily.

So when should you look? I want to go out on the first. But if it’s not clear, I’ll try any night in these first couple of weeks. Mercury pops into the morning sky by the end of the month – it sure does get around! But not every appearance of Mercury is equal – sometimes it appears much higher above our horizon in a dark sky than at other times. On this appearance it will peak at nearly 10 degrees above the horizon, 30 minutes after nightfall. That’s good. Remember – 10 degrees is about the area covered by your fist when held at arm’s length.

Step 1 – When do we observe?

Knowing when to observe is a real key to learning the night sky – especially in the system of bright stars and asterisms promoted here. And the short answer is to start 30-45 minutes after sunset if you want to learn the bright stars and one hour after sunset if you’re trying to find a new, bright asterism, or refreshing your knowledge of the the night sky to the north.

This entire system is based on a very simple approach: Learn the bright stars and asterisms as they rise in the east. If you start in twilight only these bright stars are visible, so they’re easier to identify. Do this each month and you add to your knowledge. For example, the stars you learn in January will still be in the east in February, but higher in the sky. And they will still be in your March skies as well, but higher still. Each month you want to re-acquaint yourself with the bright stars you learned in the previous month and learn the new bright stars, just rising in the east. By learning them when they rise you will see each new star for several months until it eventually sets in the west. By learning them in twilight first, you will not be confused by the many fainter stars that are near them.

In a similar fashion you should learn to identify the northern pole star, Polaris, and the major asterisms which surround it – then check each month, as it gets really dark, to see how the northern sky has changed in appearance as the stars all appear to rotate around Polaris. Of course, you can do both these things by spending about 15-to-20 minutes under a clear, dark sky once a month – but it’s better to check more often if you can.

You can stop reading right here if all you want to do is focus on learning the bright stars and asterisms. But if you would like to know more about the different stages of twilight and how it impacts what we observe and when, read on!

That said, it does get a little more complicated if you want to understand how to pick the best observing time, for when to observe also depends on what you’re observing. Your decision comes down to three factors – the time of local nightfall, the time of local moonrise, and, of course, weather.


Let’s deal first with nightfall. The chart above uses legal definitions of darkness that depend upon how far the sun is below the local horizon. Civil twilight begins at nightfall and ends when the Sun is 6 degrees below the horizon; nautical twilight begins then and ends when the Sun is 12 degrees below the horizon. That’s when astronomical twilight kicks in. It is not considered to be fully dark until the Sun is 18 degrees below the horizon. This all applies in reverse as we approach daybreak.

These are very precise definitions, but the actual time involved can vary significantly depending on your location and the day of the year. In our chart (and observing) we use them in a loose and general way to represent 30, 60, and 90 minutes after nightfall (sunset). If you want to be precise you can consult an almanac, or if you would like to produce a useful calendar for your location, go to this Web site and follow the simple directions.

I’m not big on precision, however. There are so many things we “know” in astronomy that are really just intelligent guesses and approximations. The important thing to me is understanding what’s really going on, why the sky appears as it does to you at any given moment, and being able to take advantage of this information.

When twilight is prime

Can you spot Venus in this twilight sky? How do you know it's Venus? Because it's the only "star" visible in the East just a half hour before daybreak when this picture was taken. (Venus always appears fairly near the Sun as either an 'evening star' or 'morning star.' )

Can you spot Venus in this twilight sky? How do you know it’s Venus? Because it’s the only “star” visible in the East just a half hour before daybreak when this picture was taken.

One very important example: If you want to learn the bright, signpost stars, start looking when civil twilight ends – about 30 minutes after nightfall. That’s when they’ll first start to appear and when you observe them at that time you won’t be confused by a lot of other dimmer stars because they won’t be visible. This is also the best time to observe the planet Venus in a small telescope. Later, when it’s completely dark, Venus is so brilliant that the glare from it tends to make it difficult to see that it goes through phases much like our Moon – one of the critical discoveries made by Galileo and used to prove that the planets do, in fact, circle the Sun.

And speaking of the moon . . .

Besides the time of nightfall, you should also be aware of when the moon rises and what phase it is in. Whenever the moon is in the sky it hinders the observing of faint objects.

However, don’t give up just because there’s a bright moon, high in the sky when you want to observe. Just adjust your observing goals to it. When the moon washes out a lot of the fainter objects that’s a good time to:

  • Look for your “friendly stars” – since the they’re the brightest stars, they’ll show up and finding them can be easier when there aren’t so many other stars around confusing you.
  • Observe planets and double stars in telescope. Neither depends on a dark sky background.
  • Observe the moon – especially if it is in any phase except full. That’s right – observing the moon when it is full is one of the least interesting times. But don’t worry, we’ll provide plenty of information on moon gazing later.

What about weather?

We can’t see through clouds – but a few clouds won’t ruin an observing session. A high, thin haze will. Fog will. Lots of clouds will. Amateur astronomers are always keeping an eye on the weather, but the typical weather forecast just isn’t geared to the special need of the astronomer, But now there are some special forecasts aimed just at the astronomer. You get these over the web using what is called a Clear Sky Clock and these are scattered all around the country. To find one near you, go here. It’s a tad cumbersome, but I usually focus on the first two rows and I look for dark blue. When you see it, you’ll know what I’m talking about. There’s a new variation, just out, for the entire world, including the US called simply “APanel” or “Astroweather Panel.” You can learn about it by going here.

I have relied mainly on the Clear Sky Clock for the past couple of years and have found it to be amazingly accurate, but do remember it is a forecast and updated every 12 hours.

That said. I actually prefer the display given by the APanel. I just haven’t used it, so I don’t know how reliable it is.

We observe when we’re ready!

But of course, you say, I knew that!  Perhaps – here’s what I mean by “ready.”

First, your mind should be ready. When visitors come to Driftway Observatory we begin with 10 minutes of absolute silence and stillness. If you have meditated, I don’t need to explain why. But there are really two reasons.  The first is to quiet the “monkey brain” – that part of you that keeps jabbering away. (Side trip:To see a good example of the monkey brain go here.) Get the idea? It’s that part of us that wants to multitask – that simply won’t quiet down and focus.  Getting a look at the universe is rare and deserves your attention. It’s a bit like going to church, only in this case you are entering the temple of the universe and it’s nondenominational! So leave all of the  stuff of the day that’s clinging to you behind and focus on the silent messages brought to you from elsewhere in time and space.

The second reason is simpler – give your eyes a chance to dark adapt. Now frankly, this isn’t all that helpful when you are first learning the sky because as your eyes dark adapt you see more and more stars and that can be confusing. Still, it’s a good habit to cultivate because as you learn you’re going to want to see more. The basic idea is simple. In white light our pupils get small and let in less light. In the dark they get large to take in more light. But we can’t control this adjustment – it just happens naturally as it gets dark. For our ancestors living before someone discovered fire it would have been a natural adjustment with the darkening twilight.  Now we step from our well-lit homes or automobiles and into the dark and it takes 10-15 minutes for our eyes to make the major adjustment they need to make. They’ll continue to improve a little for another half hour or so. Unless someone turns on a flashlight, or you look at the headlights of a passing car, or a neighbor’s outdoor security lights suddenly flash on.  These are all things to avoid. Flashlights are handy when you’re trying to find your way in the dark – but let your eyes dark adapt and you’ll be surprised at how much you can see quite naturally even on a moonless night.The night simply is not as dark as you may think.

Astronomers use red light – and as little of it as they can get away with, when they do need light to look  at a sky chart, or maybe adjust a piece of equipment.  This can be achieved by using a rubber band to cover the lens of a flashlight with a couple thicknesses of red cellophane.  There are also several red flashlights available that use a red filter or red LEDs.  They can be found online at merchants selling stuff for amateur astronomers, but I’ve found them in the sporting goods section of major stores as well. The red light doesn’t ruin your night vision, but even this should be used sparingly, especially when you are looking for the faintest objects,  for it does have an impact.

To sum up

  • Most of our observing is in “prime time” – the period that starts about 90 minutes after it gets dark and ends about 90 minutes before day break. However, when we’re trying to find a new, bright star – or some special object near the Sun –  we may observe during twilight.
  • We observe faint objects when the moon isn’t in the sky to interfere, but when it is we stick to bright objects like some double stars, the planets, and, of course, the moon.
  • We observe when it’s clear, though a few clouds won’t ruin the night.
  • We observe when we’ve quieted our monkey brains and let our eyes dark adapt – unless our main goal is to identify a few bright stars.

Useful links related to this post:

Step 2 – Finding Polaris: Our First Guidepost Star

Quick Guide

  1. Find north
  2. Find your approximate latitude – the North Star is the same height above the horizon as your latitude.
  3. About one hour after nightfall, look north as high as your latitude.
  4. The North Star – Polaris – is the bright, isolated star you see. There is no star as bright as it within about 15-degrees – half again the distance covered by your fist when held at arm’s length.

Our journey through the astronomical year begins with knowing where we are and where we’re headed and fortunately for northern hemisphere observers we have a constant guidepost amidst a constantly changing skyscape – Polaris, the North Star. So the first task is to find it.One of the stars in this video is Polaris – can you guess which one?

Yep, as Shakespeare had Julius Caesar point out, it’s the steady one, right in the center of the screen. (”But I am constant as the Northern Star, of whose true fixed and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament.”) Of course we’ve speeded up time in the video – you’re seeing a whole day of apparent movement in less than a minute! But I suspect people in Shakespeare’s time were much more in tune with the night sky. They knew what Caesar meant because they had watched the stars. They will appear to move – it’s us doing the moving, of course – far enough in an hour for any careful observer to notice the change.

But while we may find it difficult to pick out the constant one just by glancing up there, once we’ve found it we can be certain it’s going to be in the same place all night, every night, while everything else is always on the move. So here’s a more detailed guide to locating our constant companion. Once you know it, you’ll find yourself checking it every time you go out at night – and yep, there it is, right where you left it!

Clue 1: Find north

A GPS system can tell you this precisely. A compass can point to magnetic north which should be close enough to what you want – just don’t take it as an absolute guide.   Or if you know that the Sun first appears at daybreak in the east and it vanishes at nightfall in the west, then you are well on your way. Just  face east, and north is to your left – face west and north is to your right. At noon the sun is due south – north is the other way.  Any of these are approximations. Your true guide to north is going to be the North Star. But, of course, you have to find it first!

Clue 2: Find your approximate latitude – the North Star is the same height above the horizon as your latitude.

All we need is a round number in degrees. The site linked above will give your latitude as something like:

Latitude, Longitude: (41.630773, -71.08854)

All you need at this point is the first number without the stuff after the decimal point. In my example it is 41. (If you’re in the southern  hemisphere this site puts a minus sign in front of your latitude and you can’t see the North Star.) There are, of course, many others way to find this out. This is the quickest, easiest one I’ve found.

This number also indicates how high the north star is above your northern horizon.

About one hour after nightfall, look north as high as your latitude.

Why one hour? Again, not an absolute, but if you go out during twilight the brightest stars will emerge first and the North Star will be among the first to appear in the northern sky, though not the only one and it is NOT the brightest star in our sky – just one of the brightest.  (It actually ranks 48th on the list of brightest stars. Seeing it in twilight like this is simply less confusing.)

Next problem – how do we look “as high as our latitude?”  Again, there are a number of ways. You could actually measure the angle using a protractor with maybe a ruler to sight along – but that’s too involved for most people. Can you estimate? Sure! Just point your arm straight out at the horizon. That’s zero degrees. Point it straight up. That’s 90 degrees. Point it half way up. That’s 45 degrees. One third of the way up? That’s 30 degrees. Experiment with this method for a minute or less and you should get the hang of it. Will you be able to point to something real specific like 41 degrees? Of course not. But I bet you can get within about 5 degrees just by rough estimate and that will be close enough.

A second method frequently recommended is to use your fist as a measuring device. The idea is that your fist – no matter what your size – when held at arm’s length, covers 10 degrees of sky. My experience is that this doesn’t work for everyone and I’m not sure why, but I think the problem comes when they use just one fist to try to estimate a large number of degrees, such as 40. There are several simple solutions.

First, when you are measuring more than 10 degrees, stack one fist on top of the other – trying to do large measurements, such as 30 degrees or more with a single fist is, I believe, one of the causes of inaccuracies. So go fist over fist over fist.

Second, don’t wear gloves, it will throw things off.

Jacob's Staff or Cross Staff was a Medieval instrument used for detrmining the altitude of the North Star.

Jacob’s Staff or Cross Staff was a Medieval instrument used for determining the altitude of the North Star.

Third, make a “star stick” –  or maybe we should call it a degree stick.  Any stick about two or three feet long will do. A wooden dowel would be fine, but no need to get fancy. Measure the width of your fist across the knuckles, including your thumb as folded tight into a fist. (Mine comes in at 4-inches.) Now put pieces of masking tape – or white tape if you have it, every four inches – or whatever – on your stick .  Try to cover 40 degrees this way – 60 would be better.  Now you take a measurement by holding the stick out at arm’s length – great in the winter time because you can wear gloves. Does it work? mine does. At least it puts me in the right ball park. It is not as sophisticated as the ancient navigation instrument, the cross staff, but in a rough way is the same idea.

So either by using a stick, your fist, or just raising your arm for a rough estimate,  you should be able to make a reasonable guess at how high to look for the North Star from your location.

The North Star – Polaris – is the bright, isolated star you see. There is no star as bright as it within about 15-degrees – half again the distance covered by your fist when held at arm’s length.

Think you’ve found it? The first way to confirm that you have the right star is to see if there’s another star, as bright, or almost as bright, nearby. There shouldn’t be. But it’s fairly easy to mistake Kochab as Polaris. Kochab is just as bright and some 16 degrees away – about a fist and a half. But Kochab has a bright companion just three degrees away – not as bright as it, but pretty bright.  Take a look at this chart which includes just the brighter stars.

Notice Polaris is isolated, while Kochab has a nearby companion that is almost as bright. (adapted from Starry Nights Pro software)

Notice Polaris is isolated, while Kochab has a nearby companion that is almost as bright. Click image to enlarge. (Adapted from Starry Nights Pro software)

If you hold your closed fist out at arm’s length so that what you think is Polaris is just peeking around one end or the other of your fist, then your fist should not cover up any other bright stars. Polaris is that isolated.

There are some other common guides used to quickly find it, but I must stress that these work best at the higher latitudes. What we’ve shown so far is good for 40 degrees north. Remember that each degree you go farther north puts everything higher in the sky. Go to the North Pole, brave explorers, and Polaris will be directly overhead. Go south to the equator and Polaris will be on the horizon – invisible. And, of course, south of the equator it’s a who different ball game. Folks there see many of the same stars we do, but  they also see ones we never see and they don’t see Polaris, or any similar star, marking the south celestial pole. So as you look at these guides keep two things firmly in mind.

1. Your latitude determines how high Polaris will be.

2. As you saw from the movie, the stars all circle it in the course of 24 hours. This also means that they will appear at different places on different dates. The patterns remain the same. The Big Dipper always looks like the Big Dipper. But sometimes it’s right side up and sometimes upside down. Early on a January evening you’ll find Kolchab beneath Polaris. In the summer it will be above it – by the same distance.

The most common guide for finding the North Star – Polaris – are the “Pointer Stars” of the Big Dipper. The Dipper itself is probably best known seven stars in our sky. Look at the chart below to see how this can be used to find Polaris.  BUT . . . keep in mind, there are times of year – December and January in particular – where this may be two low in your sky – or hidden entirely – to be of use.  So here’s how it looks in January at 41 degrees north latitude.

A line through the Big Dipper's "pointer stars" show us Polaris.

A line through the Big Dipper’s “pointer stars” show us Polaris. (Click image to enlarge.)

Where I usually observe, the pointer stars are hidden in some trees at this time of year. But another good guide post is the “M” of Cassiopeia. It too is distinctive, bright, and easy to recognize. And when the Big dipper is low in the sky, it is high. It doesn’t contain pointer stars, but it’s still serves as a pretty good guide when looking for Polaris.

The "M" of Cassiopeia helps when the Big Dipper is too low to see - or see well.

The “M” of Cassiopeia – it looks like a “W” when it climbing up the sky – helps when the Big Dipper is too low to see – or see well. Click image to enlarge.

Now that you have these patterns in mind, you might want to take another look at the movie to see how they change in relation to Polaris.

Step 5 – Seeing the universe with uncommon sense

It seems like we’re always dealing with two universes – the one we see, and the one we know is there. Our challenge is to get to know them both and this requires  uncommon sense to override our common senses. We’ll encounter this again and again as we get to know the night sky.

This is not a pipe.

This is not a pipe.

Magritte understood this when he challenged us with his playfully,  perceptive painting – Ceci n’est pas une pipe, “This is not a pipe.”

It may look like a pipe through the expertise of the artist, but, of course, it does not feel like one, taste like one, smoke like one, or smell like one.  Experience invokes all of the senses, plus time, place, and more.

Let’s explore  one small, but important  example –  the Sun never rises.

That’s right, not today, not yesterday, and not tomorrow.  The Sun doesn’t rise, didn’t rise, and won’t rise. But it sure looks like it does and we sure talk like it does. In fact our common sense shows us the Sun rising and setting, the moon rising and setting, and all the stars and planets rising and setting. None of it’s true and we know it isn’t true, but we still insist on talking about it that way  and why not – that’s what we see. But we know it  isn’t the Sun that’s rising, it’s the Earth that is spinning. Every child learns that  – it’s elementary school science.

The Earth spins on its axis. It’s spinning so fast that the whole thing turns around once in just 24 hours. Do the math. The earth is roughly 8,000 miles in diameter. That means it’s about 24,000 miles around. So if you’re going to make a 24,000 mile trip in just 24 hours, you’re moving at 1,000 miles an hour. No kidding. OK – that’s at the equator. But even way up here at around 40-degrees north we’re moving at close to 800 miles an hour.  Does that make sense to you?

Do you realize how frustrating this was for someone like Galileo who was trying to convince his colleagues that the Sun was at the center of things and the Earth travelled around it? It was so obvious to them that the Sun travelled around the Earth. Everyone could see that – and yes, what Galileo said could be the case, but that defies our common senses. It’s not just that we see the Sun rising and setting. Think about it.

Stop reading for a moment, ignore this screen and think – or, better yet, jot down – at least three reasons why from your personal observation the Earth is NOT spinning on its axis. (Hint – if it were spinning several hundred miles an hour, what would you expect to experience?) You can jot them anywhere – but the comments form below would be a nice place.

Yes,  I’m serious. I said this is a site about doing, so I do mean stop. Don’t read any more until you have at least given this some serious thought. I’ll wait patiently for you to return.

Have you done that? Did you come up with three reasons? Good. Now please go to page 2.

Step 6 – Twinkle, twinkle little star – oh give me a break!


Warning: Never look directly at the Sun and never look at it through binoculars or a telescope unless the telescope has been especially equipped for this purpose.

The stars look so peaceful, so serene, so tiny. It’s so easy when looking at them to fall into the romantic, nursery rhyme mind-set.  Please don’t. The warning in red above about our star  – the Sun – should give you pause in itself. The stars we all  are looking at make nuclear bombs seem like toy caps in a child’s toy gun.

If you could only examine the one nearby star – our Sun – closely, you would see that it is something much different from the impression of stars we get when we walk out and look up at the sky.

To begin with, it is huge.


And it is dynamic.

And there is simply nothing more important to life on Earth – nothing.

Stars are absolutely essential to our past and present. They are an elegant example of fundamental forces of unimaginable ferocity at work – and, in most cases, in balance. You don’t need to be a nuclear physicist to appreciate the basic process that makes a star. Gravity draws gases – mostly hydrogen – together into a mass and like a red-hot, cosmic snowball it eventually becomes so large that the center of the mass experiences crushing forces.  It is so dense in the center – about sixteen times as dense as lead – that the hydrogen atoms regularly collide with one another, producing helium and releasing energy. These collisions are the same as what happens inside a hydrogen bomb. Only in the case of most stars the inward pressure of gravity exactly balances the outward pressure of the nuclear energy – and this balance can be maintained for billions of years. Our Sun is believed to be about 5 billion years old and will probably last another five billion years.

This picture by amateur astronomer Maynard Pittendreigh through his PST does a good job of capturing what these small telescopes can show us of our star,

This picture by amateur astronomer Maynard Pittendreigh through his PST does a good job of capturing what these small telescopes can show us of our star,

Unfortunately, while we see our star often, it is difficulty – and dangerous – to observe. Amateur astronomers, school in the use of proper, safe filters – or using a simple projection method – have always found it  easy to observe sun spots safely.  But I find this relatively unsatisfying. The black and white images give little sense of the powerful forces you are really observing.

There is now a better solution, but first, please heed the constant warning: Don’t look at the Sun with your naked eye and  most certainly do not look at it through any telescope or binocular, or you will certainly damage your eyes. The terrible thing about this is the damage can occur without pain and without your even being aware of it at the time, though if you use an unfiltered telescope the damage will be so great and so fast, you’ll know.

That said, in the past few years observing the Sun has become relatively easy, safe, and exciting for me, and I suspect for many other amateurs astronomers. But to do  this does requires a $500 telescope dedicated to the job. It’s called a Personal Solar Telescope and it allows us to see the Sun in the light of hydrogen alpha and that means we actually look into the Sun – not just at what we think of as it’s surface – and we get  a tiny glimpse at the marvelous, monstrous, seething dynamic that is a star. I wish everyone could have this experience. I’ve never seen anything like the huge prominence in the first picture above, but I have seen plenty of very large prominences  such as the ones revealed in the second picture taken by an amateur using a PST. It is common to see these “flames” leaping from the edge of the Sun and it takes real effort to remind ourselves that even these common, “small,” prominences  are larger than the Earth itself.  What’s more, you can watch them change practically minute-by-minute.

But even if you only can see the Sun in pictures, take some time to study the images, try to imagine what they represent, and as you do, consider a few basic scientific facts.

  • We are star stuff. Most of the atoms in our bodies were made inside the unimaginable explosion of an incredibly ancient, incredibly gigantic, exploding star,
  • All life on Earth is absolutely dependent upon the Sun.
  • Earth is in a very real way inside the Sun. What we commonly call it’s surface is merely the point at which the Sun’s gases become opaque to us. But Sun stuff reaches around and well beyond us.

Finally – constantly remind yourself that all that we are saying – seeing and learning – about the Sun is true of all those tiny little lights in the night sky that we call stars. In fact, most of the ones we see with our naked eye are bigger and brighter than our Sun. And many are undergoing ferocious changes on a regular basis. The reality of stars is way beyond our experiential knowledge – nothing we encounter  on Earth can compare with the size and power of a star. But by studying images and by looking through property filtered telescopes at our own star, we can at least begin to build an experiential base to better appreciate what we are seeing.

Oops – still getting ready!

Oops, you’ve stumbled across the online, interactive, free course on experiential astronomy I’m building on this site. It’s aimed at anyone of any age who is interested – and it’s beginning to look like something I’d like to invite folks to view – but really not quite ready. Maybe by mid-January?. Meanwhile, click on anything you like. If it’s an active link, then it leads to a finished product – well, to the extent anything is ever finished on the Web 😉 As always, your ocmments and suggestions  are most welcome.

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