A couple of nights ago I had an awful lot on my mind, and despite thinking that I really needed to go to bed and get some sleep, I went outside and looked up.
It was a cold, clear night, and viewing by the naked eye was probably as best as it could get (unless you happen to be driving across the middle of nowhere in New Mexico.) Even so, I grabbed a pair of low power binoculars and was rewarded with huge new perspectives.
I’ve been trying hard over the last year to finally learn something about the stars at night. I’ve always been interested in space, but never bothered to learn any astronomy. When I first started playing with Linux I encountered KStars and loved it, then I found Stellarium, which is even better, and I could load a copy on my Windows machine. I started in the summer and learned the basics – the Summer Triangle (Vega, Deneb, Altair), Rasalhague, Polaris, Cassiopeia, The Big Dipper, Arcturus, and Spica. Jupiter was in Scorpio, near Antares, and as the season progressed (or if I stayed up really late), Andromeda crept up. I knew there was a galaxy there but couldn’t find it. When I went to Diego Garcia I got up at 4 o’clock in the morning to go out for a sighting of the Southern Cross. Unfortunately, there was no way I could see Alpha Centauri again that time of year.
But I longed to see Orion again, and to really try to learn about the northern winter stars. So this night was the time to really delve, and I was rewarded.
I saw Orion, with Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, Rigel and Saiph. And I saw the Winter Hexagon, with Rigel, Sirius, Procyon (which I learned to pronounce), Castor and Pollux, Capella and Aldebaran. I watched Regulus in Leo come up, and saw Saturn. Mars was just underneath Alnath. And I pulled those laughable little binoculars out. I couldn’t see Saturn’s rings, but I saw the little fuzzes of the Great Nebulae in Orion and Andromeda. I located my own Zodiac sign – Cancer – and also discovered the cluster Praesepe without knowing to look for it. I finally found out why the Pleiades were so cool (although I don’t know why they’re called the Seven Sisters – I count six, and several possible contenders for the seventh.)
With the help of the binoculars, and my laptop with Stellarium (and Wikipedia to answer questions, and a couple of tequilas to keep me warm) I was able to actually see constellations. I saw Leo and Canis Major. I saw Hydra’s head (I used it to find Cancer), and Gemini, Auriga, Taurus and Perseus. I don’t know why Andromeda is a woman’s shape, but I saw where the stars were. I even lucked out and saw a meteor go across half the sky, and two satellites plod away. I recognized the motion from seeing Skylab before it fell in 1979, just before I left for America. I want to know why Cancer is listed as “small and dim” on Wikipedia when Pisces is even dimmer – what is that, “large and even dimmer”? I want to know why I’m considered to be a Cancer when the Sun was actually in Gemini when I was born. No, wait. I read about the difference between tropical and sidereal zodiacs – it just makes my head hurt, and astrology is all a bunch of BS anyway.
I went to bed when I realized that I had watched Procyon rise and now Arcturus had been up for a while – Spica was about to be visible again. Amazingly, considering the amount of warming I had turned out to have required, the next night I still was able to reel off a bunch of these names that I had learned.
If you want to lose yourself for a while, go outside at night with binoculars and Stellarium and Wikipedia. Take a friend if you want – maybe José or Jim or Johnny.
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