Two weeks ago, I found myself 2000 miles closer to the equator (and 80° F warmer) than I am today. And I understand that this was a tremendous opportunity to take in the night sky from a whole new perspective. But, as Robert Burns put it, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.”
While packing, I spent as much time as I could spare looking around in Stellarium, Sky Safari, and on Google. I even packed my trusty binoculars. But the one clear night in Cayman that I had a chance to look up, I realized I wasn’t nearly ready enough.
It’s cold here in Wisconsin. In fact, it’s 1° F as I’m writing this. And to be perfectly honest, this kind of weather doesn’t inspire me to do a lot of observing. So it was unfortunate that a good grasp of our current sky in Wisconsin was exactly what I needed in order to appreciate what I was seeing in Cayman.
When I looked up from Seven Mile Beach that night, I saw Jupiter and Gemini and Cassiopeia and Auriga. Nope. The sky just didn’t look all that different. But as I continued to get my bearings, once again my old pal Orion saved the day.
When I come home at night this time of year, Orion’s there to greet me. Facing east as I unlock my door, he’s high above me standing on his feet, watching over me. But in Cayman, it was a whole different story. Orion was lying down on the job. Literally. He was nearly horizontal.
That in itself was pretty exciting, but I didn’t want it to be the sum total of my observing session while I was only 450 miles north of the equator. I had high hopes of locating something I couldn’t see from my own backyard.
Two constellations rise on the southern side of the island and are never visible in Wisconsin – Crux (the Southern Cross) and Centaurus. Unfortunately, I was on the northwest side of the island, and no one was willing to drive me south at 3 a.m. (although I did momentarily consider attempting to drive myself on the left side of the road. Probably not a good idea).
But there was one other southern circumpolar constellation available to me there close to the horizon. I found Canopus, the brightest star in Carina. Canopus is a supergiant that is the second brightest star in the night-time sky after Sirius, and has a visual magnitude of -0.72. Although Carina itself was buried in the lights of George Town and the haze that had settled over the ocean, Canopus was high enough and bright enough that there was no doubt. It was white and bright and beautiful.
Next year when I travel down there again, I hope to take more of a perspective with me so that I can appreciate how skewed the sky looks when I’m only 450 miles north of the equator. Plus, I’m gonna drag my son’s butt out of bed and make him drive me to the south side of the island. Crux is a treat I don’t want to miss again!