A whole new perspective

Orion tilted on his side.
Orion is lying down on the job in the Cayman Islands.

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!


Getting Started

Learning about the night sky can be overwhelming. Where do you start? What gadgets do you need? Should you buy a telescope, or use binoculars?

The good news is that you can do a lot of observing without any fancy gadgets, so if you don’t already own a telescope, don’t go buy one just yet.  Learning the constellations and some major stars will give you a strong foundation for future night sky viewing.

A handy tool is a planisphere, which is available at many bookstores. Get one that is a good size, at least about 10 inches in diameter. It also helps to have someone who knows the constellations and can help you get started. There is also some great free astronomy software available to download such as Stellarium. This can help you see what’s up on the night you plan to go out.

A good place to start is the Big Dipper. Find it, then hold the planisphere up over your head so you’re looking up at it. Turn the planisphere to the orientation of the Big Dipper matches what you see in the sky. Now start to go out from there, follow the arc of the handle, where does it take you? Extend the line from the two front stars of the cup, where do they point?

The key is to get out and look up!  See how many constellations you can identify. Before long you’ll be pointing out Orion, with it’s bright stars Betelgeuse and Rigal, or watching for the summer triangle with Vega, Deneb and Altair. The more you look the more you’ll find and the more you’ll want to look!

By doing this you’ll be honing your observing skills; training your eye to recognize the night sky. You’ll soon be moving on to star charts, star hopping and looking for star clusters, distant galaxies and those elusive faint fuzzy messier objects!

Don’t worry – we’ll be here to help you!!



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