I’m lucky. In a world with a growing trend towards urbanization, I grew up in a small, rural community without a lot of light pollution. I’d sometimes sneak outside after bedtime at night, just to gaze up at the Milky Way, in those crystal clear night skies of my childhood. I read what books on astronomy I could find at the small, school library. There weren’t many. I sometimes wonder how much sooner I could have gotten to where I am now as an amateur astronomer, if I’d had access to a telescope and some star charts.
I never lost the wonder at looking up at the night sky, but opportunities for star gazing were pretty limited, under the light polluted skies of the downtown core where I lived, after moving away from home. The city lights and busy streets have a way of making you forget about looking up at the stars. Years later and I’m pulled over on the side of the road, on highway 93, somewhere between Jasper and Banff. It’s dark and I’m laying down on the hood of the old Mustang, looking up at Mars. It’s a bright red point of light in the night sky, in opposition (the closest that Earth and Mars get to each other in their individual orbits).
That time I spent on the hood of a car, looking up at Mars, was the moment that brought me back to the night sky. I bought a copy of Night Watch, by Terence Dickinson, and saved up enough money to get myself a telescope. The next time Mars was in opposition, over two years later, I have a telescope and I’m set up at Cattle Point, one of the better dark sky observing spots in Greater Victoria. After camping out for the weekend under the night sky for my first star party, it was only a matter of time before I joined the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
Right now, International Dark Sky Week is coming to a close and Mars is once more burning bright in the sky. The opposition of Mars for 2014 started in the middle of April. Mars is clearly visible in the south-eastern sky, after sunset*, currently in the constellation of Virgo. During May, the red planet will begin to dim. You can make out the sphere shape of the planet with a pair of binoculars, but a telescope is better. It’s also the last chance to get a look at the Orion Nebula, in the west at sunset*, before it slips under the horizon for the summer. The Orion Nebula can be seen through a pair of binoculars, but is best appreciated through a telescope.
International Dark Sky Week is as much about observing and appreciation, as it is about conservation. Take some time to look up at the night sky and think about what you can do to reduce light pollution in your area. Too many children today grow up never seeing the stars in a dark night sky.
*Observations are based on current night sky as seen from Greater Victoria region. Night sky will differ depending on the observer’s latitude and longitude.
The picture above is of the Orion Nebula, I shot this January, using a Canon T3i through a 5″ apochromatic refractor, for 600 seconds at ISO 100 (single exposure-no stacking).