The Naked Eye In the Night Sky

PLASMA 6 article

By Jarred Donkersley

Everybody loves the night sky. Rumors of eclipses, meteor showers, comets, and planetary alignments fill our imaginations with romantic notions of cosmic fate and a deep, almost spiritual connection between ourselves and the creation of the universe.

And it should. Astronomy is our oldest science. It is our calendar, how we have planned our
farms for 10,000 years, and what our major holidays harken back to. The stars and celestial
events were our movies for most of our existence and where our religions come from. And
while it taught us how to understand nature itself, most of us have very little understanding of
the night sky nor our place in it. We’re equally unaware how accessible it is as an observational
hobby, and how much it can enrich our lives.

“But modern life is hard and I’m busy and ain’t nobody got time for that!” Dear reader, allow me
to convince you that it is precisely because we are so busy that it is so important.
I used to be like you. I knew that amatuer astronomy was a thing and that people had
telescopes and I may have even taken some high school or college friends into the desert a
time or two for a meteor shower campout beer bust. But I was much more into the art world and
skateboarding then. It was in my early 30s when a friend inherited his late father’s modest
telescope and I first saw Saturn’s rings and the craters of the Moon magnified 25x, that I found a
real purpose. My life was changed forever that night and is 100% the reason I write to you now.

But this isn’t a piece about my life or how to buy telescopes though I will share some basic gear
info at the end if you’re looking to get more serious. This is a piece about all our friends in the
night sky, how to see them from your backyard or front sidewalk with our naked eyeballs, how to develop a lifestyle habit of casual astronomical observing, and why you should care at all in the first place.

The Full Moon, Supermoons, Earthshine, and Eclipses
Easy, predictable, beautiful. Follow the Moon throughout each month. Learn its motions and
understand the basics of what you are actually looking at. Firstly, contrary to popular belief, the
Earth’s shadow does not cause the phases of the Moon it causes lunar eclipses. The Moon’s
phases are due to the fact that the Moon is a spherical body lit by the Sun. It goes through
phases as the light from the Sun rolls around its surface as it moves relative to our vantage
point on Earth. A full day/night cycle on the Moon is one month on Earth (Moon is the
etymological root for the word “month”). The Moon is tidally locked to Earth so that its orbit is
the same as its rate of spin. That’s why we only see the one side or face. The line of sunrise or
sunset called the terminator rolls across this near side face over the course of the month. There
is no “dark side of the Moon”. The far side receives the same amount of light as the near side.

The full Moon occurs once a month when the Moon is 180 degrees directly opposite the Sun
from our position on Earth and that’s the reason it looks full. The full face is lit up. The full
Moon always occurs at or near Sunset. So called full or new “supermoons” are just when Luna
is in its closer approach (perigee) to Earth and appears slightly larger and brighter in the sky.
This is mainly a media term that makes most astronomers cringe.

You of course have probably had the awesome experience of seeing the Moon really big, but it
probably had more to do with the “Moon illusion”. This is an optical effect from seeing the Moon
close to the horizon and is an easy monthly challenge to whet your whistle. Find out when the
next full Moon is and find a spot overlooking the landscape with a clear view of the easter
horizon if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere. Get parked and situated with a few minutes to
spare before moonrise. It’ll be big and yellow/orange and it’ll likely knock your socks off. Bonus
points if you have a dslr camera with a +200mm zoom lens as your smartphone camera is not
gonna cut it. Fun fact : this is also why the Sun looks so dark orange and massive on the
horizon just before it sets or after it rises which is another noteworthy observing challenge. The
deeper colors are due to you looking through more atmosphere at the lower angles.

full article in PLASMA 6


PLASMA magazine 6




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