While we’re in quarantine, let’s all starentine! Head outside at the same time each night and log your experience on social media using the hashtag #starentine, along with thousands of other people around the world.
Appreciating the night sky comes naturally, after all, as Carl Sagan so aptly stated, “we are all made of starstuff.” During this time of lockdown, less light pollution allows the vibrancy of meteors, planets, and star constellations to reach our eager eyes. Stargazing requires no specialized knowledge or expensive gear. Turn off the lights, call your neighbor and ask them politely to turn off their yard light, and step outside with your head tilted back and eyes wide open. Let us enjoy the night sky together, while we are all apart.
This week is perfect for viewing the Lyrid meteor shower with mostly clear skies and the moon hidden in the earth’s shadow. The Lyrids can be seen throughout the end of April, but the peak viewing time is during the darkest hours of the new moon on Wednesday night (April 22). The recommended viewing time is from midnight to just an hour before dawn. Look to the northeast, towards the Vega star in the Lyra constellation. To learn more about the Lyrid meteor shower, visit the American Meteor Society’s webpage, http://www.amsmeteors.org.
You may have already noticed a vibrant Venus. She is the brightest planet and the first to arrive at the party in the western sky shortly after the sun takes his leave. If you rise an hour before dawn and look to the east, you’ll see Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter. Mars has a reddish hue from the rust-colored dust coating his surface. Saturn, the gassiest planet, is golden from the mixture of hydrogen, helium, ammonia, phosphine, water vapor, and hydrocarbons. The largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter, is mostly viewed as creamy white with the ice crystals that make up its atmosphere. The four largest moons of Jupiter can be seen through a pair of binoculars. Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto are known collectively as the Galileans, named after Galileo Galilei. For more information on viewing planets in the night sky, visit http://www.nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.
The best time to view the topography of the moon will be at the end of the month, on April 30 during the “quarter moon” phase, when half of the visible surface is lit. Using binoculars, gaze along the boundary line between the dark side and the sunlit side of the moon. Long shadows cast by mountain ranges and crater rims are easier to see on the moon’s surface when it is partially lit in either the crescent or half-moon phases.
Another kind of shooting star can be seen during the day, on long walks up sunny hillsides. In addition to shooting stars, the mountain buttercups, yellow bells, and bluebells are in full bloom, while the balsamroot sunflowers are eclipsing the newly green hillsides. With upended daily routines, and social hangouts on hold, I feel my thoughts sluggish at times. But in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”
Wash your hands, take a walk, and look up once in a while. Be well, my friends.