Back Yard Viewing

There is nothing complicated about looking at the night sky. Even if you are in a wheelchair or can’t manage to see much there is still something to be enjoyed from your backyard.

Many people are overwhelmed when they think about the vastness of all things in space.

Astronomy is a highly sophisticated science and its easy to want to know or understand its fascinating obscurities.

From your backyard it’s possible to see things which will keep you mesmerized. Astronomy at home is not about the complicated or obscure. It’s about enjoying the things you can see.

You need a clear cloudless dark night when the moon is small. The moon’s brightness makes it hard to see many features in the sky. Dress comfortably for the outdoors and find a real dark spot to observe from.

Away from street and house lights.

It can take your eyes some time to settle down and get used to seeing in the dark.

Things to see:-

The Moon: the moon is one of the first and easiest things to observe. Its best viewing will be when it’s just a thin crescent. This is because when it’s like this the sun is casting light on it at a very sharp angle and the surface features will cast long shadows which makes them easier to see. With a full or near full moon the light hits the surface of the moon directly and casts no shadows.

The Milky Way Galaxy: Our solar system is part of a tremendous spiral galaxy called the Milky Way galaxy. You can see this galaxy as a band of diffuse light stretching across the sky.

The Constellations: Each constellation or picture pattern represents an object, animal, or historical figure. Many people enjoy learning the stories or legends behind the various constellations and finding these.

The Planets: The planets move around in the sky quite a bit and sometimes are too close to the sun to be seen. At least five of the planets are easily visible with the naked eye. They are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Often they appear as the brightest objects in the sky. A rule of thumb for determining whether something is a star or a planet is whether or not it twinkles. Stars twinkle and planets do not.

Colourful Stars: Stars are not all white as many think. Stars are a variety of brilliant colour’s; bright red ‘Betelgeuse’ in Orion, the bright light-blue ‘Rigel’ also in Orion, the yellowish-white ‘Altair’ in Aquila, and the bright red ‘Antares’ in Scorpio.

Think about what you can expect to see and appreciate how the content of the space above your head changes week by week.

Here is a view which can be found at certain times of the year in New Zealand. Our Maori refer to this as ” Matariki”

(c) Photograph by Steve Chadwick

Orion is a prominent constellation located on the celestial equator and visible throughout the world. It is one of the most conspicuous and recognizable constellations in the night sky. It was named after Orion, a hunter in Greek mythology. Its brightest stars are Rigel and Betelgeuse. It is readily identifiable because of the three stars known as Orion’s Belt or the Belt of Orion, also known as the Three Kings or Three Sisters, is an asterism in the constellation Orion. It consists of the three bright stars Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. Looking for Orion’s Belt in the night sky is the easiest way to locate Orion in the sky. The stars are more or less evenly spaced in a straight line, and so can be visualized as the belt of the hunter’s clothing. Below is an illustration which names its features.

The Orion Nebula (also known as Messier 42, M42, or NGC 1976) is a diffuse nebula situated in the Milky Way, being south of Orion’s Belt in the constellation of Orion. Its one of the brightest nebulae, and is visible to the naked eye in the night sky. M42 is located at a distance of 1,344 ± 20 light years and is the closest region of massive star formation to Earth. The M42 nebula is estimated to be 24 light years across. It has a mass of about 2000 times the mass of the Sun.

Orion is useful as an aid to locating other stars. By extending the line of the Belt southeastward, Sirius can be found; northwestward, Aldebaran. A line eastward across the two shoulders indicates the direction of Procyon. A line from Rigel through Betelgeuse points to Castor and Pollux. Orion’s seven brightest stars form a distinctive hourglass-shaped asterism, or pattern, in the night sky. Four stars—Rigel, Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, and Saiph form a large roughly rectangular shape, in the center of which lie the three stars of Orion’s Belt Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. Coincidentally, these seven stars are among the most distant that can easily be seen with the naked eye. Descending from the ‘belt’ is a smaller line of three stars (the middle of which is in fact not a star but the Orion Nebula), known as the hunter’s ‘sword’.

To maximize what you can see in the night sky there are a few things you should do as preparation. Of course, the first thing you need is a clear and cloudless night. You should try to observe on a night with no moon or at the least the smallest sliver of moon possible. Its brightness will wash out many of the dimmest and most dramatic objects in the sky. Second, you should consider your comfort. Make sure you dress appropriately for the weather and bring extra layers of clothing if you are observing during cold months. The temperature late in the evening can be substantially lower than during the day and because observing the sky means not moving around much you will get cold. Take out with you any items to help your comfort such as a reclining lawn chair so you can look up without hurting your neck.

Night vision is the ability to see in reduced illumination or increased ability to see dim object, such as faint stars, due to a sensitization of the eye’s ‘rod’ receptors. Exposure to bright light desensitizes the rods and therefore reduces night-vision.

If you go outside and immediately begin looking for objects in the sky you may be disappointed because your eyes haven’t adjusted to the dark. Relax and take time to let your eyes fully adjust then you will be amazed at how much there is to see and understand.

Look at the start –

We all approach Astronomy with different expectations and knowledge. You don’t need to start with expensive equipment. Before you go off and buy a Telescope get advice from an experienced Astronomer. I’m told its surprising what one can see with the naked eye on a clear night. If you have a Telescope learn to look through it at things you can see and clearly understand. Know what is possible with what you have and enjoy using it.

Its worth having a good clear un-cluttered star and planet chart. Becau5se it will be dark outside you won’t be able to read them! If you turn on a light or torch your night vision will be ruined. There is however a way to read charts and materials without ruining your night vision. Cover your torch with some type of red cellophane or tape so it only gives off a dim red glow. The red light will have less effect on your eyes so your pupils will not dilate.

Noting what you see –

My passion is for getting started. It’s really important to appreciate the enormity of the heavens. Keep a diary or notebook in which you describe in words you understand how things appeared to you. At first, the opportunity to check out observations with either an experienced Astronomer or published Guide book. As a novice, I have set myself the task of observing the moon.