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Starlight, Starbright the First Star I See Tonight

Published on December 13, 2011

We have all heard or told childhood nursery rhymes, but what are we really looking at? Suffice it to say the sky has played a major role in civilizations from the beginning of time. From the ancient Aztec, Mayan and Incan cultures whose daily lives revolved around celestial events to the time of the great philosophers Aristotle, Plato, and Ptleomy who developed the first theories relating too many of the celestial objects. Ptleomy identified 48 of the 88 constellations in the sky today. From Copernicus who was excommunicated from the holy Catholic Church for proving the earth revolved around the sun to Kepler and Galileo who improved the telescope and developed what we now call modern astronomy. Without the human desire to make sense of the unknown universe, Neil Armstrong would never have uttered his immortal quote “This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”, the breathtaking pictures from the Hubble telescope would have never been seen, and the eventual trip to Mars would never happen. Who could live without WD 40, Velcro, Teflon, Tupperware, and of course Tang all products developed by NASA for use in the space program to quench mans fascination with reaching the stars. 

Anytime you go out and experience nearby nature, you need to get your bearings. Looking at the night sky is no different. A few things to keep in mind; remember the sun rises in the eastern sky and sets in the western sky, the earth is rotating on its own axis as well as orbiting the sun, and finally the moon is orbiting the earth as the earth rotates while orbiting the sun. Now imagine the earth inside a huge ball or sphere. On the sphere are projected the stars, planets, and other celestial bodies. We will call this the celestial sphere. As the Earth rotates on its axis, the stars appear to move across the sky. Actually, they remain in place and the Earth is moving underneath them.  Imagine a line, the celestial equator separating the top of the sphere known as north and the bottom of the sphere known as south. Since we are located in Ohio; we can only see the stars that are in the northern hemisphere or top half of the sphere.  Since the earth is in the Milky Way galaxy surrounded by celestial objects, as the earth revolves around the sun and the autumnal equinox occurs (first day of fall) we see the celestial bodies of the fall and winter months. As spring approaches, due to the earth’s rotation around the sun, the vernal equinox occurs and we then see more of the celestial bodies that were in the southern hemisphere.  Then the pattern repeats itself year after year.

Okay now the fun begins. Go out around 9:00 at night, the first thing you need to do is to orient yourself as to where north and south are located. Since we are located in the northern or top half of the celestial sphere, this can be done by finding the North Star or Polaris. The North Star is what is called a circumpolar star. It appears to stay stationary in the sky and never rotates. That is because the axis of the earth points directly at the North Star. The North Star is the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper or Ursa Minor. Look to your right and down you have found Ursa Major or Big Dipper. As you turn your eyes to the right you can see Bootes with the bright star, Arcturus. As you continue to look right almost looking east now, you will see one very bright object and a dimmer one. These are planets, the brightest being Jupiter (whitish glow), then followed by Saturn (yellowish glow). When you find the planets you are also looking at the constellation Taursus the Bull.  As you continue toward turning right you will see the Dog Star or Sirrus. This is the brightest star in the sky. It is the eye of the one of the two hunting dogs of Orion,  Canis Major and Canis Minor. Continuing to turn right you will now see one of the biggest constellations, Orion the Hunter. This constellation can be easily identified by the three stars in a row that make up Orion’s belt. Two other prominent stars in Orion are Betelgese and Rigel. Directly above your head and at the top of Orion, you can see the bright twin stars Castor and Pollux. They make up Gemini.  As we look toward the west, we now can see Venus just after sunset. The constellations of Pices, Andromeda, and Pegasus can be seen. Finally as we continue turning we can see Draco, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia finally ending up back at the North Star.

This is just some of the fun you can have looking at the night sky. If you like shooting stars keep an eye out in November for the Leniod meteor showers which will occur around Nov. 17th.  The Geminid meteor showers will fill the night’s sky around December 14th. Depending on the intensity of moonlight, you could see a shooting star every minute.  Other celestial objects such as the moon, comets, asteroids, satellites, and galaxies can also be investigated relatively easily with a pair of binoculars or telescope. People who have Smartphone’s can download free apps such as Google Sky , Star Chart, or SkEye which use GPS technology to show many celestial objects by just pointing the phone toward the sky.

Joe Malmisur & Matt Sorrick

About Joe Malmisur & Matt Sorrick

Matt Sorrick is Director of The Center for Science Education at Hiram College. Joe Malmisur is an amateur naturalist and graduate of the Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist program.

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