How To Be a Rock Star Gazer

Star Struck

By Vinish K Saini from Chandigarh, India (Moon n Venus played hide-and-seek) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Moon and Venus (credit: Vinish K. Saini)
You don’t just want to be a star gazer.  Anyone capable of tilting their head back at night can be that.  You want to be a Rock Star Gazer.  A Rock Star Gazer  is a gazer who says:

That red star is Betelgeuse.  It represents the arm pit of the great hunter Orion.

The typical star gazer is more likely to say:

Oh, that pretty one is twinkling, I think it’s… ops, no it’s just an airplane.

The primary requirement to be a Rock Star Gazer is that you appear to know more than your gazing companions.  One strategy of course is to simply hang out with slightly stupid people.  The reason I caveat “slightly” is that if they are actually “totally” stupid they may not be able to appreciate and acknowledge your star stardom, which pretty much defeats the whole purpose.

Assuming your companions have cleared the 70 IQ hurdle, you probably need to actually learn something about star gazing.  If on a hot summer evening you say with confidence:

Castor and Pollux sure look bright tonight…

and one of your gazing companions mumbles something remotely sounding like idiot, it should be clear you have given up your Rock Star Gazer title. Otherwise you would have known Gemini appears in the winter evening sky.  Lamely offering up that you meant  from Australia is not enough to recover.

Our goal here is not to teach you everything you need to know about stars, but rather to give you a framework to accelerate your journey.  Remember you don’t have to actually get there, you just have to be ahead of the others.

Star Gazing Applications and Tools

Yes, I am aware there are star gazing applications which allow star wannabes to point their PDA towards the sky and declare: “There is Cassiopeia!”  The problem is that pointing the PDA and reading is a dead give away.  It is clear you have no idea what you are looking at other than what you are reading, which the woman gazing over your shoulder can do faster and frankly with better retention.  Use these applications to practice your star gazing skills, but never let others see you.  It’s too much like the Wizard of Oz begging us to “ignore that man behind the curtain.”  Too late, star status lost.

There are some other freely available study resources that can help rock your star world.  Sky charts can be found and printed at http://skymaps.com/  The charts show the current month view of sky, including location of visible planets.  Again, great resource, but study at home.

Rock Star Basics

Establish some street cred by working these facts into the conversation.  At times it may feel awkward and forced, but more than likely they will be mumbling “Wow, I never realized that.”

A star is a burning ball of flames so far away it appears to us as a point.  As such, it has no real shape and is subject to atmospheric interference, causing it to “twinkle.”  Magnifying with binoculars may reveal additional stars, but does nothing to provide more details for the ones we can see.  The color of the star revels its relative temperature.  Hot to Cold, Blue->White->Yellow->Orange->Red.

A constellation is a region of the sky as viewed from earth.  There are 88 modern constellations. Any star within the region is considered part of the constellation.  It does not matter if the star plays a role in some bizarre connect-the-dot version of a flying horsey or a mythical dragon.  If it is in the region, it is in the constellation.

An asterism is a subset of stars that make a well known shape.  The Big Dipper is an asterism, not a constellation.  The constellation Big Dipper is in is Ursa Major (Big Bear).

A planet is a sphere circling the sun.  Those visible to our naked eye are close enough to have a shape, which is a small disk or sliver of a disk depending on the phase.  As such, they do not really “twinkle” like the “pointy” stars.  The color of a planet does not reveal its temperature, but rather the color of its surface or atmosphere.

Remembering stars and constellations is a challenge because most of us don’t do it often enough, and the dang things keep moving.  Or at least they appear too.  To help with navigation, we will divide the sky into 3 regions:

  • circumpolar north
  • zodiac belt
  • southern sky

Finding North

Star_Trail_above_Beccles_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1855505
Star Rotation

Your first opportunity to present as a rocker is to point out that the earth rotating on it’s axis makes the stars appear to move.  Everything appears to rotate around the north star like a giant backwards twenty four hour clock.  Great, but since the clock is moving super slow, it’s not like you can look up and tell which one everything is turning around.  Therefore, being able to identify the north star is your first and most important sky skill.   Contrary to popular belief, the North Star (Polaris) is not a particularly bright star, and most people rely on the pointer stars from the Big Dipper to find it.

Circumpolar North

Since everything appears to rotate around the North Star, there is a disk of the sky that is visible all year round. The North Star is the center of this disk (or rather close enough).  The radius of the disk is equal to the distance from the North Star down to the horizon.  The further north you are on the planet, the higher the North Star appears in the sky, and therefore the larger the circumpolar region.  As you move south, the North Star gets lower, shrinking the size of the “always visible” disk.  Side Note: the angle from the ground to the North Star tells you your latitude.

This circumpolar region is your friend.  Learn the stars, constellations, and Greek mythology of this region.  It is time well spent.  Regardless of the season, you will always be able to show off your incredible knowledge of this always-visible region.  Focus on the Ursa Major (Big Dipper), Ursa Minor (Little Dipper), Cassiopeia, and Cepheus.  For extra credit, point out Thuban, a minor star that used to be the pole star long before the current one.

Zodiac Belt

The Zodiac Belt (aka ecliptic) is where the action is.  Because our solar system is relatively flat, with all planets circling in essentially the same plane, everything appears to pass through this belt.  The sun, the moon, and the planets all travel along this solar super highway.  The reason this is important is to keep you from looking like an idiot.  If you ever look for a planet outside this belt, you are in fact looking like an idiot.

Using your sky chart aides, you can determine if and where the five visible-to-the-naked-eye planets are located.  The five visible are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.  Mercury and Venus are on closer orbits of the Sun than Earth.  That means we have to look kinda towards the Sun to see them. Therefore, you can only see them just before sunrise or after sunset.  Mercury is ridiculously hard to see but Venus (the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon) is often refereed to as the Evening Star or the Morning Star.  If you are looking for Mercury or Venus in the middle of the night, you are again looking like an idiot.  The other three (Mars Jupiter and Saturn) are in further out orbits of the Sun than Earth and therefore have the potential to be visible at any time during the night.

The ancients recognized the importance of this action packed belt, and started tracking where the sun was relative to the stars behind it.  This constellation / sun connection defines the calendar of the zodiac.

Constellation Description Date Brightest Star
Aries Ram Apr – May Hamal
Tarrus Bull May – Jun Aldebaran
Gemini Twins Jun – Jul Pollux
Cancer Crab Jul – Aug Al Tarf
Leo Lion Aug – Sep Regulus
Virgo Maiden Sep – Oct Spica
Libra Scales Oct – Nov Zubeneschamali
Scorpio Scorpion Nov Antares
Sagittarius Archer Dec – Jan Kaus Australis
Capricorn Sea Goat Jan – Feb Deneb Algedi
Aquarius Water Bearer Feb – Mar Sadalsuud
Pisces Fish Mar – Apr Eta Piscium

A challenge of being a Rock Star Gazer is that people will often say something like, “I’m a Libra.  Where is my constellation?”  This is where your study aid can help.  If you know during the evening of a particular month which Zodiac Constellation is rising and which is setting, you can approximate the location of the visible ones in between.  And for goodness sake, do not get caught looking outside the Zodiac belt for a Zodiac Constellation.

Southern Sky

The southern sky is like the astronomical clearance rack.  None of the major brand Zodiac constellations are available there.  None of the big wig wanders (Sun, Moon, or any planets) are ever caught passing through.  Unlike the consistent and reliable Circumpolar North, the Southern Sky is constantly changing with the seasons.  Here you may find little known irregulars such as Eridanus, Lupus, and Grus.

That’s not to say there aren’t some great deals in the southern sky, because there are.  The great hunter constellation Orion (a crowd favorite) is there every winter season.  The spectacular winter hexagon of stars (Sirus, Rigel, Aldebaran, Capella, Pollux and Procyon) are also on full display.

Star Showers

By C m handler (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Meteor – Credit: C m handler
After slimming your way to Rock Star Gazer  status, you may feel the need to cleanse your soul with a meteor shower.  A meteor is a small piece of dust or dirt brilliantly burning up in our atmosphere.  Passing through the tail of an old dirty comet increases the chance of “dust ups” creating spectacular displays.  Some of the more common displays include:

Name Constellation Viewing
 Lyrids  Lyra  April 21-22
 Pereids  Perseus  Aug 12-13
 Orinids  Orion  Oct 21-22
 Leonids  Leo  Nov 16-18

Conclusion

To be a Rock Star Gazer is a great responsibility.  Simpleton star gazers will be looking up to you, then back at the stars, then back again to you.  Probably with a puzzled expression.  Your ability to speak confidently, if not actually competently, is critical.  Information is dangerous and you now have enough to be on the night time wilderness most wanted list.  Congratulations.

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