Fall into the sky

Image by Bradley Allweil

Gazing up at the night sky is one of the great delights in Muskoka. After all, there’s a reason this region is home to Canada’s first dedicated Dark Sky Reserve (the Torrance Barrens): with very little light pollution in much of Muskoka, we can see a great deal of the night sky.

Whether you’re viewing the stars from the Barrens or from your dock, to really take advantage of our view it’s helpful to have some added magnification.

Many people who want to take their stargazing to the next level invest in a telescope. But that can be a mistake. A telescope gives you an extremely good look at a small section of sky. For budding astronomers of all ages, though, it’s often more interesting — and easier — to navigate around the skywith a pair of binoculars.

They may offer less magnification, but they let you see a larger section of the sky at once.

You don’t even need to purchase expensive binoculars: you probably already have a pair lying around the cottage or in the boathouse that are ideal for star gazing.

Binoculars are typically described using two numbers:  8×42, 10×50 and so on. The first number is the magnification power, and the second is the lens diameter in millimetres. So 8×42 binoculars have 42 mm lenses and allow you to see things 8 times bigger than they appear to the naked eye.

The larger the lens, the more light it picks up. Perfect for stargazing, right? But of course, there are tradeoffs.

Bigger binoculars are usually heavier so they’re harder to hold steady without a tripod, particularly when you’re looking up. And if the magnification is too high, you may find it harder to identify exactly what you’re looking at since the field of view is too small. This article will give you a lot more information on choosing binoculars, but in general something like a 7×50 binocular will be a great choice for stargazing.

Start with the moon

While moonless nights are the best time to see stars, the moon itself is an amazing sight through binoculars.

The moon shines because it is reflecting sunshine back at us. But sometimes we come between the moon and the sun. That’s why it has phases:  over the course of a 28 day cycle, the shadow of the earth gradually moves across the face of the moon, hiding part of it from view..

Most moon observers say that the moon looks its most interesting as it transitions from a new moon, when it is completely obscured by the earth’s shadow, toward being full. This is when you get the best view of the giant craters — called Mare or Seas. At certain times of day, the ridges of these craters cast long shadows on the moon, which you can pick out with good binoculars.

The next new moon is on October 16, so the second part of this month should offer some amazing moon viewing opportunities.

Wandering planets

While you’re looking at the moon this month, it will be nearly impossible to miss the bright reddish “star” nearby. That is Mars, which is currently closer to the earth than it’s been for two years. Even when the moon was nearly full earlier this month, obscuring most stars with its brightness,  you could still see its bright companion.

In fact, Mars is brighter now than it will be for another 15 years. For the next month it’s brighter than anything in the sky, other than the sun, the moon and Venus, the “morning star”.

Jupiter is another interesting planet to study. With good binoculars and a steady hand, you can often see four tiny blips of light right beside Jupiter. These are some of the planet’s moons, and if you view them several nights in a row you can see their position change relative to each other, as they orbit their parent planet.

Beyond the solar system

Armed with a good planisphere (a star map) or an app, you can  start to navigate the entire night sky. With the naked eye on a clear night, you can see three or four thousand 3,000; with even a pair of 7×32 binoculars you can see around 100,000 stars!

The closest of these, Proxima Centauri, is a little over four light years away, meaning that light from the star takes four years to reach us. That’s about 40 trillion kilometres. By comparison, the light from our own sun takes about eight minutes to reach us.

But our nearest neighbour is just around the corner compared to the rest of the galaxy. Look at the brightest part of the Milky Way and you’re looking toward the heart of our galaxy, about 26,000 light years away.

Not only do the binoculars let you spot many more stars, they can also show you details about star-like objects. Look at the constellation Orion, for example, and you’ll see that the sword that hangs from his belt includes a rather fuzzy patch of light. This is the Orion Nebula, a gassy cloud where several stars are being born. It will be 20,000 years or more before the stars within that nebula are visible to future humans.

In fall and winter, you can even view beyond the galaxy. The constellation Andromeda is high in the sky for the next few months. Near the centre of it is a bright patch of light: the Andromeda Galaxy. It’s an entire galaxy of around a trillion stars located 2.5 million light years away.

Posted in Connecting with Nature.