We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars,
and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them and discuss about
whether they was made or only just happened.
by Dave Yanko
-- Mark Twain,
There used to be a time when a person could walk out of the house at night,
look up, and see the stars. Today, with most of us living in cities
and towns artificially lit for safety and commercial reasons,
up is no longer an interesting option. Up is the moon, and maybe
a few bright stars.
What we're missing by no longer looking up is our past, our future
and the secrets to life on Earth. And that's not to mention a sable canvas of sparkling beauty, a
tapestry of fascinating mythologies and legion astonishing facts.
|-- all images courtesy NASA
|At 2.2 million light years away,
the Andromeda Galaxy is the furthest object visible with an
unaided eye from Earth.
October and November in Saskatchewan provide some superb opportunities
for sky watchers. Autumn's shorter days bring the stars out two
hours earlier than in the summer time, and our widely dispersed
rural population makes it easy to find a requisite dark spot from
which to observe them. The bonus is that the sun's 11-year cycle
of activity is hitting its peak in 2000 and 2001. And that means
the chance of eyeing a spectacular display of northern lights won't
get any better.
It's a great time for a weekend retreat to one of Saskatchewan's
many all-season resorts. The crowds are gone; quiet prevails; there are no
mosquitoes or flies. Spend your days hiking or canoeing and your
evenings under the stars. (See bottom for gear.)
If it's really dark, you'll be able to see with an unaided eye
the Andromeda Galaxy, the most distant object we can see without
magnification. Andromeda's 500 billion stars appear as a light smudge
in the northeasterly sky (right overhead in November). But it's
a smudge that took more than two million years to arrive at Earth,
and that's travelling at the speed of light.
|The Great Orion Nebula is one
of the prettiest sites in the sky.
Virtually everything else we see when we look up at the night sky
is in our own Milky Way Galaxy -- we're able to see Andromeda because
we're looking at it through a sparsely-populated portion of the
Milky Way. It gives pause for thought when you consider human exploration
of our own galaxy is stymied by the enormous distances between its stars and planets.
Yet astronomers view galaxies like the Milky Way and distant Andromeda as mere molecules,
or building blocks of the universe. Grains of sand.
Another favorite object in the night sky is the constellation Orion, the Hunter. You'll
have to stay up late to see it -- 2 or 3 a.m. in October and after
midnight in November -- but it's worth it.
The Great Orion Nebula can be plainly seen with the naked eye on
dark nights. It's located in the sword dangling from the hunter's
three-star belt. The pretty glow clearly visible through binoculars
is actually a star factory, its centre a small cluster of baby stars
only 50,000 years old. The "nebulosity", or haziness, is a turbulent
cloud of ionized gas and dust.
The star representing the Hunter's right shoulder (to our left as we view it) is Betelgeuse, a distant sun of enormous size. It's a "red supergiant" with a diameter
equal to the orbit of Jupiter.
|Betelgeuse, almost unimaginably
huge, and its location in the constellation Orion.
Orion is a good place to see that stars "shine" in different colors. Betelgeuse is clearly
reddish in color, while Rigel, which appears to us as the bottom
right star of Orion, is a crisp sapphire blue.
The planet Jupiter will rise in the east-northeast after 10 p.m.
in October and just after dark in November. It will track along
the ecliptic, the path followed by the sun, moon and planets as
they appear to move from left to right across our sky.
Jupiter provides one of the most beautiful views in the night sky
when seen through binoculars. It's not the planet itself that so
captivating, but rather its four largest moons: Io, Ganymede, Callisto
and Europa. Usually one or two of them, at least, are visible on
either side of the planet. Europa, you may have heard, is now one
of astronomy's best bets for harboring, or having harbored, extraterrestrial
life in the form of aquatic microorganisms.
The moons, invisible to the naked eye, appear in binoculars as
bright little diamonds enhancing the jovial giant. Its a very pretty
sight, and one that will make you realize you don't need to have
a telescope to enjoy the night sky. You don't even need to have
binoculars to take pleasure in viewing the sky from a dark location.
If the northern lights make their debut, for instance, just kick
back and enjoy the show. Try whistling at them to see whether they
come closer, a notion held in Cree mythology. Or imagine what early,
so-called "primitive" societies made of these luminous curtains
in the northern skies.
The earliest inhabitants of Greenland believed they
were the spirits of children who died at birth, now dancing around
a fire. The Mandan of what's now North Dakota, meanwhile, believed
the shimmering lights were the fires of warriors boiling their enemies in enormous
|A deep-sky image of a cluster
of galaxies in the constellation Draco.
Modern science still has much to learn about the aurora. But their
cause is believed to be connected to solar wind storms, which produce
energized particles in the Earth's magnetosphere. These particles
enter the Earth's atmosphere at the poles. And when they strike
molecules and atoms in the thin, high atmosphere some of them begin
to glow different colors.
With the advent of satellite imagery, it's now known a display of northern lights, or aurora borealis,
is always matched by an almost identical display of southern lights,
or aurora australis. However, another curious characteristic noted by many Innuit people in Canada's north -- that the northern lights actually make noise --
has yet to be proved by science.
So if the whistling works and they come closer, listen carefully.
You could be one of the few "southerners" to hear the northern lights.
Here's what you need to gain a new appreciation of the largest
part of our environment: lots of warm clothes, a small flashlight,
binoculars, a good "star-hopping" book for binocular users, lawn
chairs, a thermos bottle or two, and a bottle of red nail polish.
Yep. Use it to coat the lens of your flashlight. Red light won't
much diminish your night vision after using it to view the star
book. Red celophane will work, too.
Before making plans, check a calendar to find out when the moon
is full and avoid the week preceding and following it. You don't
need a moonless night to enjoy stars or northern lights, but good
"seeing" comes with reduced moonlight and clear skies -- check the
long-range weather forecast as well.
When booking your country accommodation, ask about night lighting
in the immediate area and which cabins afford the best, unobstructed
view of the sky. Maybe there's a nearby height of land or a wide-open lakeshore area
that offers an expansive view in a dark setting.
For a graphic image of the current aurora oval, created using
satellite data, click here.
And for some of the best aurora photographs anywhere, check out
| Contents |
| Events | Search |
Prints 'n Posters | Lodging
Assistance | Golf |
© Copyright (1997-2012) Virtual Saskatchewan