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Engaging History

by Dave Yanko

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.

-- Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn

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 pots.

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 this site.

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