Sunday, September 09, 2007

On A Clear Night You Can See Forver. Or At Least The Milky Way.

"Make the Stars Your Old Friends!" - Mike Lynch, Master Stargazing instructor.

The best place to look at the stars is wherever you happen to be. You can see stars from the most light-polluted area, even midtown New York City, if you stare long enough. The second best place to see the universe at night is from the beach at Montauk. On a clear night you will see more stars and objects in the sky than you probably have ever seen in your entire life. But in reality, you are only seeing a very small percentage of what is going on in the universe. Most of the interesting stuff is either too large, too small, too invisible or happening too slowly for our puny brains to comprehend or decipher. The ultimate adventure is one where we travel through time and space without ever moving a muscle. It can make you feel downright negligible in the scheme of things. (Sorta like how I feel after I do my tax returns.)

Let's start with the stuff you can see, shall we? First thing you see is the sand and the water. All that stuff and everything else that makes up the world is what we call matter. Matter is only about 4% of the entire Universe. That's it. The Grilled vegetables, roasted peppers, fresh mozzarella, balsamic dressing, lettuce & tomato on a French bread sandwich that you ate for lunch sounds like a lot of stuff, but it's miniscule compared to everything else. Feeling inconsequential yet?

Unfold your beach chair and sit. Ratchet it down to the lowest setting and relax. Let your eyes adjust to the darkness. Just like sailors get their sea legs, you need to get your sky eyes. It's a great magic trick because the longer you sit there staring at the sky, the more stars begin to pop out of the blackness. This is not actually happening but it is a phenomenon where you start seeing deeper into the night and your eyes adjust to let more light in, hence you start to see fainter stars.

The most obvious thing in the sky is a cloudy band that runs from north to south. This is the Milky Way. More than just a delicious chocolate bar, the Milky Way just happens to be the galaxy that we live in. What you are seeing is the light from stars deep in our galaxy's center. A dense concentration of stars makes this band glow in the night sky. Inside the Milky Way (of which that band is just a small part) are about 100 billion stars. Astronomers suggest that there are over 100 billion galaxies.

That's still only 4% of the entire Universe! The question that comes to mind is, "What the heck is the other 96% of the Universe made of?" Here's the answer: "We don't know!"

96% of the stuff out there is that we haven't figured out yet. We classify it as Dark Stuff. Or more accurately, Dark Matter, which makes up about 23% of the universe, and Dark Energy, which makes up about 73% of the universe.

But understanding the nature of the other 96% of the Universe is a beyond the scope of this article. We just care about the 4% of the Universe that we can see and understand; in other words, the stuff. Over your head you can see a good amount of that stuff with the naked eye; enough to make for an interesting evening.

Stars are what make this world interesting. Just look at the tabloids. If it weren't for stars, those magazines would have to write about something else. And as everyone knows, the best place to see a star is in the Hamptons.

The Big Dipper.

Most people will set up their chairs facing the water. If you are on the beach in Montauk, you're facing southeast. After you amaze yourself with the total incomprehension of the Milky Way for a while, the next thing you are likely to recognize is the Big Dipper. This will be in the northwestern area of the sky, just above the horizon behind you. By this time of year the Big Dipper is starting to dip a little below the horizon. It will be tilted downward, as if trying to spill out the contents in the bowl. The handle is made of three stars that go off toward the western horizon. If you're good enough, you can make out the entire Big Bear or Ursa Major.

The North Star.

After looking at the Big Dipper, you'll want to find the North Star. (Everybody does.) To do that you'll need to find the front of the Big Dipper's pot and trace a line from the two stars that make up the front, up in the direction of the very top of the sky overhead. Stop when you get approximately a fist's length away from the top of the pot and there sits the North Star, or Polaris. This is not the brightest star in the sky. Polaris has another claim to fame. It is a star that will always be in the northern sky no matter what the season. For all intents and purposes this is always going to be due north, which is why it is also called the "Pole Star." Because of the way the earth's rotation "wobbles" a little over thousands of years, this was not always so.

The Little Dipper.

Looking almost straight up but a little to the north, the North Star is actually the last star on the handle of The Little Dipper. Follow the stars in the handle to the pot and you will see this constellation as a tiny, upside down reflection of the Big Dipper. The Little Dipper is also called Ursa Minor, or The Little Bear.


Find the tip or edge of the pot of the Little Dipper and then find the handle of the Big Dipper. In between is the tail of Drago, The Dragon. Drago winds his way between the Big and Little Dipper. In the tail, between the Dippers is the star Thuban. (Interestingly, Thuban was the Pole Star back in 2700 BC because the North Pole wobbles as the Earth rotates making the Pole Star change every few thousand years.) To find Drago's head, follow the tail as it goes south between the Dippers, then makes a turn to the east and then doubles back to the west. The Dragon ends up looking southwest, the head in the shape of a trapezoid.


If you think of Drago's face as being the flat part of its head pointing southwest, then Drago is facing his eternal mortal enemy in the sky, Hercules. Hercules is a large but faint constellation, mimicking the mythological figure who was himself, large and brawny but a little dimwitted. His "foot" is exactly on top of Drago's "head." It's a billion year battle and neither has flinched yet. Although I bet Drago is getting a bit of a headache right about now. This constellation is also in the shape of the letter "H" so that also makes it easier to spot. If you believe the ancients, then Hercules and Drago-named Ladon in the myth-fought each other as part of the Hero's Twelve Labors to atone for his sins. The eleventh Labor was to retrieve the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, a gaggle of Nymphs. In the course of this labor, Hercules had to slay Landon. Of course, now Hercules can get Apples from the Apple Store (trademark).


The Lyre, as Lyra is called, is the constellation that is almost exactly overhead. It lies to the east of Hercules and contains the star Vega. Vega is easy to spot because it is one of the brightest stars in the summer sky. A lyre is a sort of Harp, something you've probably seen a thousand times in any epic movie about the ancient Greeks or Romans. Lyra is thought to be the lyre that Hermes (Mercury) gave to Apollo, who bequeathed it to his son Orpheus. The Lyra was then placed into the sky when Orpheus died.


Just to the east of Lyra is The Swan, Cygnus. This constellation is said to resemble a swan in flight and represents the god Phaethon, who was the son of Apollo. After taking his Dad's Chariot out for a joy ride, Zeus mistook the young lad for a thief and shot him with an arrow. When the gods found his body floating in a river they placed him in the sky among the stars. Let that be a lesson to you, you young whippersnappers! Inside of the constellation are the stars that make up the Northern Cross. The head of the cross, pointing north, is Deneb, a star that is 2600 light years away and about as bright as 160,000 of our suns! This is a true star among stars, a splendid naked eye, stargazing sight. Deneb was also a Pole Star about 18,000 years ago. The Swan actually looks like it is flying along the Milky Way from north to the south, with the star Deneb at the end of its tail.


Keep heading east and you will come to Pegasus, The Winged Horse. Now I've been to the Hampton Classic and let me tell you, wings or no wings, I just don't see it, so don't be too upset if you can make out a horse either. We are talking about the ancient world here so they had a lot more time on their hands to make stuff up. In any case, the square of Pegasus is supposed to be the body of Pegasus. After that, I'm lost.

The Andromeda Galaxy

Just north of the square body of Pegasus is a fuzzy little wisp called the Andromeda Galaxy. The wonderful thing about the Andromeda Galaxy is that at about 2.5 million light years away, it is the most distant object in the sky visible to the naked eye.

Here is a brief history of the observation of the Andromeda Galaxy. In 1764, a certain Charles Messier was creating a catalogue of the nebulous (cloudy) objects in the sky. He called the Andromeda Galaxy M31. In the first photographs of M31 taken by Isaac Roberts in 1887, the spiral structure of the galaxy was seen but it was still thought to be a nebula within our own galaxy. In 1917, Heber Curtis concluded through research that M31 was what was called at the time an "island universe." This theory said that the spiral nebulae were actually galaxies independent of our own. In 1925 the great astronomer, Edwin Hubble, (he who the famous Hubble Space Telescope was named after) measured objects within the M31 Nebula and concluded it was a galaxy outside of our own at a great distance away. M31 has played a starring role in the conclusive modern evidence of the structure of the universe. Even in the time when Albert Einstein was first putting together his Special Theory of Relativity in the early Twentieth Century, everyone believed that the Milky Way was all there was to the Universe. Now we know that the Universe is actually very, very vast-almost infinite-and made up of a structure of billions of galaxies that cluster together.

Pondering the Universe

The above examples of what can be seen outside in on a clear day are not even the tip of the iceberg. There are around 3,000 individual stars that can be seen in the night sky with the naked eye on a very clear night out in Montauk. You do not need to be a professional to enjoy the universe at night. All you need is a good view of the sky and a nice comfortable seat.

Here's a hint, when you are outside reading a star chart, use a red bulb flash light or cover your regular flashlight with red cellophane. This will reduce the glare of white light that will ruin your night vision. Also, pick a night when there is a crescent or even no moon. A full moon will ruin stargazing.

If you want to observe with any type of optical equipment then it is almost unanimous that the amateur start out with a pair of binoculars. Telescopes are hard to handle and can be frustrating to observe with. Binoculars are easy to carry just about anywhere, especially to the beach where it is almost impossible to get a stable area to set up a telescope.

If you want to learn more about astronomy or just see some cool pictures then there are a plethora of great books and websites out there to guide you through the beginning of a love affair with the stars. Forget the rags at the grocery store. For this type of star viewing you'll need the books I list below.

New York Starwatch by Mike Lynch

This is probably one of the easier to understand and informative books for the beginning sky gazer. I used it extensively to reference the constellations in this article and for my trips outside. I always reference it later on after sky gazing to look up what I saw. I also refer to it before I go outside to sharpen my memory. Mike gives you plenty of stuff to think about in the front chapters and then goes on to break down the major constellations viewable from every season in the New York area. In the back of the book are monthly star charts. What I really like is that he doesn't overwhelm you with stars and objects to observe. He just gives the major ones that almost anyone can see from their backyard, even in semi-lit regions. His book is a constant companion of mine on my trips outdoors to view the night sky. Believe it or not, he has a book for almost every state in the Union and Canada.

A Year in the Life of the Universe: A Seasonal Guide to Viewing the Cosmos by Robert Gendler.

Author/photographer Rober Gendler spends his free time taking pictures of the sky. Don't think he goes out with an Instamatic to snap a few shots, this guy is using the real technical kind of equipment stargazers wish they had. He uses a CCD camera and a computer to come up with amazing imagery that has appeared in various books and magazines. The pages of this book are adorned with gorgeous deep sky photography catalogued as they appear in the sky by position and season. When the moon is full or the sky is cloudy this is the book to curl up to and get inspiration. His shots include galaxies that are over 65 million light years away!

Observing the sky is like looking back in time. The closest star to the Earth is the sun! It's eight light-minutes away from the Earth. If the sun went out, we would not know for a whole eight whole minutes. This is because nothing, and I mean nothing, travels faster than the speed of light. That is the cosmic speed limit. The next closest star is Proxima Centauri, which is 4.2 light years away. The light that you see in the sky left the star in 2003. The furthest object you can see in the sky is the Andromeda Galaxy at a whopping 2.5 million light years away. The object in the sky that you see as the Andromeda Galaxy left the galaxy before man even stood upright! We are not seeing the galaxy as it looks now but as it looked 2.5 million years ago. Looking into the night sky is actually a farce, a cosmic lie on the grandest scale. Everything you are seeing is from a different time period, like the rings of a tree when you cut it open. We can only observe these things as they were, not as they are.

Lastly, when you are sitting on the beach, looking up into the cosmos, feeling insecure and lonely on our little planet thing of this: While you may feel very still, relaxed and comfortable, you are actually located on a planet spinning at a rate of about 1,000 miles an hour, orbiting the sun at 67,000 miles per hour, which orbits the galactic center at 487,000 miles per hour. So when you're out at the beach, lying down in your chair, hang on for dear life!

New York StarWatch by Michael W. Lynch and A Year in the Life of the Universe: A Seasonal Guide to Viewing the Cosmos by Robert Gendler can both be purchased at

About Mike Lynch. He has been a broadcast meteorologist and personality at WCCO Radio in Minneapolis, Minnesota, since 1981, as well as a regular weekly astronomy columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He can be found at

About Robert Gendler. He is a physician living in Connecticut with his wife and two children. His interest in astronomy dates back to his childhood in New York where he made frequent visits to the famous Hayden Planetarium. Check him out at

I used the following websites as additional reference for this article and for general enjoyment in stargazing.

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