I've always been interested in the stars, but I don't recall ever receiving any education in astronomy. I really wish that I had because now I feel like I missed out on decades worth of potential exploration. Self education wasn't highly accessible when I was a kid, but for those with internet access and a healthy dose of curiosity, it's a whole new world these days.
I live in an area that is positively filthy with light. We can see the brightest objects in the night sky, but our level of light pollution might make one think that the heavens have largely been abandoned. Compare our city view to the thousands of stars that would be visible in a beautifully clear dark sky.
With my impaired vision I can see even fewer stars than most, but it turns out that the entire night sky is accessible to me through the use of a really awesome application called Stellarium. It (both the software and the definition of the word) is an interactive map of the sky as seen from earth. While I do wish that I had the privilege of a better view, one must make do, and if Wikipedia is to be believed, even astronomers spend more time analyzing data than looking up at night.
I set up the Stellarium sky map on my computer in the same orientation as the sky above my head (facing east) to help me more easily navigate what I see when I do go outside. For every visible object Stellarium tells me what it is (star, variable star, double star, nebula, planet, asteroid, satellite, etc), plus a whole lot of other data that I'm still trying to grasp. For inner solar system objects (our moon, Venus, and Mercury) it tells me how much of the body is visible (crescent, full, or gibbous). For stars it tells me how many light years away they are, how bright they are, and how visible they are from earth. I've even caught the International Space Station flying by on my screen.
Stellarium alone wasn't enough to set me on the path of a stargazer. I first downloaded the software about five years ago, and although it was cool to look at, I didn't take enough time to really study what it had to offer. That's where EarthSky comes in. EarthSky is a daily email newsletter and website that calls attention to current celestial (and earthly) events. Most of what they post is within the understanding of a novice like me, with pointers to more in depth information for those who have the capacity to understand it.
In early June of this year, EarthSky described in very easy terms how to find the star Spica based on its proximity to the moon on a specific night. I don't know why I had to see that particular star, but I did. I really wanted to see it. We went out and found it, and now that it is no longer anywhere near the moon I can still find it because I know where it should be.
After that I returned to Stellarium to help me identify the other bright objects that we saw out there with Spica. At this time of year we can see six bright stars (Arcturus, Antares, and Spica, plus the summer triangle of Vega, Altair, and Deneb). Jupiter and Saturn are also highly visible right now.
After a few nights of going outside and being able to reliably identify those objects, we added another set of slightly less visible stars to the repertoire. First the big dipper and Polaris in the north. Then Regulus in the far west. Izar is not too far from Arcturus, and Dschubba is fairly obvious next to Antares, although the strangeness of the name has made that particular star more difficult to remember. (Apparently the D is silent.)
More recently we added Rasalhague, which is at the intersection of Vega and Antares, crossed with Arcturus and Altair. Then Alphekka on the line between Arcturus and Vega. Sadr hangs out by Deneb, and Kochab lives in the neighborhood between the big dipper and Polaris.
With an increasing amount of effort and sometimes painful squinting we can now identify quite a few more, but I didn't start writing this just to list out every star I can find. In addition to looking at them I've been reading up and learning about each new thing we discover, and it's been really fun. The tools I've used so far have been free, and the time I've spent would have probably otherwise been wasted away on Facebook or Instagram.
As the months progress I will be able to watch most of these stars set in the west and know that they will come around again in the east next year. I'm already looking forward to seeing Betelgeuse, Rigel, and Capella in November, and the uber bright Sirius in December. I can see that they're coming around because Stellarium lets me cycle through time using numeric dials. I wonder if I'll be able to see Fomalhaut in August, or will it be too close to the horizon. I don't know the answer yet, it'll be a new experience, and it will be fun to find out.
The daily inspiration from EarthSky combined with the ability to navigate those topics with Stellarium is just what I needed to reignite my youthful fascination with space. I'm slowly building an understanding of what is going on in the night sky and why the moon, planets, and stars appear to move the way that they do. That feeling of discovery makes me feel like a kid again. The best part is that it all continues to migrate throughout the year, fueling a continuous stream of curiosity.
About the Author
Annie Dunn is the artist behind Chaos in Color. She's kind of nutty about cats, has an odd affinity for skeletons, and likes to listen to audiobooks while working. Every once in awhile she puts things down in writing.