To Learn the Sky, Ditch the Technology

by Rod Kennedy

July is the height of summer.  A great time for all kinds of outdoor activities from picnics to hiking and camping.  Camping trips are a great chance to get back to our primitive roots and experience the outdoors, including the sky.  So often we linger under a light polluted sky that we fail to appreciate the wonders of the sky that our ancestors did.  While technology like telescopes and binoculars can enhance the wilderness sky experience, some technologies are not well suited to the task of learning the sky.

Today there are a wide variety of “desktop planetarium” softwares available, some of them free.  While these programs are great for learning the sky when the weather is inclement, or controlling back yard observatories, they are not practical for family camping trips.  Primarily because of the risks involved with any trip into the outdoors.  However, most of them can print useful star charts that can be taken on family outings.  These charts can be printed for certain sections of the sky or for the entire sky depending on how much detail you are looking for.

One of the latest tech crazes is the night sky app available for most smart phones.  These apps allow the user to point the phone at the sky and get a picture of the constellation, stars and planets that are in the field of view at that moment.  While this is truly brilliant technology, it too has certain draw backs.  First, if you are out of a coverage area (as some wilderness areas are) your phone will search for signal continuously, thus draining battery power.  Second, the bright screen of most smart phones impairs your night vision, making most faint objects invisible.  This is also a drawback of using a computer in the field.

So how does one learn the sky without the use of high tech gadgets?  It is easiest to begin with the bright stars.   In the West we find Arcturus in Boötes the Herdsman.  To find Arcturus follow the curve of the Big Dipper’s handle toward the West.  Arcturus is a bright orange star high in the West.  Following the line further down toward the horizon we find Spica in Vrigo the Maiden.

Looking to the South we find Antares in Scorpius.  Slightly to the East of Scorpius is Sagittarius the Archer.  Sagittarius doesn’t really look like the mythical centaur that it is supposed to be; instead it looks more like a tea pot or old style coffee pot.

In the East we find the 3 bright stars of the Summer Triangle: Vega, Altair and Deneb.  These are the 3 brightest stars of Lyra the Harp, Aquila the Eagle, and Cygnus the Swan.  These 3 stars and their associate constellations will be high in the eastern sky throughout July.

Many telescope and scientific equipment companies sell a variety of gadgets to “enhance” the sky watching experience.  However, gadgets can fail if they are dropped or dunked in water; and their batteries can run out of charge under conditions of extreme heat.  While technology appeals to the geek in all of us, it can never replace a well rounded knowledge of the sky.

July 2011 Chart

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