Before going any further, did anyone get the latest e-mail hoax? It concerns Mars and its supposed unusual approach to Earth on Aug. 28, making it appear to us as “big as the moon.”
Before going any further, did anyone get the latest e-mail hoax? It concerns Mars and its supposed unusual approach to Earth on Aug. 28, making it appear to us as “big as the moon.” A well-meaning friend recently e-mailed it to me, having received it from someone else.
The Internet is both a great tool and a source of trouble, the latter because of questionable information that is shared so easily. The same hoax claims Mars will be seen this close at 12:30 a.m.
There are two problems. First, Mars or any planet, NEVER approaches Earth close enough to appear more than a bright point of light to the unaided eyes. Secondly, Mars is presently very distant in its orbit, visible for only a short while after sunset before setting below the horizon. It is not visible at 12:30 a.m. anywhere on Earth at present.
Please delete this e-mail if you receive it!
What a sky!
My wife and I had an opportunity last week to see the starry sky like it was meant to be - not compromised by manmade pollution - whether air pollution or light pollution. Most Americans live in or near large urban areas, and their night sky is far diminished from what our forefathers took for granted. We talk of rare virgin trees and pristine wilderness; along with that, the “pristine virgin sky” is rare indeed.
We were on vacation in north central Pennsylvania, where the population is sparse and the great outdoors is celebrated as the main tourist attraction. Those of us in the heavily populated Eastern Corridor have fewer choices to see a truly dark sky, especially in an area open to the public and with an open view.
Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County is about a five-hour drive west of Honesdale, Pa., where this column is written. It is about 15 miles south of U.S. Route 6 on State Route 44 and is surrounded by a vast wilderness. The 48-acre park is also on a plateau, and the lights from the few towns in the area are hidden in valleys. The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) maintains a camping site there, and an “Astronomy Field” offering a wide, 360-degree open sky. There are three empty observatory domes that can be rented to place a telescope, or as most do, you set up your equipment on the field.
It is also not far from the famed “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.”
The night we were there, the moon was rising within an hour after twilight ended, so the period of darkness would not be all that long. As a result, there were only a handful of other visitors. It was also during the week. On a clear summer weekend with no moon, there can be as many as a hundred astronomy enthusiasts gathering in the dark looking up! They come from far and wide.
One big problem with planning a vacation like this is you never know about the clouds. We were absolutely blessed, as the sky was as clear as it could be. During the day, there were “postcard-perfect” blue skies, and at night, transparency that allowed the faintest of stars to shine on down.
It was well worth the trip. No matter which way you looked, there was no hint of light pollution; no horizon glow from a nearby town or mall; no light trespass from a security lamp, house light or streetlight. There were only occasional cars passing on Route 44, but the landscaping is designed to keep these lights from disturbing anyone.
What lights we saw on the ground were red - the rule is to cover your flashlights with red paper (or have red bulbs)! Red light does not ruin your night vision. Even the restroom facility had red lighting.
Personally, I do not recall seeing the Milky Way Band that bright in at least 30 years. Its billowing folds glowed like a towering smoke pillar. Constellations were salted with dim stars. Sixth magnitude stars were easily visible without optical aid. Sixth magnitude is normally as faint as you can see with eyes alone; in suburban areas you might see 5th magnitude except in rare conditions.
A telescope was not even needed; the feast for eyes alone was enough to celebrate and inspire.
Fortunately, the skies back home are not all that bad, depending on where you live. This column goes to different parts of the country thanks to GateHouse News Service. If you live under a city sky, you can still enjoy the moon, bright planets and hopefully some stars. Enjoy what you can and relish those special times when the sky is really clear or if you get a chance to go out in the country.
Meanwhile, we can do our part in encouraging preservation of the night sky. Vast amounts of money are thrown away nightly on lighting that is too bright. Security lamps, for instance, should be shielded to direct light down where it is wanted, and not wasting energy lighting the sky. Less wattage (and thus less money) is required if the lamp properly targets the illumination. The International Dark-Sky Association, based in Tucson, Ariz., is dedicated to these efforts. See www.darksky.org for more information.
To read more about Cherry Springs State Park, see www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/parks/cherrysprings.aspx.
New moon is Aug. 30, and first-quarter moon is Sept. 7.
Keep looking up!
Peter W. Becker is managing editor at The Wayne Independent in Honesdale, Pa. He has been an amateur astronomer since the age of 12, in 1969. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.