Winter in Alaska a great time for stargazing

Lessons in Up Looking

Posted: Sunday, December 03, 2006


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  The aurora borealis fills the southwest sky above Soldotna in October 2003. The northern lights are a favorite subject for night watchers. Clarion File Photo

The aurora borealis fills the southwest sky above Soldotna in October 2003. The northern lights are a favorite subject for night watchers.

Clarion File Photo

Few places in the country lend themselves to backyard astronomy as well as Alaska.

It’s no wonder that the most prominent feature on the state’s flag is a constellation of stars.

One would be hard-pressed to find an Alaskan who cannot identify Ursa Major — the Big Dipper.

Also a snap for the backyard astronomer is spotting the aurora borealis, the occasional comet, meteorites or shooting stars and, of course, the moon.

Back in the late 1950s, people gathered in backyard block parties to wait for the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, to pass overhead. Today, it’s nearly impossible to go out on a clear night and not see a satellite orbiting Earth.

Of particular interest these days are iridium flares, which are actually highly reflective satellites that occasionally appear as very bright, split-second flashes of light in the night sky.

All these celestial bodies can be seen with the naked eye, but with the aid of a good pair of binoculars, especially mounted on a sturdy tripod or at least braced against a door frame, the detail of closer objects such as the moon is greatly enhanced and the number of visible objects such as other planets in the solar system increases.

A good telescope adds to the experience, but more on that later.

With the naked eye, people can actually see 3,000 stars in the night sky, according to Leah Eskelin, lead flight director at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai.

That’s a lot to look at, until one considers that there are 400 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.

Knowing which star is which, and being able to identify constellations is a bit of a challenge, but much like finding one’s way around the state, it becomes much easier with a road map of sorts.

Using the Big Dipper as a starting point, many bright stars or stellar groups can be easily identified. As Alaskans proceed into December, the constellation Orion also becomes more visible and acts as a good signpost.

No matter what day of the year or time of night, the Big Dipper can be seen in the northern part of the sky every clear night.

As the Earth orbits around the sun, the position of the Big Dipper’s seven stars changes as seen from Earth, but the pattern of the stars in the constellation constantly provides at least seven sky pointers directing the eye to other constellations such as the Little Dipper or Cassiopeia and such bright stars as Polaris, Vega, Arcturus, Regulus, Castor and Capella.

Thinking of the Big Dipper as having four stars as the cup and three stars in a curved pattern as the handle, at this time of year in Alaska, the Big Dipper appears to be standing on its handle.

The two stars on top, or the front of the cup, point in a straight line to Polaris — the North Star.

Thinking of the Little Dipper also as having four stars forming its cup and three forming the handle, Polaris is the star at the end of its handle.

Following the Little Dipper’s three handle stars and top two cup stars in a downward arch to the right makes it easy to identify the constellation. It also helps to remember that the Little Dipper pours into the Big Dipper, said Eskelin, who teaches a class in beginning astronomy through the Challenger Learning Center.


NASA handout graphic

Similar to giving someone directions to one’s house obscurely located in rural reaches of the Kenai Peninsula, it helps to use a map.

For stargazers, the map is called a sky chart.

Useful, easy-to-follow sky charts can be found in the book, “NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe,” and online.

At a glance, sky charts seem to be backwards, with east being to the left and west to the right when held with north at the top.

The charts, however, map the stars above, so the key to viewing them is to rotate the chart so the direction one is facing is at the bottom of the chart. That way, chart directions will match compass points.

To see the most stars indicated on a sky chart, people should go out in the country on a moonless night. Lights from the city or from the moon — referred to as light pollution — reduce the number of stars that are visible.

Eskelin, who moved to Alaska from Florida, likes to use the constellation Orion as a guidepost. While visible for much of the year at southern latitudes, it does not become visible in the northern sky until November.

In November, Orion can be seen just above the eastern horizon, and it rises into the night sky as winter progresses. In December, it is visible in the southeastern sky and in January and February, in the southern sky.

Orion’s seven bright stars are aligned in an hourglass pattern with the three middle stars appearing as Orion’s belt at the waist of the hourglass.

Looking due left along the straight line of Orion’s belt, one sees the bright star Sirius, and due right leads to Aldebaran and the tiny, tight cluster of stars, Pleiades.

Betelgeuse and Rigel are the top and bottom stars of Orion, respectively.

“Sirius is visually the brightest star in our night sky,” said Eskelin.

It is also the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major — the Dog constellation.

“Pleiades looks like a bag of sparkling diamonds,” said Eskelin.

“It’s very easy to see without a telescope,” she said.

Known as the Seven Sisters, Pleiades is the little cluster of stars aligned in the same pattern as the Subaru car logo, Eskelin said.

“I try to connect real life and astronomy for children,” she said.

At the Challenger center, Eskelin teaches astronomy as one of five 2 1/2 hour workshops on various science topics. Others include rocketry, robotics, simple machines and physiology in space.

The general core group of students is grades four through seven, but Eskelin said workshops are also taught to children from kindergarten through ninth grade.


Leah Eskelin helps the public learn about space in her role as lead flight director at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai.

M. Scott Moon

“Astronomy is ideal for the core group and one of strongest interest to the children,” she said.

Classes are taught at the center in Kenai, and because of the portability of the center’s inflatable planetarium, can be taken on the road to schools around the state.

Unlike planetariums housed in large, permanent buildings in big cities, the Challenger planetarium fits neatly into three carrying cases and a large duffel bag.

The dome itself inflates in about 15 minutes and can seat up to 30 children inside. The hard-sided cases house the planetarium projector and star chart cylinders used for displaying the sky onto the dome.

“Before I could get a telescope, I used binoculars,” Eskelin said. “They’re good especially for seeing the planets.”

In fact, telescopes can be frustrating to beginners who have difficulty finding what they’re looking for at high magnification.

Eskelin recommends visiting a good optics shop before purchasing a telescope, and said, “A lot of good astronomers through the college can give good advice.”

She specifically mentioned Andy Veh at Kenai Peninsula College, who has taught astronomy classes and occasionally invites the public to join him for viewing spectacular astronomical events through his telescopes.

“NightWatch” author Terence Dickinson is quick to caution first-time telescope buyers to avoid the $200 department store telescope.

“Even expert observers soon become frustrated when trying to operate these instruments, with their jiggly mounts and rickety tripods,” Dickinson writes. “They barely function and usually only at their lowest power, typically about 36x with a 20mm eyepiece.”

Instead, Eskelin suggests saving a little while longer and purchasing a more advanced telescope.

Dickinson recommends a 6-inch Newtonian reflector telescope with a Dobsonian mount for around $500.

With such a solid, ball-bearing adjustable base, the Newtonian will easily reveal the rings of Saturn, the red spot of Jupiter, the polar caps and dark regions on Mars and thousands of identifiable features on the moon’s surface.

Newer models of Newtonian telescopes, also priced below $500, come equipped with computers built right into the mount, serving as a stargazer’s guide to the universe.

On Thursday, the Challenger Learning Center will showcase the launch by live feed from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center of Space Shuttle STS-116, piloted by Alaska’s astronaut, Bill Oefelein.

Following the launch, scheduled for 5:39 p.m. Alaska time, will be an astronomy party for the public featuring the center’s Starlab planetarium showing all the stars in Alaska’s night sky. Weather permitting, telescopes will be set up outside for actual stargazing.

Eskelin said, when teaching astronomy to children, she teaches them to not be overwhelmed.

“Just look for the best, the brightest stars in the northern sky,” she said.

Phil Hermanek can be reached at phillip.hermanek@

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