The night sky is beautiful. And that includes the Perseid Meteor Shower, an annual favorite that peaked this past week, although burning bits of space flotsam will continue to stream into the atmosphere until Aug. 24 or so. But the moon’s brightness this month will make all but the biggest and hottest meteors invisible.
In any case, there’s always something else to see. Skywatchers have all sorts of cool things to look up to year-round. On Aug. 18, Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest planets in our sky, will be a mere 0.25 degrees away from each other.
How much is .25 degrees? If you hold your hand out at arm’s length, then stick up your little finger, the width of that little finger is about 1 degree.
That tip comes from Exploring The Night Sky: The Equinox Astronomy Guide For Beginners, by Terence Dickinson (1987). It’s a packed 75 pages, text heavy, and therefore written for older children, but a useful primer for adults too (if you don’t mind elegant simplicity): “[E]ach galaxy has as many stars as there are grains of sand in an overflowing wheelbarrow.”
There are sections on the huge distances of space, a glossary, explanations of things like quasars, and a guide to our own night sky.
The hand’s first three fingers, stuck up and mashed together, measure about 5 degrees. “If you spread your fingers as wide as possible, the Big Dipper is roughly as long as the distance from the tip of your thumb to the end of your little finger.” That’s 25 degrees. And from that you can start fingering, er, figuring, where things are.
To identify the constellations, check out The Glow In The Dark Night Sky Book (by Clint Hatchett, illustrated by Stephen Marchesi, 1988), which is really just a very simple collection of maps. You’ll need a flashlight to “recharge” the map every so often, as you snuggle into a big blanket with the kids and match the pictures to the stars. The only other thing you need to know is which direction is south.
Want something to read that’s in between, with lots of info but intended for younger children? The Kids Book Of The Night Sky, by Ann Love and Jane Drake, illustrated by Heather Collins (2004), is a good bet. It’s got more pictures and larger print than the Equinox Astronomy Guide, clocks in at almost 150 pages, and includes lots of ancient lore and myths about the stars (and the gods who embodied them). Plus jokes.
There’s also crafts; read through the directions and have what you need before promising to make something.
Looking for something en francais? Etoiles Et Planetes (by Robin Kerrod, 2003), is full of colour and is a busy busy busy bunch of spaceships and satellites and planets. Et voila!
Eventually, though, you may get tired of staying up late. And it’s going to get chilly. Switch over to Exploring The Sky By Day: The Equinox Guide To Weather And The Atmosphere, by Terence Dickinson (1998), which offers blue sky and the warmth of the sun.
Our atmosphere is “a complex weather machine.”
“The day sky is our window on the weather and even on space, where the sun is millions of times more distant than the outer edge of Earth’s atmosphere.”
This is a book filled with clouds, sundogs and raindrops, fog and dew. It’s not for those who are afraid of words – there’s a lot them. But still, as with Dickinson’s other book, it’s accessible: “Rainbows are curved because they are part of a circle. To see the complete rainbow, you have to be in an airplane looking down on a rainstorm.” So go ahead, try to find the pot of gold at the end…
Weather is fun. Oh, but there’s something about the night sky’s stars. There are all kinds of websites that list upcoming phenomenon for skywatchers. Start with books, then get the updated details, and look up.
– Eleanor Brown, August 15, 2014