Summertime is around the corner (in the Northern Hemisphere) and for sky watchers, like me, we start to get excited because the core of Milky Way is coming into view. Normally, when I go out to the mountains or desert for a night of astrophotography, I take my three telescopes, tracking mount, and a host of other equipment. But you don’t need all that when looking to capture the Milky Way core. You just need a camera and fast wide-angle lens. You also have another option: You can just find a place with dark skies, put down a blanket, lie down, look up, and let your imagination take you to distant worlds.
The fact that we can observe so much of our solar system, our galaxy, and even the Andromeda galaxy that’s 2.5 million light years away, with just our naked eye often goes unappreciated. Sometimes, when spending hours trying to get that perfect photo of the Whirlpool Galaxy, it’s easy to literally have a narrow a field of view, and miss the great nighttime show happening all around us. It was with great excitement therefore that I picked up Bob King’s new book Night Sky with the Naked Eye.
King is a regular contributor to Sky and Telescope and the curator of his Astro Bob website (https://astrobob.areavoices.com/). I highly recommend that everyone interested in astronomy and astrophotography read his contributions regularly. In addition, his book is a must read, especially for those new to looking to the heavens but even for more experienced observers.
King’s book starts with our International Space Station (ISS) and describes how to find out when it’s going overhead and where to look. When introducing new skywatchers to the excitement of finding things in the night sky, I’ve found that an ISS overfly has presented a great opportunity. Everyone loves a game, and you can make a great game of seeing who can find the ISS first. King describes many details about the space station, and reminds us of the dynamics of why we can see it and how it disappears as it moves into the Earth’s shadow.
As an astronomy merit badge counselor for the Boy Scouts (Troop 4, La Jolla, California), the material in King’s book will provide me with a very nice adjunct to the information presented in the official Scout pamphlet. It also has prompted me to think of new ways to get young people (and maybe some older people too) thinking about how the physics of the solar system and our galaxy work.
For example, when we observe the moon shortly after a new moon we can often see more than just the bright sunlit crescent. We can see the rest of the moon’s face in a shadowy grey. Why is that? If you don’t know, here’s an invitation to read King’s book.
Here’s another example. When setting up a telescope, if your mount is like mine you’ll have to do a polar alignment. To do that, you have to start with finding Polaris. But why is Polaris the “north star?” Has the Earth’s axis always pointed at Polaris? Will it always be pointed at Polaris? Again, if you don’t know the answers, it’s time to pick up King’s book.
The book proceeds to cover all the planets we can observe without the aid of binoculars or telescopes, the moon, constellations, asterisms, stars, double stars, star clusters, the Andromeda galaxy, meteor showers, and aurora. It also highlights software that’s available to assist observations, including www.heavens-above.com and the program Stellarium, two of my personal favorites. Night Sky with the Naked Eye is a thorough treatment of how to appreciate the night sky that imbues King’s emotional connection to the activity. I expect you’ll find his enthusiasm contagious.