Trifles Among A Celestial Masterpiece
"Trifles make perfection,
and perfection is no trifle."
In astronomy there are lots of big, bold, badass concepts--from the Big Bang to black holes. Each one of those merits a dedicated Science Cafe by a dedicated professional. However, I propose that astronomy offers a more personal type of grandeur, one in which you can sample accessible highlights until the tasty morsels of small events add up to a banquet. Many observational trifles reveal a celestial masterpiece.
Image: Separation of Light from Darkness by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Credit: Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Here are a few ways you can partake in the experience--trifles that make up a celestial masterpiece.
See the moon. During the Sept. 27 total lunar eclipse, the full moon glides into the shadow of the earth at favorable hours. Host a Sunday evening party to witness the elegant spectacle--the solar system in motion.
Stalk a Star
Seek out a real star--not a made-for-TV star. In 2015, South Bend's sesquicentennial star is Eltanin. In 2016, Indiana's bicentennial star is Scheat. Starlight that left Scheat in 1816 is just now reaching our eyes in Indiana. Scheat is a prominent corner star in the Great Square of Pegasus.
Do Something Occult
As Friday night segues past midnight into early Saturday, Sept. 5, the moon occults the bright star Aldebaran. Around 12:39 a.m. EDT the star pops back into view on the moon's dark edge. You definitely need a low eastern horizon to catch the moon.
Scope Out South Bend
To celebrate SB150, find at least six telescope targets around the city and be eligible to win $150.00 and a telescope through the Scope Out South Bend challenge. Don't have a telescope? No problem--eight South Bend libraries have 15 telescopes that can be borrowed with a library card through Sept. 27. By night, check out the Milky Way, the moon, Saturn, and more.
Year in Space
Watch the International Space Station (ISS) pass overhead. Among international crew of six on board are two Americans, Kjell Lindgren and Scott Kelly, the latter of whom is spending a year in space. You can get pass predictions from NASA's Spot the Station and from Heavens-Above.
Mercury On the Sun
Plan for and witness the 2016 transit of Mercury, when the innermost planet crosses the sun on the morning of May 9. This is an example of the predictive elegance of the solar system. Requires a telescope with solar filter, so find out where Michiana Astronomical Society Inc. is setting up scopes.
Spot Some Spots
The sun is over the hump in its eleven-year cycle of solar activity, but it's still able to delight with fresh solar activity. Keep an eye on it through Spaceweather and have your solar shades ready to observe sunspots when a big sunspot group suddenly emerges.
Iridium Parlor Game
Bet your friends that you (and they) have the collective power to conjure up an apparition in the sky. Find out when the next Iridium flare is predicted through Heavens-Above. As the time approaches, point to where the flare (actually, it's sunlight reflecting off a shiny satellite surface, but friends don't need to know that yet) should appear. As you check the time, entreat them to hum louder to summon the apparition...louder...louder...
Bathe in a Meteor Shower
The Perseid meteors in August are good, but don't dismiss other opportunities. My next favorite is the Leonid meteor shower, which in 2015 should peak on the night of Nov. 17-18. Those streaking lights, dubbed shooting stars, are exhaled debris from a passing comet that essentially burns up when it collides with earth's atmosphere at high speed.
Find an Old Friend
Many stars to the north are always there (circumpolar stars), but stars to the south are seasonal. As we approach the colder months, look for the return of Orion the hunter as if it were a friend you haven't seen in months. When you get to know a new person you can enlarge your circle of friends--same thing happens with constellations. Orion's three prominent belt stars lead you down and left to the brightest star in the night sky--Sirius.
Use an Old Friend
Once you're comfortable finding Orion, you can use the star pattern to contribute your observation to a citizen science project. Compare your backyard view of Orion or other seasonal constellations to simulated views at Globe at Night in the worldwide effort to map sky glow. Thousands of students in St. Joseph County participated in a similar endeavor in 2009 for Let There Be Night.
Take note of how often a star represents an ideal. Look for stars in the built environment, such as landscaping and architecture and logos and flags. Then help map the presence of astronomy and upload an image to the forthcoming Starpath app, perhaps to be developed by a student of the South Bend Code School.
Look for Halos
Sun halos and moon halos are akin to circular rainbows around the bright sun or moon. The area within the circle around the sun is noticeably darker. Polarized sunglasses help, but you gotta look in the first place. Don't stare at the sun, but look around it. More observing tips and images here.
Serendipity at Sunrise
When the sun aligns and the meteorological conditions are right, sunlight reflects off Chicago skyscrapers in spectacular ways. How many days before the June solstice was April 4? Then what date is that many days after the June solstice? That's one morning to consider looking at Chicago from New Buffalo, MI, at sunrise.
Follow the Sun
Track the sun every day at high noon (or some other consistent hour) to plot the analemma. Instead of a one-time event, this extended project slowly reveals the sun's annual path on the globe.
Book a Room Now
Yeah, I know it's early, but I'm telling you, hotel rooms and other accommodations are already going fast for a Monday in August. Start planning to vacation along the path of totality for the 2017 total solar eclipse on August 21 of that year. Get reservations along what you expect to be the most cloud-free site within the swath of totality that extends from Oregon to South Carolina.
Go Big, Bold, and Badass
Of course, astronomy is loaded with more grand notions beyond these celestial trifles, so be sure to take advantage of the talent at University of Notre Dame Dept. of Physics. They have a new speaker series Our Universe Revealed in which professional astronomers and astrophysicists are presenting the big ideas of astronomy in layman's terms. It's roughly every other Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. for several months, but confirm the schedule.
I thank Jessica Baron, Micha Kilburn, Chicory Cafe, and the attendees of South Bend Science Cafe for their support of science in our community.