April 16, 2012: Overall sky survey

Diagram of Cassiopeia

Cassiopeia (IAU/Sky & Telescope)

I spent around 15–20 minutes outside today, just studying the overall sky. I was just out in front of my house, which is convenient, but there is a lot of light pollution from street lights and house lights. The trees and other buildings also obstruct much of the sky. But since the view from outside my front door is going to be the most convenient place to stargaze, I want to be familiar with it. Fortunately, the sky was completely clear, and it wasn’t too cold (about 43°F/6°C, with no wind).

My best view is to the south, with good views to the east and west, but obstructions to the north. The nice thing about tonight’s viewing was that the visible constellations represented a part of the sky with which I’m relatively familiar. The first thing I noticed was Mars nice and high in Leo, Sirius visible just above the horizon, and Venus close to setting. Orion, my favorite constellation, was setting. I could see Betelgeuse (α Ori) and the belt (ζ Ori, ε Ori, and δ Ori).

I’ve been trying to start systematically becoming familiar with the constellations, going quadrant by quadrant. I’ve started with “NQ1”, the eighth of the sky between right ascension 0h and 6h and above 0° declination. Most of the stars in this quadrant aren’t really visible at this time of year, since the sun is currently in this quadrant. I did try to focus on Cassiopeia, but it was close to setting. I could clearly see the five bright stars of the “W” asterism: ε Cas, δ Cas, γ Cas, α Cas, and β Cas. I also tried to study Perseus, since it’s a constellation with which I am really not familiar. I could make out four stars that were more or less parallel to the horizon, at about an altitude of 20°; reviewing my charts now, I assume these are δ Per, α Per, γ Per, and η Per. I’ll hope to recognize Perseus better once it’s more visible.

Overall, I think η Per was the dimmest star I saw tonight — it has an apparent magnitude of 3.75, making it a fourth-magnitude star. It’s not bad given the amount of light pollution.

Purpose

Welcome to my new blog. I’ve loved astronomy since I was young, though more as an armchair astronomer, reading about stars and galaxies. Several years ago, I started developing an interest in actually observing the night sky, trying to match what I saw to what I knew. That interest has waxed and waned over the years, but I never stopped looking up whenever I was outside at night.

I’ve always been a casual observer, a dilettante. When I think of the term “amateur astronomer”, I envision someone with more dedication, knowledge, and sophistication than I. But recently I’ve been wanting to take stargazing a bit more seriously. In particular, I can only recognize a handful of constellations, and I’d really like to become familiar with the entire night sky. Even without looking at a star chart, I would like to be able to look up and find my way around the sky (a task made harder by light pollution and view obstruction where I live). And eventually, I’d like to be able to do more than pick out the brightest stars in the most salient constellations.

I was browsing Sky & Telescope’s How to Start Right in Astronomy, and one of the author’s suggestions was to keep an astronomy diary. The more I thought about it, the more I liked this idea. What better way to learn the sky than by recording what I’ve seen? I decided to start keeping a log in my notebook, but I also liked the idea of keeping a blog as a companion to my log. I hope to share some of my thoughts and perspectives, and perhaps some of my observations as I explore the night sky.

I’m still at a beginner’s level, so I welcome commentary from all levels — it would be nice to have experience from more advanced astronomers and questions from other beginners. Exploring the night is more fun, and more rewarding, if you can explore with others.

Guitar Music

I love live music, though most of the time I have to settle for recorded music. I really enjoy watching the video clips uploaded to YouTube that people make of themselves performing music. While surfing the “related videos” from one of mine, I came across this incredible guitarist:

His name is Adrian Holovaty and apparently he’s from Chicago. He has several really good videos up there, though it looks like he’s set most of them so that embedding them is not allowed. So here are links to a few of my favorites:

More on the Environmental Costs of Eating Meat

Livestock’s high energy costs See full-sized image or accompanying article. Credit: Bill Marsh/New York Times.

An article in the New York Times last week further explores the costs that consuming animals has on the environment. (Please see also my previous post, “Vegetarianism vs. Meat-Eating and Global Warming”.)

Here’s a short excerpt:

…But consider: an estimated 30 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which also estimates that livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases — more than transportation. To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. …

The only way we can make environmentally friendly changes is to be informed of the impacts those choices will have. This thought-provoking article helps to show just how our food choices can drain resources and contribute to pollution in varying amounts.

So if you’re thinking about purchasing a more fuel-efficient car or trying to think of what else you could do to help the planet, cutting back on meat is another option. In addition to the obvious health benefits and improvements in animal welfare, you can now add conservation of water, ameliorating climate change, and numerous other factors to reasons to reduce your consumption of meat.

(Thanks to my sister for sharing this article with me.)