April 20, 2012: Saw a Lyrid Meteor

I was out around midnight, not at home. I realized the sky was quite dark (not like the light pollution by my house), and there were no clouds. I decided to stop and survey the sky for a few minutes — not only because it was so dark, but also because it was a bit later than I’ve been going out, so I hoped to see a different area of the sky. It was also a bit unexpected because earlier in the week, AccuWeather’s stargazing forecast had predicted poor conditions tonight, but great conditions tomorrow. Now it looks like it will be cloudy tomorrow night, though clear tonight.

The revised forecast is disappointing because tomorrow night is when the Lyrids peak. The Lyrids are a meteor shower, moderate intensity. From our viewpoint, they seem to originate from the direction of the constellation Lyra, hence the name. There will be a new moon, which means the skies will be very dark, setting up ideal conditions for meteor watching. Unfortunately, clouds will block all of that for me. If it will be clear where you live, then you might get a good view. Look for the bright star Vega in Lyra, to the east. It will rise around midnight, so any time in the hours after that should give you a decent view.

Diagram showing where to see the Lyrids

This diagram, from spaceweather.com, shows where to see the Lyrids.

Back to tonight: I was enjoying the dark sky, and I tried to familiarize myself with some of the constellations in this part of the sky. Bootes was bright, and I was able to see some of the stars of Hercules. I also could pick out the rough shape of Draco. Vega and Deneb were also in view.

Although I wasn’t planning for any methodical or detailed viewing, I did attempt to pick out Monoceros, the constellation I had studied yesterday (I’m trying to read about one every day or two). Apparently, I’ve been mispronouncing it in my head. It’s pronounced “muh-NAH-ser-us” — that makes sense, since it would rhyme with “rhinoceros”. I never knew that. Probably because I’ve never seen it before. Probably because it’s a very dim constellation. With the help of Pocket Universe on my iPhone, I could see that most of Monoceros would have already set. I picked out Procyon (α CMi), and could see that ζ Mon should have been just to the left (east). I struggled to see it, but nothing was there. I can’t say I’m surprised — ζ Mon’s magnitude is only 4.35, and at that time it was only around 15° above the horizon. Even nearby Procyon, at around the same altitude but with magnitude 0.40, was relatively dim.

And then I was looking over at Saturn, currently in Virgo, when I saw the unmistakable streak of a meteor between Virgo and Corvus. I almost thought I imagined it, but I traced its path back towards Lyra. So even if I don’t end up seeing any meteors tomorrow, at least I got to enjoy one tonight!

Also, I’m beginning to really like Corvus. It’s a nice tight little geometric constellation. I never really knew it before.


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.