Simple astronomical observations to make in a dark, clear sky
August 30, 2017 8:53 AM   Subscribe

This weekend, my spouse and I will be traveling to the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York. The stars are stunning there. What sorts of simple astronomical observations can we make with just binoculars and an iPhone?

Can we look for planets, or find consetellations, or look for meteors, or some such thing? We don't go there very often, so we'd like to take this opportunity to do something fun and educational. One possible caveat is that we may not have a cell signal where we will be staying, so perhaps iPhone apps won't work (if they need a data connection).
posted by akk2014 to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If you do have data, you need to get Night Sky - an app that I found after realizing the Google Sky was not available on iOS. It shows you everything at all times, day or night. It will even show you the sun if you point your phone below the horizon after dark. It is free but there are in app purchases which may offer you offline functionality.
posted by soelo at 8:57 AM on August 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

Jupiter will be near the horizon during sunset. If you have a clear view of the horizon try looking for it through the binoculars, if you can spot it over several days you may be able to track its moons.

For a quick introduction to the constellations and some basic mechanics of the night sky, get H. A. Rey's The Stars: A New Way to See Them from the library before you go.

And Saturn should be visible, not too far from the moon. Look for the rings.
posted by lharmon at 9:09 AM on August 30, 2017

The moon will be up and nearly full for most of the night. The moon is pretty cool to look at through binoculars.

You may or may not be able to see meteors due to the brightness of the moon.

I really like watching satellites cross the sky, it looks like there will be plenty of satellites on September 2nd and 3rd. On that page at the top righthand corner, set your precise location, and then make sure you're looking at the right dates. You might also check out the Iridium Flares predictions; setting your location precisely is really important for flares.
posted by gregr at 9:34 AM on August 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Binoculars are a great way to do some simple astronomy. Not meteors or satellites (they move too fast, just use your eyes), but the moon, planets, deep sky objects etc. Any old binoculars will do but something like 7x50 or 10x50 are best for casual viewing. Better to avoid variable zoom binos.

My suggestions are to look for the Orion Nebula, the Andromeda Galaxy, and the Pleiades. These are all easily findable with the naked eye and then in binoculars look just awesome. The moon is of course good and easy, also just magnifying the Milky Way to get a sense of how many stars there are. If you're patient and have a very steady hand or a tripod you can make out the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn in binoculars. Galileo's observation of Jupiter's moons is one of the most important events in scientific history and it's inspiring to do it yourself.

If you want more targets the Messier catalog is a good place to start, but you'll need to do some research to figure out what's visible when and where you are.

Seconding the recommendation for a star chart app on the phone. I think Sky Safari is the best of the bunch; the entry level $3 app is all you need and it works in offline mode. Be sure to set up the red-only night mode and dim the phone as much as possible, to limit ruining your dark adaption.
posted by Nelson at 9:42 AM on August 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm always amused by how many different sky finding apps people recommend on these threads. We have SkyView and I like it enough that I've never bothered to find out if any other recommended apps are better.

FWIW you can see Jupiter and Saturn with the naked eye. But yes to binoculars, the bigger the objective lens the better. They gather more light than your eyes do, so you see a lot more stars.
posted by fedward at 10:40 AM on August 30, 2017

The ISS will be visible each night, but at, like, 5am.

Printable chart

Daily predictions for brighter satellites Note that the ISS is the only object with negative brightness.
posted by at at 11:22 AM on August 30, 2017

Take a tripod to hold your binoculars steady. Makes a HUGE difference and lets two people see the same thing one after another in a way that's super difficult doing it by hand.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 11:31 AM on August 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

You can look up when the space station will be passing overhead (and the angle/pathway) on this NASA website.
posted by melissasaurus at 2:35 PM on August 30, 2017

Take a tripod to hold your binoculars steady. Yes, this is good -- but you want the tallest tripod available, because you need to get under binoculars in order to look up at the sky, compared to looking at the horizon. Try pointing them straight up, and you'll see what I mean.
posted by lathrop at 3:44 PM on August 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

"My suggestions are to look for the Orion Nebula, the Andromeda Galaxy, and the Pleiades."

Came in to say exactly the same! Plus the Galilean moons of Jupiter. (Here's a little web app that shows you where the moons visible with binoculars are at any given moment, I usually look and then go outside.) The Pleiades are amazing through binoculars -- I gasped -- and it's super-neat to see Andromeda & the Orion Nebula.

Orion's mostly underfoot at this time of year, though (you may be able to juuuuuust see the Pleiades before dawn) -- you need summer constellations (you should be able to see Andromeda -- it's M31 if you have a chart, near Pisces). You can definitely see Scorpius, Orion's eternal enemy and one of my favorites. You can see Cygnus the Swan, which is good, but also there's a big black hole in Cygnus, which of course you can't see, but it's cool to know it's there and you're looking at it.

Aquila the Eagle is a nice constellation, and has some good nebulae in it. Here's a couple pages with things you can see with binoculars.

Jupiter will be visible early in the evening but sets before 10 p.m. right now.

I use Star Chart (infinite) as my star finding app. (The free version will get you a long way! The full version is like $5.) As noted, definitely use the "night" function on your star app so you don't lose your star vision! I don't use a tripod with my binoculars, but I do tend to kneel on the ground and use a chair back to steady my forearms. Deck railings also good. If you don't already know this, don't scan for a star with your binoculars -- you'll make yourself dizzy and end up in odd places (because instead of five bright stars your naked eye sees in that general region of sky, your binoculars serve you up three dozen now-bright stars, but you have a very narrow field of vision so you can't really resolve them into constellations and you're like, "oooh, this is so bright, it must be Deneb!" and then you take away the binoculars and that is CLEARLY not Deneb and that's why you couldn't find your open cluster or whatever). Stare at the star with your naked eyes, and then bring your binoculars up to your face without moving your head or eyes. You will still be staring at the star! You can now slowly scan from the naked-eye-visible star to a nearby binocular-only nebula.

Definitely look at the moon LAST with your binoculars, it is blindingly, eye-wateringly bright and it'll ruin your vision for dimmer objects (i.e., everything else) for several minutes.

Here's Sky and Telescope's guide for this week (also holiday weekend edition). Here's Astronomy Magazine's. And here's the Clear Dark Sky astronomy viewing forecast for the Adirondack Mountains.

Here's a nice little printable star chart (PDF) for September with a viewing guide, if you want to do some advance study of what you'll be looking at. (I also find traditional star maps a bit easier to use than the apps, when you're looking at what you're going to look at and getting overall oriented, rather than trying to identify a specific thing.) That has a nice list of the brighest stars, Messier objects, and some binocular-viewable cool things. You can get the sky map and the constellations in mind, so when you go out and look up, you'll know what you're looking for.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:18 PM on August 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

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