Now that Oregon might actually have clear skies at night, astronomers statewide are out with their telescopes and binoculars. But even if you don’t have a scope, you can still enjoy the night sky from as close to home as your front yard. To help you with the effort of exploring our infinite universe, I’ll be publishing this article weekly as a guide to the constellations and planets in case you get that urge to look up.
So let’s start with the planets–or those that are up, at least.
Venus: great viewing… if you’re up before dawn.
Mars: Rises a little after sunset, in the south.
Jupiter: Visible for most of the night. It’s the really bright star in the west.
Saturn. For those of us studying past 11, go ahead and take a break: Saturn’s up in the south, below Mars.
And our Constellation of the Week, starting off with an easy one: The Big Dipper.
The Big Dipper is certainly the most famous grouping of stars in the sky, despite the fact that it’s not actually a constellation, but rather a part of Ursa Major (The Great Bear). The Big Dipper has probably been useful for millennia as a navigator’s sign-post: the stars on the outer edge of the “bowl” point to Polaris, the North Pole star. For stargazers, the Dipper holds a number of interesting sights: the arc of the handle be followed to find bright stars Arcturus (constellation Bootes, not pronounced “booties”) and Spica (constellation Virgo), the second star in the handle is actually a double star (okay, a sextuple system… astronomers have an odd sense of humor), and there are loads of famous galaxies visible in the area, like M81 and M82 — just see the star chart below. You can easily spend an hour exploring the numerous objects located here, and that’s not including the many other constellations easily reached thanks to this unique celestial signpost.