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14 posts from September 2011


Astronomy: Binocular Objects for Fall

9-9-11 Astronomy
A waxing crescent moon is an ideal time to observe the lunar landscape with binoculars. Credit: John Chumack.

Binoculars are a logical stepping stone for people who have already been stargazing without any optical aid but are not quite ready to purchase a telescope. Many people already have an old pair of binoculars lying around the house, which will work just fine for some basic objects.

The easiest object to find and see detail on through binoculars is, of course, the moon. The best time to observe the moon is in the two weeks after new moon and before it hits full phase. This is when the moon is visible right after sunset and you can see the play of light and shadow along the terminator, illuminating craters and mountain ranges.

Planets are another good target for a pair of binoculars, and at the moment Jupiter is rising late in the evening in the east, the finest of the planets for binocular gazing. Jupiter will be easy to spot, as it will shine brightly as if it were a plane until you realize it’s not moving. Jupiter should appear as a disk-shape and not a point of light like a star. You may even be able to detect some of the four Galilean moons dimly circling the planet. The tough thing about observing through binoculars is holding them steady, so try propping your elbows up on a deck railing or lying back in a lawn chair.

The Pleiades star cluster is also rising in the east these evenings, just a bit later than Jupiter. The Pleiades is one of those objects that looks better through binoculars than through a telescope because of its large size. A telescope will cut off some of the stars, while binoculars will allow you to see the hundreds of stars that make up the “Seven Sisters”. The handful-plus of stars that you can see without optical aid in the Pleiades look a bit like a tiny dipper.

Just a bit north of the Pleiades and higher from the horizon are the constellations of Cassiopeia and Andromeda. Veteran observers can easily aim their binoculars at the spot in the sky where the Andromeda Galaxy resides and pick up its slightly brighter gray against the dark background. It almost appears as a tiny, indistinct cloud. For those who have never seen the Andromeda Galaxy before, though, finding it first through binoculars instead of a telescope is quite a challenge. Use the right “arrow” part of Cassiopeia’s “W” shape to guide you to the galaxy.

Read more about observing with binoculars.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.


Nature Art: Three Myths About Drawing

If you're intimidated by the idea of sketching and painting, you're not alone. Sometime around age 10 we get the idea that the only good drawing is a realistic one. But good art has little to do with exactness and a lot to do with the feelings an artist gets down on the paper. You don't need perfect drawing skills to observe and record your impressions of the world around you. Here's a drawing I did a few weeks ago; I was trying to capture the shapes of sails caught in the wind, but you can recognize the sailboats without the realistic rigging or masts:

Here are three myths about drawing:

1.  I must already be able to draw and, since I can't, it's too late.
The top fear of everyone. Drawing is a skill that can be learned anytime, just like reading. The reason you can't draw as well as you read is because you practiced reading during school, over and over again.  Chances are you didn't practice drawing more than a few times in art class...before you went on to try clay or painting. Give contour drawing a try: "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain," by Betty Edwards, still has the clearest instructions around.

2.  I need expensive or special tools.
I love the tools of art: delicious new colors, accurate mechanical pencils...but you don't need lots of tools. All you need is a number 2 pencil and blank paper. I bring along an eraser, just in case. If you're keeping a nature or travel journal, you could collect your drawings in a sketchbook so your observations will be kept in one place.  Sometimes, if I'm traveling with watercolors, I carry  a shaker of table salt with me to sprinkle in the wet paint. In the lobster, below, I used the salt to make the pattern in its shell:


3.  I don't have enough time.
Who hasn't spent five minutes waiting in a parking lot?  You can make a quick drawing of a car or a school bus in that time, putting your own spin on the scene. A camera would have captured all the cars I saw out my window in this parking lot. But I only wanted to emphasize the neat way the car windows aligned, and I tried to do that in this sketch:

Where do you spend time waiting?  What would you like to draw?  Give it a try, starting is the hardest part!

-- Sue Fierston paints and teaches just outside of Washington, D.C. in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As a painter, she works in acrylics and watercolor and is in the middle of a series called "100 Flowers." As a teaching artist, she works with teachers to bring art into their classrooms in grades 4-8. Her posts focus on her nature-themed art collaborations. For a look at her paintings or more about her teaching, check out her website at suzannefierston.com.

Fires Creek Basin, North Carolina

Fires Creek Basin, North Carolina

A solitary line of bear tracks greets us at the mouth of Rockhouse Creek, looping through the mud that rings a massive trout pool, snaking around a rusted Forest Service gate, and disappearing into a wonderfully tangled mess of rhododendron and laurel.

The metaphor isn't lost on us. Loneliness runs deep here in Fires Creek basin, a 21,000-acre wilderness ringed by a horseshoe-shaped range of mountains carved by the creek and its tributaries in North Carolina's southwestern corner. Our goal for the day is to follow one of these forks upstream to its source, some five miles and 2,000 feet above us, chasing bears and other creatures that might be strolling in the Appalachian woods on a fog-encrusted spring morning.

The region is renowned not for its endangered species or its stark wildlife, but for its solitude--which is itself endangered here in the East. There are no dramatic spring flower shows, no epic animal migrations played out for the masses to see. The beauty of the basin lies hidden in its shadows. Giant old-growth birches lurk in the farthest way-back coves. High on 5,200-foot Potrock Bald, near the creek's source, the bedrock has small depressions said to have been used as cooking pits by Native Americans. A large population of black bears trolls the woodlands between.

We lose the tracks by noon, battling with greenbrier while splashing in and out of the ever-shrinking stream. At last, we top out in a wind-stunted oak forest on Big Stamp, our hoped-for view obscured by a low bank of clouds. On any other hike this might be a letdown, but we scarcely notice. For the moment, at least, feeling lost is enough. —Wally Smith

Photo: Lori Kincaid; used with permission


Astronomy: Observing Highlights for September

9-2-11 Coat hanger cluster Chumack
The Coat Hanger Cluster in Vulpecula will get a visit from Comet Garradd this weekend. Credit: John Chumack

I can tell it's September just by watching the sun as it sets. In the summer months, the sun appears to set behind a farmer's corn field when viewed from my front lawn. But now that it's September, the sun is disappearing behind a forested hill, and as fall approaches, the sun will begin to set behind the houses across the meadow from me. It actually makes me a bit sad when I realize the sun is journeying its way back south (or, more correctly, we are beginning the tilt away from the sun). Even though it gets dark earlier so that I can go out and stargaze before I am half asleep, soon it will be so dark that I can’t even have dinner in daylight. And let’s not forget the impending cold and snow….

But September is still an ideal month to stargaze. In the first full week of September, watch as the crescent moon grows each evening, preparing for its Harvest Moon appearance on the 12th. Look east to find Jupiter rising, with the Pleiades Cluster (a sure sign of fall) coming up right behind it.

Your chances to find Comet Garradd improve as it brightens a bit more. This weekend, on September 3, look for the comet next to the Coat Hanger Cluster in Vulpecula. From a dark-sky site, both should be visible in binoculars. The other comet that was slated to brighten in September, Comet Elenin, may no longer be an observing option. It has dimmed dramatically and may have broken up as it neared the sun.

For more on observing this month, see The Night Sky Guide for September 2011.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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