One of my favorite outdoor activities to do in Minnesota is observing our beautiful night sky with my telescope. Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to check many events and celestial objects off of my “wish list”. Thankfully, one doesn’t need a telescope to explore the universe. I’ve had many great nights of viewing just looking at planets and high magnitude Messier objects such as the Andromeda Galaxy and the Orion Nebula through binoculars in my own backyard. I wanted to provide you with some tips and basic guides to explore our Minnesota night sky this July from the comfort of your own backyard (provided that you have a good view).
As I mentioned earlier, you don’t need to have a telescope to see some really cool night sky objects. In fact, if you are a beginner or this is your first time, I recommend that you start with binoculars and stick with them for a while. Some folks dive right in and buy the biggest and most advanced telescope they can afford but then find themselves overwhelmed with learning how to operate the scope and learning the night sky. Using binoculars first will help you get acquainted with the sky. Take the time to learn the constellations, as they are a great way to find objects and will help you to read star maps and charts (if you really want to dive in that is). Think of constellations as countries in the sky that divide it into easily recognizable sections. That makes viewing easier!
You may now be asking yourself how is this tied to conservation?
I’m getting there, but first, lets dive into what we can see!
Now that you have your binoculars and have scouted out an unobstructed view of the sky close to home, let’s take a look up. The best place to start is our closest neighbor, the Moon. The last Full Moon was on June 2nd and will continue to wane to a New Moon by June 16th. The waning and waxing moon (when the moon’s shadow continues to get larger or smaller with each passing day) is a great viewing opportunity. The shadow line on the surface of the moon will allow you to see real topography. Craters, ravines, canyons, and mounds all expose themselves along the shadow line and truly make the Moon come to life. The next full moon will be July 1st and will be highest in the sky around midnight. You can use the Moon to get your technique down and once you have mastered your viewing style, let’s move further into our Solar System.
The Moon is an amazing view but just the beginning of what we can reach with our simple pair of binoculars. Next stop? Jupiter! My absolute favorite planet to view is Jupiter. Jupiter is a world in motion and is different every time you look at it. The planet rotates once every 10 hours. The giant Earth sized red storm (Great Red Spot) that has been raging on Jupiter for hundreds of years may or may not be visible due to the speed of Jupiter’s rotation. Another reason that Jupiter is one of my favorites to view is that you can see some of its moons and they are constantly changing. Keep an eye out for Io, Ganymede, Calisto, and Europa, which are always orbiting and changing their positions. Sometimes you will see all four lined up to one side of Jupiter or sometimes you will see only one of these moon as all others are hiding in front or behind the Planet as they continue their eternal dance. Jupiter will be high in the sky after sunset toward the west. It should be the next brightest thing in the sky after Venus.
Venus is the brightest object in the sky besides the Moon and the International Space Station. Although, Venus isn’t the most exciting planet to look at (honestly, I think it’s the least exciting) but it’s very easy to find and is great for first time stargazers. Venus will be in the Western sky just after sunset. This is good news for folks who don’t like to stay up past midnight to see celestial events. It looks like a very bright ball of whitish/tan light and will be dancing with Jupiter all month in the mid-western sky.
Now for something really cool! On June 30th at 10:00 P.M., Venus and Jupiter will be only 0.3 degrees away from each other in the western sky and if you do have a telescope, you should be able to see both planets in the same field of view. This is a rare close encounter for the two planets and will soon be checked off of my “wish list”. A few days before and after June 30th will also be impressive, so have a back up date in case of uncooperative weather if you want to see this mismatched duo in action.
Last but certainly not least is Saturn. Saturn will be rising out of the East after sunset throughout June. With a good pair of binoculars, one can make out the lobed sides of the planet, which are the visible edges of Saturn’s rings. One of the most mysterious and beautiful worlds in our solar system and a must see for anyone interested in night sky viewing. I had to wait many years before I was finally able to catch Saturn with my telescope.
Now, what does any of this have to do with conservation? Why is a Community Coordinator going on and on about planets millions of miles away? How about you come back down to Earth, sir!
My answer is this. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for the awe-inspiring views that have caught my eye over the years thanks to my telescope (and binoculars). Astronomy has inspired me to be a conservationist. Seeing the universe first hand makes one appreciate how special our pale blue dot really is in the grand scheme of our universe. It reminds me that humanity only has one chance at our time here on Earth and that we must make the most of it. Astronomy has encouraged me to be a good steward of our land and water.
I leave you in the words of Carl Sagan “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”
BONUS TIP: I have one more object that offers a truly stellar view! Are you familiar with the Constellation Orion? It’s really easy to find. Just follow Orion’s sword to the very tip and look for a hazy object. You can see the haze out of the corner of your eye without a telescope or binoculars. That, my friend, is Orion’s Nebulae. It rests about 1,300 light years away from Earth and is the closest massive star formation region to us. Happy viewing!