Stars (and moons and planets) in our eyes

The North Jersey Astronomical Group gets their telescopes set up.

The North Jersey Astronomical Group gets their telescopes set up.

Shifting gears tonight, trail heads. And I highly recommend reading this post while listening to Holst’s “The Planets.”

The family and I have an astronomy-related hike planned for later on this summer (expect a blog posting on that one, boys and girls), so we’ve all been brushing up on our star-watching skills.

A few weeks back, the North Jersey Astronomical Group had one of their monthly telescope nights out on the town green over in Verona for a glimpse of the moon and Saturn.

A co-worker told me about it beforehand, so a few of us from the office arranged to meet up there.


Between the blue moon last week, those awesome photos from the Pluto flyby and the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, it’s been a good season for astronomy and stargazing this year.

Up here in the northern hemisphere, Saturn’s been up between the claws of Scorpius for most of this season, while Jupiter was resting pretty much on Leo’s paws for a good chunk of the late spring. Virgo, on the other hand, has been a little too close to the moon to make out most of the fainter stars.

I’ve always had an interest in astronomy, I guess – and this goes for the rest of the family. I remember getting up in the wee hours of the morning when I was 11 or 12, and walking outside in my pajamas to get a look at the Hale-Bopp comet.

And a few years before, when I was about 8 or 9 or so, my mom, brother and I had been sitting outside meteor watching one night – and a meteor came zooming in really low. So low that you could actually hear it screaming through the atmosphere – I kid you not.

Why am I talking about stars and astronomy on a hiking blog? Well, for one thing, think how important the stars were to navigators, in the days before compasses and GPS. Up around Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, you’ll see Polaris, the North Star. But being able to look up at the unobstructed night sky is another part of being able to appreciate the natural wonders around you, and getting a sense of where you stand in the larger universe – okay, I’m starting to sound like Carl Sagan here.


So, back to the astronomy meetup in Verona.

When I arrived, the group members were setting up their telescopes, about six or seven of them, out in the middle of the green. These were serious telescopes – some of them were easily the size of a small cannon. A lot of people – including families with kids – were already queuing up ahead of the 9 p.m. start time.

It was a half moon that night. From the earth, the moon looks milk-bottle smooth, but then you look at it through a telescope and you can see all the craters and the different seas. The Sea of Tranquility appears to have been one of them – if so, it would have been apropos because we were coming up on the Apollo 11 anniversary. (Plus, Buzz Aldrin’s a local boy.)

Then it was over to Saturn. Sure, you’ve seen all the close-up photos in the books of the rings, but you see it right there in the telescope, the outline of the rings just visible, and you can’t help but say “Wow…”

The one downside, of course, is that the street lights were on, ditto the lights on all the businesses. But let’s face it, this close to New York, it’s hard to get some decent stargazing done.

As a bonus, one of the guides tilted one of the telescopes upward for a look at Vega – it looked like a bluish-white diamond on a jeweler’s cloth.

There are several different websites – I’ve listed a couple under “Further Reading” –  that tell you what big astronomical events are coming up, like meteor showers and planetary conjunctions; we’ve got the Pleiades coming up fairly soonish. And stay tuned for a blog posting about that stargazing hike I mentioned!

For further reading:

North Jersey Astronomical Group

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