Eclipses aside, astronomy is a joy for RVers
Tuesday, August 22, 2017
Camping is all about getting away from the crowds and being outdoors. Nothing epitomizes that more than looking at the stars at night.
With all of the recent excitement surrounding the solar eclipse, there has been a renewed interest in astronomy across the country. And there is plenty more to see.
Whether you are new to astronomy or an expert, there is much you can enjoy in the night sky while RVing.
Eyes are all you need to see stars, planets, meteors and objects such as the Hubble telescope. Binoculars are worthwhile to help you see objects such as the moons around Jupiter and star clusters. Binoculars fit well in an RV and can be used for other things like bird watching.
If you really enjoy astronomy and have room in your RV, adding a telescope is great.
What can you see?
Start with the major constellations. Most of the time you can see the Big Dipper, and you can learn to sight along this dipper to find the North Star. Orion is an easy constellation to see in the winter.
Don't try to learn too many constellations at once. I like to add a single constellation then see if I can remember it the next time.
The stars all have names and characteristics. Can you find the Summer Triangle (Vega, Deneb, Altair)? Look for the double stars of Mizar and Alcor in the Big Dipper. In Orion, the star Betelgeuse is reddish, while Rigel is bluish.
Most of the time you can see the Big Dipper, and you can learn to sight along this dipper to find the North Star.
Personally, I think planets are the most interesting objects in the sky. There are times when no planets are visible and times when the nearest five are visible (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn). Using an app is probably the easiest method to find a planet. With some magnification, you can see colors, the four major moons around Jupiter, and even the rings of Saturn.
The moon is always interesting. You can identify specific craters or find the general area where astronauts landed.
The moon at Patagonia Lake State Park in Arizona
Circling the Earth are more than 2,000 man-made satellites. Some can be seen as a light moving across the field of stars. The easiest to find are the International Space Station (ISS) and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). These can be found on many apps, along with websites such as spotthestation.nasa.gov.
Meteors can be seen when a rock fragment burns up in the atmosphere, and they can occur at any time. They are seen as a light that streaks across the sky and disappears within a second or two.
Meteor showers means that fragments in space come more frequently. This translates into more sightings, but this normally means only one or two every minute or even every 10 minutes. Still cool!
Messier objects are a list of objects such as star clusters, nebula and galaxies. My favorites are the Pleiades near Taurus and the M42 nebula in Orion. You can even see the galaxy of Andromeda.
Binoculars and telescopes are needed to really see many of them well, but some can be seen by eye when the sky is dark enough. The Milky Way isn't a Messier object, but it can be spectacular both by eyesight when the sky is dark enough or by using binoculars.
In the old days, we brought out a star chart and struggled with a flashlight to see the chart then try to find it in the sky. Now there are several free apps like Sky Map or SkyView for your phone that you can point in the sky to understand what you are seeing. These show constellations, star names, planets, the ISS and the Hubble telescope.
Charts are still needed for more advanced objects. Read books or websites to learn more. Websites like skyandtelescope.com and heavens-above.com are particularly good to get information on current events like an eclipse or meteor showers.
As RVers, we have the opportunity to visit observatories with immense optical and radio telescopes. Most observatories have a museum connected and "star nights" where you can see some amazing sights.
I find both the science of the astronomical finds and the engineering of these immense telescopes fascinating.
The NRAO Very Large Array in Socorro, New Mexico.
Many of our normal stops have reasonable views of the stars. To get the best views, visit a Dark Sky Park. These are where light pollution from outdoor lights is minimized in the park and the surrounding community allowing great views of the night sky. Some of these include:
- Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument — Arizona
- Death Valley National Park — California
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park — Colorado
- Potawatomi Wildlife Park — Indiana
- Stephen C. Foster State Park — Georgia
- Lake Hudson State Recreation Area — Michigan
- Chaco Culture National Historical Park — New Mexico
- Cherry Springs State Park — Pennsylvania
- Big Bend National Park — Texas
- Natural Bridges National Monument — Utah
Some parks have an astronomy program where you might be able to use a bigger telescope. City of Rocks State Park in New Mexico and Brazos Bend State Park in Texas have small observatories open to the public at certain times.
How can you help?
Reduce light pollution by remembering to turn off your lights at night. Keeping external lights off has a lot of benefits:
- Stars are easier to see.
- The lights won't accidentally shine into other campers' windows, keeping them awake.
- Complete darkness helps your own sleep.
- Lights affect wildlife. Remember, many animals are nocturnal, and lights adversely affect their environment.
- Annoying bugs are attracted to the light.
- You are helping the environment by not wasting energy.
The only benefit I have heard for lights is that people believe it might reduce the chance of a burglary. But studies are mixed on this, and burglary is rare in parks.
Astronomy is a great hobby to enjoy while RVing. Where have you found dark skies for viewing? What astronomical websites do you use?
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