Find out what three astronomy experts have to say about using star charts and telescopes, their favorite places in North Carolina to stargaze, and the most amazing things they’ve ever seen in the night sky.
In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.
The cosmos have struck awe in the hearts of humans for millennia, providing spiritual inspiration and fueling the quest for scientific knowledge. Lucky for us, North Carolina is filled with amazing places to view the night sky, from mountains to coast.
“That’s something everyone on this planet can do — go outside and look up,” says Steve Bruton (aka the “Milky Way Cowboy”), the observatory host at the Bare Dark Sky Observatory in Burnsville. “Once upon a time, you would go outside after dinner, lie down, look up at the sky, and share stories about the constellations. That’s better than television.”
We spoke with Bruton and two other experts — Melanie Crowson, the director of education at Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in Rosman, and Richard McColman, the fulldome theater manager at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill — to learn about their favorite places in the state to stargaze, their best tips for using telescopes and star charts, and the coolest things they’ve ever seen in the night sky.
Steve Bruton, aka the “Milky Way Cowboy”
Observatory Host at Mayland Community College’s Bare Dark Sky Observatory in Burnsville
Director of Education at Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in Rosman
Fulldome Theater Manager at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill
How did you first get into astronomy?
Melanie Crowson: I’ve been into it since I was a little kid. My parents were supportive about me getting into science, technology, engineering, and math. My dad’s a scientist, and I’ve always admired how smart he is and wanted to be like that. I built a telescope with him in high school, and that solidified it for me.
What does stargazing mean to you?
Steve Bruton: As a Christian, I look up there and see the majesty of God showing off His glory. When I’ve had to make decisions in life, like whether I should marry my wife, I was out there looking up at the night sky and asking, “Is this the woman?” When our grandkids were born, I was out there looking up and thinking, “Wow, I can’t wait to have them out here with me, looking in the telescope.” Part of processing my parents’ deaths was standing out under a night sky and looking up. That’s who I am. And being able to share that with people, that’s how I get excited.
Richard McColman: It provides a connection with the universe in which we live, and a lot of us have lost that connection with our cosmic heritage because of the effects of light pollution. Trying to reestablish that is important. As the late astronomer Carl Sagan has said, “We are star stuff.” Literally, most of the elements that make up our bodies were created in ancient stars, so in a very direct sense, we have a link to the universe in which we live, even if we don’t think about it in our daily lives.
Where’s your favorite place in the state to watch the night sky?
Steve Bruton: Right where we are [at Bare Dark Sky Observatory] in western North Carolina. I don’t know of any other place that’s darker than this.
Melanie Crowson: Here at PARI. We’re a dark sky park, and it’s amazing here. The Milky Way is so bright when you don’t have the Moon that you can see it horizon to horizon.
Richard McColman: Around the Outer Banks and the Mount Mitchell area are some of the better places to go in North Carolina, but I usually walk outside of our house in Hillsborough.
What conditions are best for stargazing?
Steve Bruton: A new Moon, low humidity, low wind. If it’s too windy, it jiggles the telescopes. No fog, no clouds — any clouds at all can cause light reflection from cities.
OK, we’re ready to get out there! What advice do you have for beginners?
Steve Bruton: Get either a Boy Scout or a Girl Scout merit book — those are great beginner books. Put a good sky app on your phone, like SkyView Lite or Star Walk, and then just go out at night and hold your phone up. Get a great pair of binoculars; some things are so big up there that the telescope can’t get them all in its eyepiece, so binoculars actually do a better job.
Melanie Crowson: A map is imperative! There’s free software out there like Stellarium, and that’s helpful for guiding you through the night sky and showing you what constellations are out there and what objects there are to see in the constellations.
Richard McColman: The best thing to do if you’re just looking at the sky with a naked eye is take a reclining lawn chair and lie back. That way, you can take in as much of the sky as possible. That’s particularly applicable for people who are watching for meteor showers.
Let’s talk telescopes! What are your best telescope tips?
Steve Bruton: Celestron and Meade are two of the best brands. They’ll show you several hundred thousand — maybe even a million — stars that you won’t see with the naked eye. But you won’t see a lot of detail on the planets unless you get an eight- or 10-inch mirror, which is more expensive. And I like telescopes that have a motor drive. The Earth is constantly moving — we’re actually spinning at 1,034 miles per hour at the equator — but if you have a motor drive and it’s calibrated to the North Star, your telescope will constantly move with the Earth. You also have different eyepieces that have different capabilities. If you have a 40-millimeter eyepiece, that will show more of the sky, but with a more powerful eyepiece — four or 10 millimeters — you can zero in and see stuff close up.
Melanie Crowson: Bigger is better, but it’s not everything; if you have lots of city lights around, you’re wasting the light-gathering power of a bigger telescope. It needs to be on a stable mount so a strong gust of wind won’t shake it. Magnitude is important — that will tell you how bright an object is. The higher the number, the dimmer it is. Look for objects that fit the magnification on the telescope you have. If you don’t have enough light-gathering power out of your telescope to see an object, you’ll get frustrated or think that your telescope doesn’t work. And patience is really helpful in finding those dim objects. Remember that objects are not going to look the same as they do from a Hubble Space Telescope image. Those have been taken with long exposures, there are hundreds of images stacked together, and there’s post-processing to make the images look exceptional.
Richard McColman: We always recommend that people stay away from telescopes that have overly amazing claims of several-hundred-power magnification. Also, stay away from telescopes that have automatic pointing computers because you want to make sure you’re putting as much of your money as possible into stability of the mount and optical quality. The computerized pointing devices also require a bit of technical knowledge to use. Instead, get a star chart and learn the sky. Some telescopes have equatorial mounts, which is a way of tracking the stars and compensating for the Earth’s rotation. Like with the computerized device, they require a fair amount of knowledge that tends to exceed what a beginner is going to be able to master. Instead, we typically recommend telescopes with an altitude-azimuth mount.
We also recommend that when you first get an astronomical telescope, you take it out during the daytime so that you can figure out how to operate it before it gets dark. Don’t start out trying to view objects at the highest magnification. The higher the magnification, the harder it is to aim.
Sounds like star charts are handy. How do you use one?
Melanie Crowson: A circular planisphere is a very popular star chart. It will have “north” noted on it, so if you have it over your head and you’re looking up, you would want that pointed north. That helps you see where constellations are, and you can start to piece together some of those brighter stars. Once you can connect those, then you can hop from one constellation to another.
Richard McColman: What the average beginner will want is a planisphere. You can dial in the time of year and the time of night, and it will show you the corresponding constellations and star placements that you will see in the sky. A planisphere will tend to be designed for a certain latitude on the Earth. And it won’t show you the planets, because between the Earth’s motion around the Sun and the planets’ motion around the Sun, the planets are constantly changing position among the background stars and constellations. There are software apps that do incorporate current positions of the planets.
What’s the best way to spot a shooting star?
Richard McColman: Shooting stars, of course, are not stars at all; they’re little bits of dust out in space that are typically left behind by comets. And when the Earth encounters a stream of this debris, pieces of this material will enter the atmosphere at thousands of miles an hour, and that will cause the particle to incandesce until it essentially vaporizes. The best way to find them is not to use a telescope or binoculars — you need to get the widest possible view of the sky.
Melanie Crowson: You want to be toward the peak of a meteor shower — that’s when the Earth is entering the dense field of debris left by a comet. There are often meteor showers going on throughout the year, but the Perseid meteor shower is one of the best; there’s a lot of debris in there, it’s very bright, and [the particles are] moving quickly.
We want to see the planets! How do we find them?
Steve Bruton: Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, Venus — all of those you can see with the naked eye. With a telescope, we can see Uranus and Neptune. Venus is close to the Sun, so it can be seen within three hours of sunrise or sunset.
Melanie Crowson: The Stellarium app is helpful, as well as star charts that are updated for the month that you’re in. The more you watch where the planets are plotted on monthly star charts, the more you’ll be able to mentally track them. Also, they’re not going to be twinkling — that’s a good way to tell them apart from stars.
Richard McColman: Planets can only be seen in a certain region of the sky, and that’s a similar region to where the Moon can be seen. The naked-eye planets tend to be brighter than most of the stars. Venus is the brightest-appearing natural object in our skies after the Sun and the Moon, and it’s pretty hard to miss if it’s up — unless it’s low to the horizon, where it could be hidden by obstructions. The thing that makes Venus so bright is that it’s completely covered in clouds that reflect a lot of light. Jupiter is the second-brightest-appearing planet because it’s the largest planet in the solar system.
Is it possible to spot the International Space Station with the naked eye?
Steve Bruton: Yes, it’s actually quite bright. Ninety percent of people on the planet can see the International Space Station with the naked eye.
Melanie Crowson: Absolutely! There’s a great app called Heavens-Above that keeps track of tons of different satellites, including the International Space Station, and it tells you the date and time for your location.
Richard McColman: Oh yes, very much so. The International Space Station is bigger than a football field, and it has these large solar panels on it that can reflect a lot of sunlight. It’s not visible all the time, but you can find out when to look for it by getting on spotthestation.nasa.gov. Visible passes of the International Space Station only happen within an hour or so after sunset or before sunrise because it has to be able to catch the rays of the Sun to be seen. If it’s flying overhead at midnight, you won’t see it.
What is the most amazing sight you’ve ever seen in the night sky?
Melanie Crowson: The Veil Nebula. It’s a remnant of a star that exploded and went supernova. It’s very large, so it’s easy to find. It’s hovering right in the middle of a naked-eye star in the constellation Cygnus the Swan, and it’s out in summertime. It’s beautiful — it looks like this long, fuzzy trail of gas, and it’s very different from other gas clouds.
Richard McColman: The Leonid meteor storm. The Leonid meteor shower is not all that impressive most years, but once every 33 years, for just a few hours, the Earth will pass through a more populated region of space where the meteor stream is orbiting the Sun. If you happen to be lucky enough to be in a region where that side of the Earth is facing into that thicker part of the meteor stream, instead of just being able to see a dozen or so meteors an hour, you can actually see several thousand meteors per hour, and that’s when they call it a meteor “storm.” It’s a really dazzling effect — it’s almost like watching rain.
Steve Bruton: I was in seventh grade, and I was at a semipro football game. In the middle of the game, a meteor came across the sky and lit up the whole sky for about 20 seconds, which is a long time to see a shooting star. All of the players on the field stopped, the referee stopped, the whole crowd stopped — they thought maybe it was an asteroid that was going to hit the planet. That’s the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen.
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