While the southern Rhode Island coast is best known for its beaches and water views, it is also a great place for stargazing. The skies are dark over much of southern Rhode Island and one of our towns — Charlestown — even has a dark-sky ordnance that limits outdoor lighting. Add to that the wide horizons found along our coastal areas and we tend have sparkly views of the heavens above.
In the broadest sense, backyard stargazing can be divided into two basic categories: 1) viewing the sky with the naked eye, and 2) peering deep into space with the aid of a telescope. Actually there’s another really excellent option that kind of spans both of these categories and that’s using binoculars. Sitting back in a reclining chair with a good pair of binoculars and a clear sky is a great way to explore the stars.
When viewing the night sky with the naked eye, points of interest include the brighter stars and planets, shooting stars, satellites, the misty swath of dim light known as the Milky Way, and the mythical star groupings, made in connect-the-dots fashion, known as constellations. Perhaps the two best-known constellations in the northern hemisphere are Orion’s Belt and the Big Dipper. There are many others and a star chart, or one of many smartphone apps, can help you trace out the likenesses that the ancients saw. Some, like the two examples above, make good sense, while others are really pretty abstract.
Any season is great for stargazing, and because our view of the stars changes as Earth makes its one-year orbit around the sun, each season offers a different array of stars and constellations.
Winter & Spring
In this post we’ll focus on the winter/early spring sky. Cold winter nights are often among the clearest of the year and can make for really excellent stargazing. Obviously dressing for the conditions is key to enjoying the experience. In my opinion, winter and early spring offers the best array of stars to enjoy with the naked eye. Orion’s belt, the most recognizable constellation of all, is high in the sky and adjacent to Taurus the bull. A lovely cluster of twinkling stars known as the Pleiades (or seven sisters) is off to the right of Taurus, while Sirius, the brightest star in the northern skies, is just to the left of Orion. Together these constellations tell a story that dates back to antiquity. Orion is a warrior; and accompanied by his hunting dog, Sirius, he is in pursuit of the lovely seven sisters. Nothing good is likely to come of this, but fortunately Taurus the bull is there between Orion and the maidens and with all seven of the lovelies riding on his shoulder he is seen squaring off against the warrior Orion.
Another constellation known by most is the big dipper. It is pretty close to Polaris, the North Star, and as such it is visible throughout the seasons. The North Star just happens to be located over the northern pole of Earth and so as the earth spins the pole star seems to stay in place, while all the other stars appear to rotate around it. Stars close to the North Star may be seen above it or below it depending on the time of night and season, but they will always be visible above the horizon. Stars that are further away will set (disappear behind the earth as we rotate) and be out of sight until they rise again in the east some 12-hours later. When we can see these stars depends on the season. Orion, for example, is right overhead in February, but it you want to see it in August, you will have to get up in the wee hours of the morning before sunrise. One other constellation that is just now coming into prime viewing position is Leo the lion. Leo is off to the left of Sirius and includes a relatively bright star called Regulus.
Above: This image is a 30-second long exposure of the constellation Orion. Orion is the warrior with the famous belt, from which hangs a long curved sword. The diffused star towards the tip of the sword is the great nebula of Orion. With strong binoculars or a descent telescope you can see bright young stars that were born in this glowing cloud of interstellar gas. Below: This , too, is a 30-second exposure of Taurus, the bull and the lovely star cluster known as the Pleiades. The Pleiades is often called the seven sisters and in Japan, it is known as Subaru — now you know where the car logo comes from!
In terms of stars, winter offers some really good ones. The brightest of all our stars is Sirius (the dog star). Just find Orion and then look to the left. Sirius is 25 times brighter than our sun and at 8.5 light years it is the 5th closest star to us. A light year (a unit of distance) is how far light travels in one year at the speed of 186k miles per second. Do the math and you will find that Sirius is just 50-trillion miles away – practically right next-door!
Go back to Orion’s Belt and you will see two equally spaced stars – one above and one below. The one above is named Betelgeuse and the one below is a blue supergiant named Rigel. Betelgeuse is a red supergiant and it is a variable star, meaning it goes through phases of brightening and dimming. Recently it has gone dimmer than usual, leading some astronomers to speculate that it could go supernova (blow up) soon! This is what red supergiants do when their fuel is largely spent – they go out with a bang. In fact, it could have already happened and we just don’t know it yet. It takes light 700 years to get here from Betelgeuse. That poses an interesting philosophical question: if the star already blew up, but we are still seeing light from before that explosion because it has to travel so far and for so long to be seen by us, would Betelgeuse still exist? We can look up and see it in the sky, but it might not actually be there!
Aldebaran is another bright star in the winter sky. Follow a line formed by the three stars in Orion’s Belt in the direction opposite Sirius and it is the reddish star in the V-shaped face of Taurus the bull. If you go left and up from the bright star Sirius you will see another bright one called Procyon.
Adding to the show this season is Venus, which is well above the western horizon in the evening sky. Look to the west shortly after sunset and it is the super bright star that will set by 9pm or so. But Venus is not a star at all – it is the second planet out from the sun and other than the moon it is the brightest object in the night sky. Because Venus is closer to the sun than we are, we always see it in proximity to the sun – either in the evening sky, setting within a couple of hours of sunset, or in the early morning sky, rising an hour or two before the sun does. Because of this characteristic, and its standout brightness, it is often called the evening star or the morning star. But again, that’s just a name… it’s a planet.
If this discussion has piqued your interest why not plan a visit to South County Rhode Island and enjoy our night sky. If you step out for a self-guided viewing, any clear dark night will do. If you would like guidance, Fridays are best because the area has two free viewing options. Frosty Drew Observatory, located in Ninigret Park in Charlestown, offers public viewing through their large telescope; and at the Weekapaug Inn, I point out stars and constellations using a green laser pointer and a smaller scope. The Frosty Drew scope is far more powerful than typical amateur telescopes and this time of year they will probably be training it on deep space objects such as star clusters and clouds of gas in space known as nebula. Observatories are not heated, so dress for the weather. At the Inn we look at the sweep of the sky and the stars and constellations from our second-story deck. Crackling fires, restorative beverages and hot chowder are just steps away from the twinkling night sky.
Why not plan to visit Southern Rhode Island in the coming weeks? At night you can gaze at the expanse of stars above, and by day you can explore all that our beautiful little piece of the universe has to offer!
All of the background stars in a time exposure can make picking out the constellation difficult, so I put together this simplified illustration of the major constellations and notable stars. Above is the view towards the south, with Orion and associated star groupings. Below is a view towards the North, with the Big Dipper and the North Star.