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The 812 List, | Apr 21, 2015

Stargazing in Southern Indiana

Hoosiers can catch these astronomical events before a five-year slowdown begins.

A new moon is the most oportune time to visit an observatory. /Photo courtesy of Andrew Hayslip

You don’t have to discover galaxies beyond the Milky Way, as New Albany’s Edwin Hubble did, or be a NASA ‘naut, like Mitchell’s Gus Grissom, to be a starry-eyed Hoosier. And you don’t need expensive equipment or a season pass to an observatory either. Keep stargazing simple with 812’s guide to eight astronomical events in 2015 and a copy of Indiana StarWatch by meteorologist Mike Lynch, who encourages his students to take a lawn-chair-and-lemonade approach to stargazing.

1. June 16 – Dark side of the moon

Each month, after the moon waxes to its fullest, it wanes to its darkest, creating a new moon. The shadowed sphere means less light to distract from other objects in the solar-scape. A new moon is an ideal time to visit an observatory, like Martinsville’s Goethe Link Observatory.

2. July 1 – Jupiter meets Venus

Don’t worry, that’s not a glare in your camera or an orb in your photo; it’s a planet conjunction between Jupiter and Venus. Look to the west at dusk as two small spheres appear after the summer sunset. What keeps these planets from colliding? Well, like Lynch says, planets in conjunction aren’t physically close, but they occasionally appear together when they align from different planes of the sun’s orbit. “They just happen to be in the same line of light,” he says. “There’s no way they can be close together.”

3. July 14 – NASA explores New Horizons

Pluto is ready for its close-up. After nine and a half years of travel, NASA’s New Horizons probe is about to make a first encounter with the dwarf planet. Since it’s three billion miles away, you’ll need to shift your astronomical attention to nasa.gov for a ScienceCast video report of the mission, scheduled for its closest approach to Pluto at 7:50 a.m.

4. August 13 – Perseid’s peak

Wherever you’re doing early Thursday morning, be sure to let your eyes wander the northeastern skies. The second most visible meteor shower of the year will peak just before dawn. Despite its clarity, Perseid tends to play a waiting game with the naked eye, so be patient and enjoy the meteor shower with breakfast and a blanket.

5. September 28 – Like a big pizza pie

Direct your sleepy gaze to the horizon at 10:45 p.m. to catch the moon at its biggest and brightest. When the moon cozies itself 221,753 miles away, its appearance is magnified in its closest position to Earth it’ll be in all year – hence the name, supermoon. Although the second of three, this supermoon will be the only one to cause a total lunar eclipse in its near-perfect alignment with the Earth and sun. Swallowed by shadow and colored crimson, the moon is allowed limited sunlight – mostly red light – by the Earth’s atmosphere.

6. October 1 – A close call

Recently discovered comet Catalina may reach naked-eye visibility in the southern skies on this autumn evening. Extra emphasis on the “may.” Lynch cautions stargazers to approach glamorized comets with a grain of salt and a reflector telescope. They’re hard to find without knowing where and what to look for. If you do see Catalina, it’ll look like “a little, fuzzy star,” Lynch says. “Nothing fabulous about it. Comets are tricky things.” Instead of stargazing tonight, you might follow this shooting star-like comet from the Explore Brown County Night Flight Astronomy Zip Line Tour.

7. November 12 – Great balls of fire

The Taurid fireball meteor shower is expected every seven years. If you invest in an affordable reflector telescope – Lynch suggests Orion, Celestron and Meade brands – you’ll increase your chances of sighting one of these slow-moving, fiery traces anywhere in a clear midnight sky.

8. December 14 – The grand finale

The peak of a 10-day span of showers can be seen anywhere across the sky around 2 a.m. Take a road trip. Find a nature preserve or park with a low light index, open the sunroof and enjoy the shower from the warmth of your vehicle with a thermos of hot chocolate and a serene soundtrack. Your eyes will adjust to the darkness after about 20 minutes, and you could begin tallying up to 50 meteors in an hour.

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