Astronomy buffs seek clear skies over Juneau

Posted: Thursday, February 14, 2002

Bill Leighty recalls his interest in stargazing began in his childhood, when he spent his summer days contemplating the meaning of the universe and his place in it.

"You're just out in the summer and lying in the grass, looking up at the sky and wondering what it's all about," he said. "I think humans have a sense of connectedness to the Earth, and want to understand their place in it."

His wife, Nancy Waterman, shared in his enthusiasm. When their children were living at home, the couple took them along on stargazing expeditions. The family pondered the same questions Leighty had as a child, but also talked about Waterman's interests as well.

"I really like just observing the moon and being aware of (its) phases," Waterman said. "And then you can't help but speculate about what it would be like to travel to the moon."

Scot Tiernan's interest in stargazing began when he was a child, "probably because I grew up in a place where I could see stars," he said. But part of it also stems from his military career.

"I used to spend time on aircraft carriers in the Navy, and all you see is stars," he said.

Moments of astral enjoyment can be few and far between in Juneau. While stargazing requires little in the way of fancy equipment, it does require clear skies, a rarity in Southeast Alaska. Visible stars are more common in winter than summer, because there's less daylight to interfere. But many local stargazers offered the same one-word piece of advice to those wanting to enjoy the nighttime scenery: "Leave."

"If I wanted to see the stars, I wouldn't be in Juneau," said Michael Orelove, a volunteer at the Marie Drake Planetarium.

Leighty has even scouted out some of the better places outside of Juneau to go gazing.

"The closest place to Juneau to get a clear sky is Whitehorse," he said with a laugh. "I (stargaze) when I'm in California."

But on those occasions when Juneau's generally cloudy conditions give way to clear skies, the winter sky offers a variety of viewing opportunities for those who know where to look.

Because of the Earth's current position in the galaxy, Mars, Jupiter and Venus are very prominent in the evening sky, said Don Greenberg, an astronomy professor at the University of Alaska Southeast. Mars is the brightest star and is in the west-southwest corner of the sky. Visible between twilight and 10 p.m., it is distinguished by a somewhat reddish color. Jupiter is the second brightest object in the sky after the moon, and is what people looking at the sky usually see this time of year.

"When people are going out right now and say, 'What's that really bright thing?' it's usually Jupiter they're talking about," Greenberg said.

The constellations Taurus and Orion are also visible in the winter skies. Orion, between Saturn and Jupiter, is the brightest constellation in Juneau's winter sky. It is identifiable by three stars in a row, which make up the belt of Orion. The Orion constellation contains some of the brightest stars in the winter sky, including Betelgeuse, a "red super giant," and Rijel, a very white, almost bluish looking star, Greenberg said. The Big and Little Dippers, as well as the northern lights, are also extremely visible in Juneau's winter skies.

Enjoying the winter lights doesn't require the use of expensive telescopes. In the majority of cases, the naked eye or a pair of inexpensive binoculars is sufficient. And in some cases, the use of a high-powered telescope, or even a pair of binoculars, hinders viewing.

"If you're looking at something like a comet, you don't want to look through a telescope because (it) only gives you a very small piece of the sky," Orelove said. The best instrument for these phenomena is "just the naked eye."

While the planets are visible with the naked eye, a telescope is necessary in order to see details, Orelove added. Yet even in those cases an inexpensive one can do the job.

"With a small-powered, inexpensive telescope, you could see the rings of Saturn," he said. "You could see Jupiter and four of its largest moons."

While winter stargazing can be fun even if one can't identify planets and constellations, the enjoyment level is increased if gazers are prepared for what they can see and where to look for it, Leighty said.

The Marie Drake Planetarium offers monthly discussions on different topics. Star charts available on the Internet and in magazines such as Sky & Telescope identify visible stars and their location in the sky. Greenberg's astronomy class, which Waterman and Tiernan have taken, is another option.

Where one chooses to view the winter skies is an important consideration. The best locations are dark, open expanses not hemmed in by nearby trees, Greenberg said. Downtown lights and mountains can also hinder viewing.

Auke Village Recreation Area is a popular viewing spot, as are Skater's Cabin and Eagle Beach. Waterman and Leighty often drive down Thane Road on clear nights. And for those more adventurous gazers, Tiernan suggests a nighttime paddle out to Windfall Island.

Like any outdoor activity, it's important to keep warm when stargazing. Nighttime temperatures can sometimes drop to the single digits, so proper gear is a necessity.

"Make sure you're dressed in something warm and layered, so you can stay as long as you want to," Waterman said. Often she will bring a thermos of hot tea along, as well as a sleeping bag to snuggle up with Leighty and keep warm.

"I have arctic gear, and I bought 100-degree-below boots just to do this with," Tiernan said. "I can stay out for quite a while without getting cold."

In spite of Juneau's generally overcast conditions and frigid temperatures, stargazers persist in their hobby, they say, because it's fun.

"It's kind of a giant puzzle," Waterman said. "There's 88 constellations, and once you know the Big Dipper, it's easy to learn where the Little Dipper is. And then it's fun in our Juneau sky to put the puzzle together and recognize the constellations."

"I'm one of the people who have gone to see a few total solar eclipses," Orelove said.

"That's absolutely spectacular. I've also seen a meteor shower. I've seen Haley's comet and Hale-Bopp comet. The unusual things are fun to see," he said. "But in Juneau anytime you get to see stars it's exciting."

Amy Maio is a Juneau freelance writer.

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