No Money Astronomy: Remastered Edition
Amateur astronomy is an expensive hobby. Telescopes, mounts, eyepieces, filters, cameras…all of those fancy gadgets cost a lot of moolah. Some telescopes cost thousands of dollars, and the price doesn’t include eyepieces or the required equipment needed to use to the telescopes. Decent mounts and planetary filters are sold separately, of course.
Don’t drag a copper penny across your piggybank’s porcelain neck, because there’s no need to sacrifice your precious savings.
Not many people know that it’s possible to see a satellite with their very own eyes, but it’s true—satellites can easily be observed during sunset. Satellites are equipped with solar panels and a variety of fancy hardware which reflects sunlight. These objects may look like “moving stars”. Satellites typically travel slower than an airplane and don’t have any blinking lights.
Satellites are typically blamed for UFO sightings. Imagine if you witnessed a dim star slowly trekking across the night sky. Observing a migrating star can, indeed, be a confusing experience—especially if you don’t know what the hell you’re looking at. You’re not going to be one of those people. Don’t worry.
It costs exactly 0 dollars to go satellite hunting. Who knows? Perhaps you’ll see a top-secret spy satellite. Lucky you.
Do you see that odd streak toward the middle of the photograph? That streak was caused by a satellite—a long photographic exposure (25-30 seconds) recorded the satellite travel across the frame.
Satellites are easy to observe during sunset, and no special gear is required. You don’t have to part ways with a single penny.
Satellite Observing Tips
- Wait until dusk
- Look toward the setting Sun
- Pay attention
- Look for “moving stars”
- Airplanes are bright and have colored lights. Satellites are dim and have no colored lights.
- Satellites tend to move slower than planes, however, some satellites move quickly across the sky
- Iridium flares may cause satellites to increase their brightness. Watch out.
There’s no denying it—backyard astronomy is expensive. Very expensive. Telescopes, mounts, eyepieces, books, filters, none of these things are cheap, and, instead, will bankrupt mere mortals. Apochromatic refractors…large aperture reflectors…astrographs…catadioptrics…binoculars…CCD cameras…eyepieces…star diagonals…filters…dynamos…mounts…Barlow lenses…the list goes on…
You need none of it.
Let’s explore astronomical objects which require absolutely no gear to observe—stars.
This should go without saying, but it’s true: the night sky is filled with stars, and to prove this fact, you don’t need any special gear. Go outside, and, well, take a look—you’ll see a night sky filled with shiny things. These shiny things are called ‘stars’.
How many visible stars are in the night sky? Your guess is as good as mine. The human eye is able to see down to the 6th magnitude, and guess what? There are thousands of 6 magnitude stars. More than enough to keep you entertained.
I see your face cringing. I hear your thoughts: “But, but, stars are boring! I been looking at stars my whole life and they’re boring!”
Does that sound like you? Don’t lie.
If it does, hey, don’t worry. You’re just a little jaded, possibly an asshole. Don’t worry. We all been there. Keep an open mind. Crack open a few books. Prowl the interweb. You know what you’ll discover? The night sky is filled with very interesting stellar objects—all of them demand your immediate attention.
Have you ever read about The Demon Star? No? Sit back and prepare to be cosmically obliterated—this Winking Demon is known to blink at observers, periodically dimming, then brightening, at predictable intervals. Why? How can a star possibly do such a thing? Welcome to the world of variable stars.
Not interested in demonic stars? That’s okay and possibly understandable.
What about big stars? Fat stars? HUMONGOUS stars? Stars are like people…they come in a wide variety of sizes: puny, small, medium, big, very big, large, huge, fat, fat bastard, ridiculously fat, and horrifically plump.
Betelgeuse—a glowing tangerine—lounges near Orion’s left shoulder. Speaking of fat bastards, Betelgeuse is quite large: this particular supergiant is estimated to have a radius of about 1000x the Sun, which equals…850 million miles (1.4 billion km).
Stars You Must See
No cash? No Problem! The night sky has free admission—it’s only a matter of knowing where to look. By the time we’re finished, you will be the most frugal observer in the entire Milky Way galaxy.
Demonic Blinking Star
A demonic star supposedly exists. I’m sure you heard the stories, but have you seen the demon with your own eyes? Don’t bother cracking open your wallet. We can sneak a peek at this freak.
Algol ‘The Demon Star’ is a strange stellar thing located in the constellation of Perseus.
The mythical badass who beheaded Medusa is immortalized in the night sky, and this demigod shows off his kill by forever gripping the gorgon’s snaky head within his stellar hands. Medusa’s gaze turned warriors to stone if they looked her in the eyes…guess what? That’s exactly what we’re gonna do. Go sharpen your sword.
Algol just so happens to shine near Medusa’s eyes, and if you look into her gaze, you might see something that will make you question your sobriety. Or sanity. Take your pick.
Medusa may blink (if she likes you). Algol’s apparent brightness is known to become quite dim…perhaps completely vanishing! You can see the star shimmer as if it were fighting to stay awake. This strange and predictable behavior puzzled people since the beginning of time, and recent investigations suggested that Algol is actually a double-star system. The “blinking” is caused by a star eclipsing Algol’s light, which can be seen from our perspective here on planet Earth.
Let that sink in for a moment: you can see an eclipsing binary star system.
Algol Observing Tips
- Perseus is best observed in northern latitudes, and can’t be seen by people living south of the equator.
- Wait until autumn or winter. Perseus (and Cassiopeia) will be placed well above the horizon.
- Use Cassiopeia as your guide. Cassiopeia is more distinctive than Perseus. Start there if you have trouble.
- Study free online maps or visit the library and borrow something called a book. Or use a phone app. Your choice.
- Algol is the second brightest star in Perseus (β Persei).
- Be patient. Algol’s light won’t diminish immediately. The entire cycle lasts about 2.87 days, but if you catch the event as it starts, you’ll notice an unusual shimmer. Mid-eclipse lasts about two hours, and then Algol begins to brighten.
- Click here and use this calculator to find out when the next eclipse will occur. Plug-in your target date. Easy. Simple. Done.
Your pockets are jingling. We spied on spy satellites and gawked a demonic demon, and we didn’t even spend a single rupee. Amateur astronomy is an expensive hobby, but that doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our cute piggy bank.
Humanity has been seeing stellar patterns in the night sky since…forever. Cultures all over the world gave their ancient two cents and forged mighty mythologies, which we still read about, even during modern times.
What was the first constellation you learned? Was it The Big Dipper?
The Big Dipper is a very popular constellation. There’s just one itsy-bitsy problem: The Big Dipper is not a legit constellation. We live our whole damn lives thinking we know everything, then we learn how stupid we truly are. Welcome to life, kiddo.
The Big Dipper is really an asterism—a bright pattern of stars which are smaller than an actual constellation. Feel free to impress your friends during your next cocktail party (Why didn’t you invite me?) by saying something like this: “…Don’t be silly! The Big Dipper is not a constellation. It’s an asterism.”
Learning the constellations comes with many benefits. Everyone smarter than me says so, and guess what? It’s true. And guess what else? Learning the constellations is absolutely free.
Here’s the top-secret to learning the constellations—investing time.
That’s all it takes.
Oh, and dedication.
Let’s be realistic: you won’t learn it all in one night. Don’t even try. Learn a little at a time. Start with what you know and branch off into new sections of the night sky, when you’re feeling adventurous. The constellations will eventually burn into your brain and it feels good.
Once you start becoming familiar with the night sky, you’ll start to notice a thing or two. The last two stars in the Big Dipper’s handle point the way to Polaris (North Star), which resides in the Little Dipper (another asterisk). Very convenient.
Mizar and Alcor are a popular double-star system. The ancients used this star system as a primitive eye test—people who could ‘split the double’—were deemed to have excellent vision, and they were trained to use a sword. The double star system is located in the Big Dipper’s handle.
Pop quiz, hotshot: do you know how to find Mizar and Alcor?
The magical arrow points to the magical circle, and inside that magical circle is a double star system.
You used a constellation to locate specific stars. Not only can you locate a few bright stars, but you can now locate constellations, which helps locate…more stars. Congratulations. Pat yourself on the back. Kiss your pretty reflection. You deserve it.
Let’s tighten up this circle, shall we? Remember Betelgeuse? Great, because you’re going to use that star to locate the constellation of Orion.
Betelgeuse is located on Orion’s left shoulder. See? You used a star and located a whole damn constellation. Simple. Easy. You can do this blindfolded.
**Remember** Constellations are seasonal and don’t worry about learning it all at once. The celestial characters of ancient lore are going nowhere…for now.
Your piggy bank must be about to bust apart. We learned how to locate specific stars and constellations and didn’t spend a single dollar, peso, euro, rupee, yen, shekel, won, denar, or kina. That’s the definition of savings.
Hey! Is that a bulging wallet in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?
The constellations don’t have a cosmic price-tag: time, dedication, and consistency are all that’s needed to learn about the celestial characters of ancient lore. No bankrupting equipment required.
There’s a world floating in the sky—a gray place full of apocalyptic craters—glowing among the fireflies of the night. Perhaps you have seen this catastrophic world—riddled with horrific mountains and frozen seas of lava.
Quite possibly the easiest celestial wonder to locate, the Moon takes up residence in the sky and is
unlikely impossible not to see. Do you remember the first time you observed the Moon? Exactly. The Moon has always been here, well…as far as you’re concerned.
Moon Phase Observing
Day Moon Spotting
Lunar Eclipse Party
Observing Peculiar Lunar Atmospheric Phenomenon
Simply Looking At It
You have seen the Moon, right? Okay, okay…but have you seen every single phase? The Moon has eight phases, so what are you waiting for? You gotta collect ’em all. Take a quick gander at the fancy diagram and you could clearly see why the Moon goes through distinct phases. It will take you a full month to observe all the lunar phases, and that’s assuming the clouds don’t screw you. We all been there. Don’t be ashamed.
Speaking of lunar phases: did you know the Moon can rise during the day? It’s true! Some people believe the Moon can only “come out” when the Sun “goes to sleep”. Congratulations! You’re no longer one of those people.
Day Moon Tips
Make Sure The Moon isn’t Lost In The Sun’s Glare
Make Sure The Moon is Above Your Horizon
Make Sure The Moon Isn’t Obscured by Clouds, Trees, Buildings…
A waxing gibbous Moon, for example, is substantially far away from the Sun, which makes it more visually apparent and easier to locate. I recommend starting with a waxing/waning gibbous phase. You can see a crescent Moon during the day, but it will be pretty damn close to the Sun and sets relatively early.
That’s all there is to it. Make sure the Moon has risen and it’s not lost within the Sun’s glare—you’ll be able to easily find the Moon during the day.
What? You never have seen a lunar corona? What about a Moon halo? No? Depending on the state of the weather—odd spherical halos of light may surround the Moon. Mysterious. Unpredictable. And free.
Speaking of atmospheric light shows: have you ever seen Earthshine? It’s one of those things you probably have seen, but haven’t given it much thought. Until now. Sometimes, if the weather is just right, and if your local atmosphere isn’t clogged with too many pollutants…you may see Earthshine.
Let’s have a look, shall we? Under shitty conditions—the standard crescent Moon looks a little something like this.
If conditions are right—a shadowy light can be seen within the normally dark portion of the lunar surface—that’s mystical Earthshine. I can’t tell you exactly when Earthshine can be visible, because it’s dependent on local weather conditions and seeing.
You will have to keep your eye on the sky and scrutinize every single waxing/waning crescent Moon.
We sifted through some stars, scoured the constellations, and gawked at the Moon—all without cracking open your wallet, purse, or whatever you hoard your money in.
People often overlook the Moon and disregard its potential. No one has danced upon its surface since 1972, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look upon its surface and mentally resurrect dead possibilities, because that doesn’t cost a damn thing.
Your piggy bank is gorging on coins. You’ll soon have enough pennies to buy yourself a delicious chocolate chip muffin.
We’re still hitchhiking along the cosmic highway and haven’t cracked open our wallet or purse. We learned how to locate stars, identify constellations, and observe the Moon—all for free.
Did you know that it’s possible to see planets? I’m talkin’ nothin’ but usin’ those squishy optics inside your pretty face. No telescopes. No binoculars. Only squishy optics (eyes).
See that planetary hitlist? Those are the naked-eye planets. The ancients watched these mysteriously nomadic points of light, and guess what? They didn’t have any fancy gear. Nope, no way, didn’t need it, couldn’t afford it. The ancients used their biological optics which were plugged directly into their brain.
First things first: how the hell can you tell the difference between a star and planet?
It seems impossible, right? Both are shiny and both are points of light, so…what are we supposed to do? I’ll tell you what we’re going to do—look for the shine.
Take a look at the image above this sentence. Which point of light is the planet Venus?
Have you figured it out? What was that? Did you say, “the bright point of light”? Congratulations. You located Venus. The brightest of the Visual Five. Take a closer look. Do you notice anything else?
Pay special attention to the rays of light. Do you notice how Venus appears to have a spiky appearance? That’s the shine, baby. Let’s have a look at another example.
The planetary spikiness is unmistakable.
Stars don’t look like that—take a gander at the minuscule points of light all around Venus. Yup. You guessed it. Those are stars. Stars will all ways appear as twinkling compact points of light.
Easy, right? Now that you know how to visually tell the difference between a star and planet, you could now learn about the nature of the solar system. We are going really deep, so put on your diving helmet. You’re going to need it. Trust me.
The planets journey across the ecliptic reveals dark secrets about the solar system and the nature of Earth’s orbit.
No shit, Sherlock—the planets don’t just zip-zap across the sky—they jog along a specific path, which happens to cut through the zodiacal constellations, and only the zodiacal constellations. Period. End of story. The image above shows Jupiter jogging along the ecliptic and it’s heading (eastward) toward the eye of Taurus (Aldebaran).
The planets are whispering a secret and it sounds a little like this: Since any planet can be found along the ecliptic, that tells us the solar system is neatly arranged into a plane. Not only that—some of the planetary movement is caused by Earth’s orbit. If you go outside every night and observe Jupiter at the same time, you’ll notice the planet start to creep eastward along the ecliptic—this motion is caused by Earth’s orbit.
In the image above, Jupiter has traveled past the eye of Taurus and is heading parallel (eastward) toward the Pleiades. I’ll let you figure out which point of light is Jupiter.
You won’t notice this kind of change overnight.
Things are getting complicated. We started out gawking at pretty planets, then fell down the astronomical rabbit hole: ecliptic, Earth’s orbit, direct motion, retrograde motion, visual magnitudes…it never ends. Welcome to astronomy.
Since all the planets are located along the ecliptic—it’s not uncommon to see a few planets paired together in the sky—which is commonly called “planetary conjunction”.
The image above showcases conjunction of Venus and Mars. Not a particularly rare event, but worthy of taking a look at. Any of the Visual Five could be seen in the sky together—sometimes all at once.
The Moon can join the fun, too. The image above is a conjunction of the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus.
You can use planetary conjunctions as a convenient way to learn about…planets. Yeah. Mercury, for example, tends to be an elusive planet and doesn’t travel far from the Sun, which means observing Mercury is a pain in the ass. You’ve been warned.
Observing the planets don’t have to cost you anything and there is plenty to see (and learn). If you’re willing to put in the time, you’ll become aligned with the solar system’s dance, swinging around and around, as the cosmic orchestra silently hums in your ear.
Well? Have you seen all of the Visual Five? What about planetary conjunction? Have you observed a planet’s direct motion? Watching the planets is cheaper than sitting through the latest summer blockbuster action flick.
By cheaper, of course, I mean free.
Ghosts exist and they don’t live in your closet. They live in space.
There are ghastly starry specters—soft splatters of ethereal light—glowing among the eternal dark. They’ll make your eyes squint. They’ll make you question reality…am I seeing things? Is there anything really there? Why am I talking to myself?
The night sky is filled with all sorts of things and all we need is our biological optics (eyes).
Deep Sky Objects
These celestial ghosts are dim but perceptible—if you know where to look.
We explored the stars, constellations, the Moon, the planets, and guess what? It’s time to meet the cosmic ghouls. Are you ready? Do you value your sanity? Don’t worry…the denizens of the dark love new initiates!
Where to begin…where to begin…You know what? I don’t know.
I honestly don’t know how to begin this tour of the cosmic asylum. I could just toss you inside and lock the door, but you’ll scream too much. Remember: cries for your momma can’t be heard in space.
Let’s begin the tour with the most popular ghost of them all, shall we?
M42 (Orion Nebula) is a wintry ghost located in the constellation of Orion. Since Orion lies near the celestial equator, that means many people will be able to easily bag this ghost. You remember how to locate Betelgeuse, right? Great! M42 lies below Orion’s belt.
See that massive red arrow? It’s pointing directly at M42, which somewhat lies below the middle star of Orion’s Belt. Use Orion’s Belt as your guide and you’ll eventually see M42’s ghostly illumination. No telescope is required.
Heavy light pollution will veil a night specter. Seek out the darkest sky possible.
There’s a faint galactic island which so happens to be the furthest object visible to the naked eye. Located at least 2.5 million light years away—this wispy collection of stars and dust will test the limits of your visual acuity. Do you normally wear glasses? You’ll probably need them.
Do you see a wispy smear of light toward the center of the frame? That’s a cosmic ghost—also known as—the Andromeda Galaxy. A dark sky will greatly increase your chance of bagging this particular ghost and make sure your eyes have adapted to the night! Many people neglect or forget that our eyes need time to adapt.
There’s another ghost which is located not far from the Andromeda galaxy, in the constellation of Perseus. The Double Cluster is a peculiar night specter, consisting of two loosely bound open clusters.
The Pleiades is located in the constellation of Taurus (toward the bovine’s tail). Some people may be able to see individual stars within this cluster, or it may appear as a smear of light, depending on how sharp your vision is. The Pleiades is arguably the easiest cosmic ghost to locate and it certainly doesn’t require a telescope.
The ancients noticed something. Once in a while—a strange glowing point of light burned across the night sky.
Uninvited cosmic guests signaled our doom and promised only disease, war, and death. Peasants would yank the hair out of their scalps while kings demanded their personal astronomer to “read the light” and spit back a very accurate prediction, like winning a war against an advisory, or if crops will be set on fire, or if amphibians will fall from the clouds.
I’m talking about comets.
It’s absolutely possible to see a comet with your naked eye, but they tend to fluctuate in brightness, depending on how close the comet is toward, or away, from the Sun. A comet can bust through the door at any moment, so keep your eye on the sky and hope it doesn’t rain filthy amphibians.
We’ve traveled a long way along the cosmic highway and have yet to spend a single a dollar.
We explored stars, constellations, planets, the moon, and night specters—all without sacrificing our piggy bank. Amateur astronomy is expensive, but the universe doesn’t have a cosmic price-tag…
…as long as you know where to look.
What have you been doing with your massive monetary savings? Amateur astronomy bankrupts mere mortals. We haven’t sacrificed our piggy bank and we somehow gained admission into the greatest show of our lives: the night sky.
There’s another ancient celestial activity and it will only cost you a little of your time. There’s a possibility you’re familiar with this activity. Are you a fantasizer? Do you feel like a hopeless individual? If you’re anything like me, I bet you sometimes become sick of the rock underneath your feet. If you’re anything like me, I bet you ponder about otherworldly places.
The only thing you have to do is open your eyes. T
No goals. No destinations. No rules. Allow your eyes to go where they want. Allow your thoughts to go where they want. Sit where you want. Walk where you want. Allow yourself to wonder in the dark…who knows what will come to mind. Frightful thoughts may try and keep you company—it’s your choice if you want to entertain them. The stars are known to awaken dormant memories.
Is there a distant world floating within the inky black void? The kind of world unbound by our star’s grasp? Could that world be inhabited by pathetic individuals?…just like you and I. If the night is clear enough—you can stare down the cosmos—and feel something staring back: wonder.
Let the constellations melt away into shapes. Allow the myths and stories to dissolve. Amateur astronomy can get in the way of fantasizing.
Observing and wondering is not the same thing.
Observing requires focus. Wondering requires freedom. A preconceived objective doesn’t offer freedom. Once telescopes are involved—the night sky shrivels—leaving open a tiny window of clarity. You see what the telescope sees. And that’s it.
Yeah, I have a feeling you’re a fantasizer. Are you ready to leave this world behind? Your eyeballs are spaceships and they’ll take you anywhere imaginable.