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  • Photo courtesy of NASA This is a view of the U.S. at night from the International Space Station. Can you say "excessive"?
  • Graphic by GERRY DESCOTEAUX Saturn and Mars are easy targets to locate and enjoy above the southern horizon each evening this month.
Sunday, April 29, 2012

Shedding light on viewing problems

Gerry Descoteaux

Normally, I’d start this column with some lighthearted comments concerning whatever topic fellow Lawnchair enthusiasts might find amusing.

As a fan of tongue-in-cheek monologues, I try – though not always successfully – to make light of our common raison d’etre – seeing and enjoying the night skies from the comfort of our favorite piece of outdoor furniture and backyards.

However, this month, I got to thinking as I sit here on a rainy April weekend how the odd weather – what some call the result of global warming – may affect the Lawnchair.

During the last few years, we’ve all seen or heard of the wild weather extremes occurring all over the country and the world. As severe swings between drought and deluge visit our skies, we can expect the occasional breaks in available opportunities to enjoy our shared pastimes.

The worst-case scenario for the Lawnchair, however, is that at some near or distant point in the future, the skies may become completely – perhaps permanently – shrouded in clouds, just as our neighbor Venus endures.

As adaptable as many of us are, I don’t think moving from optical to radio telescopes would be conducive to the continued enjoyment of the Lawnchair.

However, regardless of climatological uncertainty, the more persistent threat to our way of life is still light pollution. As I remember it as a child growing up in a small city, on a moonless evening, there were hundreds – if not thousands – of stars above our heads each evening. Unfortunately, if you live in or near the cities today, you’ll be hard-pressed to see more than a scant few dozen stars above your head each evening.

Typically, that means a Lawnchair road trip to a dark-sky site away from the incessant glow. How nice would it be to just step out into the backyard and see that massive canopy of sparkles from the comfort of a perfectly positioned Lawnchair?

Studies have shown that there are solutions to this blight. Contrary to popular belief, all this added lighting does not really provide an increase in security, but just the perception of it.

Additionally, contrary to the perception of the cause of excessive lighting – commercial facilities such as car dealerships and shopping centers – in actuality, it’s street lighting.

Specifically, unshielded street lighting is the real culprit. It’s absolutely unnecessary. There absolutely are solutions, both practical and technological.

As we all know, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. There are things you and I can do. It’s a matter of making a little noise.

For more in-depth information, visit nelpag.harvee.org, the website for the New England Light Pollution Advisory Group. There’s also a link to it on my website – www.thelawnchairastronomer.com; see “Starman’s Favorite Astro-Links.”

Now, on to May’s excellent Lawnchair targets.

Poised for easy identification and acquisition, Mars and Saturn are perfectly placed for the Lawnchair inspection in May. By 9:30 each evening, each is well above the southern horizon. Mars can be found below the belly of the Great Lion, Leo, while Saturn floats within the boundaries of the constellation Virgo.

Mars is easy to recognize because of its famous reddish tint. Where most of the stars in its vicinity are generally bluish-white, Mars’ pinkish hue makes it stand out from the fold.

Saturn, on the other hand, sports a dim yellowish glow, also easy to pick out from the crowd. As planets, the other giveaway is that neither sparkle as the stars do, but rather emit a steady shine.

While Jupiter has succumbed to the post-sunset glow above the western horizon, Venus is still quite bright each evening, as always, and will remain the “evening star” for some time.

Unlike Mars and Saturn, there isn’t much to see in a telescopic observation other than a bright wash of light, whereas its neighbors are simply spectacular from the Lawnchair. Mars and Saturn sport details than can only be appreciated via some sort of optical aid.

Therefore, now that the weather has lost that winter chill, May is a perfect opportunity to share a Lawnchair evening with friends and family. Once you train any instrument – small telescopes or a good pair of binoculars – onto these wonderful targets, you’ll find that everyone will want an extended look.

Keep the clocks and watches out of the party and you may have to call in sick once the sun rises! Clear skies!

Gerry Descoteaux is the author of “The Lawnchair Astronomer,” a Dell trade paperback. He has been writing about astronomy for more than 25 years. He also played an integral role in the development of AOL’s pioneering distance education program known originally as the Online Campus, in addition to presenting astronomy courses. His online course, An Introduction to Astronomy, is available as a self-study program at www.thelawnchairastronomer.com.