Dark Skies -Bright Stars, PLEASE!

By: John Hlynialuk

Amateur stargazers, cottagers and nocturnal animals are really lucky to be living in Bruce and Grey counties. Stargazers have dark skies and bright stars to observe. Cottagers (away from overly-lit urban areas) have dark skies and a beautiful swath of summer Milky Way overhead when the family is out cooking weenies over a campfire. Nocturnal animals that live near or in the Bruce Peninsula Biosphere Reserve have nighttime darkness to which they have adapted over the millennia -no pesky streetlights making them well-lit targets for predators.

The common theme here is, of course, dark skies and a natural environment. Many places like the Bruce Peninsula Fathom Five National Park and the Bluewater Outdoor Education Centre are still mostly pristine environments and from a stargazing perspective, protected from unnecessary nighttime lighting, be it incandescent, florescent, or the most recent abomination, LEDs.

Keeping a dark nighttime environment is crucial for human health. Just google “Dark skies human health” for dozens of medical studies that support this contention. Fortunately, in the Bruce/Grey area of Ontario, nighttime over-illumination is only a problem in a few localities. Furthermore, efforts to preserve the dark nighttime environment locally have borne fruit. There are 17 Dark Sky Preserves in Canada, and four of them are within a 160 km radius of Wiarton. The four include Bruce Peninsula National Park near Tobermory, the Bluewater Outdoor Education Centre near Wiarton, Gordon’s Park on Manitoulin Island, and Torrence Barrens near Gravenhurst. Yes, locally we are optimistic about controlling light pollution, but the planet-wide scene is decidedly much the opposite.

Not to mince words, overall, we are losing the battle to control nighttime illumination. You just have to look at an image of the Earth at night from space to see how bright it is at night. Satellite cameras detect the totally wasted light sent upwards. Much light reflects back down from dust particles and water vapour and brightens the sky generally. The effect is visible even in rural areas as the visibility of faint objects is reduced. Even from 100’s of kilometres away, the light domes over our cities cast an orange glow into the sky. Anywhere near or within a large city, the glare from overhead lights is extreme, allowing only light from the Moon and bright planets to get through. Fainter objects are totally invisible.

[Click on image below to download a copy]

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Image from study published in Science Advance magazine.


A study in 2016 authored by Fabio Falchi of the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in Italy and Chris Elvidge of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (along with other international scientists) has found that in the USA, for ex., 80% of the population cannot see the Milky Way from where they live. The percentage is the same in urban Canadian areas like those along the Windsor to Montreal corridor. The darkest skies on our planet are of course, in areas like the Canada northland and in countries like Madagascar, the Central African Republic and Greenland, where everyone can see the Milky Way by just stepping outside.
[The original paper is available here:
http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/2/6/e1600377 ]

I am lucky to be able to see the Milky Way from my back yard because my house blocks the city lights to the north but there are sickly yellow-orange glows along parts of the southern and eastern horizon. Of course, like other large towns and cities, no Milky Way is visible from downtown Owen Sound. The situation locally has gotten worse in the last few years because the city recently replaced the majority of their streetlights with LEDs. These are certainly more economical and do have proper shielding to prevent upward light spill, but the overall level of lighting has increased approximately 30%, so the total light reflected from the ground upwards (especially in winter) has increased by a large fraction. Many people have commented to me that they find the lights at night overly bright. I agree and have the measurements to prove it.

On Saturday afternoon, May 27, there is an opportunity to visit a Dark Sky Preserve during the Open House at the Bluewater Outdoor Education Centre. The Bluewater Education Foundation and Ducks Unlimited Canada are co-sponsoring this event and it is open to everyone. You are welcome to come to the Outdoor Ed Centre (maps on the BAS website given below) and enjoy the wagon rides, birding, hikes, and fun kid activities like critter-dippin’ and face painting. Events start at 1 pm and will include solar observing with (safely-filtered) telescopes from the Fox Observatory. Everyone is welcome and after the Sun goes down, the observatory will be open for some dark sky viewing. Come and see what a Dark Sky Preserve is all about.

Check www.bluewaterastronomy.com for more information.

UFO's -NOT!

UFO’s -a personal experience
by John H.

Considering that I have been a stargazer most of my adult life, you might think that I have seen a lot of strange things in the sky. The answer to the question: “Seen any UFO’s?” is pretty simple: “No.” This lack of UFO sightings on my part is perhaps remarkable. After all I am out two or three times a week (weather permitting) looking at the sky with a variety of telescopes and cameras. I have taken close to 5 000 pictures on film, and more than three times that number of digital images. This is by no means unusual for a die-hard stargazer like myself and I number myself among a million or more amateur astronomers around the world. The USA has about half of those and Canada probably has close to 50 000 or so.

There are rarely reports of unusual objects (UFOs) from this large group of sky-savvy folks. The simple reason is that people who know the sky well can identify 99.99% of what they see as natural objects. These include ordinary aircraft, bright glints of sunlight from satellites or moving points of light such as the International Space Station, meteors of various brightnesses, some exploding at the end, bright planets like Venus (the single object most often mistaken for a “flying saucer") and even bright stars refracting the colours of the rainbow when their light passes through the thick air near the horizon. I have seen Sirius, for example, flashing colours across the entire spectral range from red to violet.

There is, however, one incident that had me stumped, for a little while anyway. If I had not used
all of my senses, I would be puzzled to this day. But it took only a simple observation to get an answer for the UFO that I saw. (it is now an IFO on my list, -an Identified Flying Object).

It happened in May 1980, in Thompson, Manitoba chaperoning a group of Bruce County students who had won the right to compete in the Canada-Wide Science Fair. I had a great experience with that wonderful group of young people and several came back home with Canada-Wide awards. We were housed for several nights in a college residence and at night, (after my charges were safely tucked away in their rooms...) I would go out for an hour or two of stargazing and photography. The residence parking area (within sight of our rooms) was an ideal spot to view the northern sky and I came home with some good photos of aurora and some interesting planet groupings in the western sky. I was particularly impressed with how low Polaris was compared to its 45° elevation back home.

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Venus appeared in the sky of Thompson Manitoba in May, 1980 and no one mistook it for a UFO. Photo by John H.

My UFO experience started rather simply with a moving point of light that was just like many meteors I had seen before. Then another one appeared from the same direction and split into two at the end of its path. “Wow”, I said, “a fragmenting meteor!” I went back to gazing at the stars and it happened again, but after the trail split, the two separate trails started criss-crossing each other! Meteors breaking up do not do this, so was this a UFO mother ship and scouts?. More trails appeared, even three together and some performed the same crossing pattern as before. I was stumped, but then I started actually hearing the meteors! -a faint, swish, swish sound in the quiet of the night. It sounded just like the beat of wings of low-flying birds.

In fact, these UFO’s
were birds. The faint light was reflection from feathers covered with chemicals that make them water resistant and which also fluoresce in the UV light, spilling upward from the streetlights below. The flight paths of birds often cross from our perspective on the ground.

If I had only seen and not heard the event, it would have gone down in my book as a genuine UFO.

UFO sighting statistics always have a small percentage of UFO sightings that remain “unexplained”. My contention is that if more details of the sighting were available or if an experienced sky-watcher was observing, most, even all, sightings could be explained. I know this will not satisfy those folks out there who want there to be extra-terrestrials visiting us, but my own experience and that of thousands of amateur astronomers familiar with the sky indicates otherwise.

Jupiter Viewing Starts!


If you have noticed a bright light in the eastern sky (perhaps while taking your pet for a walk) you are not alone. Venus in the west is gone (returning soon to the morning sky) and Mercury will not last long as a substitute evening star. Now we turn to the eastern sky to watch our next featured planet, Jupiter, a planet almost as bright as Venus, and in many ways much more interesting.

Jupiter is the largest planet of the 8 planets in our solar system (9 if you still pine for Pluto). Jupiter and our Sun constitute 99.99% of the total system mass and each has a gravity pull so strong that according to current theories, a major planet was prevented from forming in the space between -only jagged chunks of space debris, the asteroids, are found orbiting there. One Jove-centric pundit defined our solar system as “Sun, Jupiter and assorted debris”, and it is true that the “leftovers” don’t amount to much, mass-wise. Earth, of course, has water, an atmosphere, and conditions that allow living organisms to thrive, so it is pretty special. Jupiter is unique, too, but only because it is such an extreme contrast to our own beautiful world.

The gravity of Jupiter is over 2.5 times Earth’s so, if yours truly, at a trim 180 pounds, were on Jupiter, I would need to support 455 pounds just to stand up, -if there was any place to stand. A solid surface like that on Earth cannot be found on Jupiter, and what we see in telescopes are the tops of swirling white and brownish clouds of ammonia crystals and darker-coloured sulphur compounds. Below the clouds (about 50 km thick) is a mixture of very cold hydrogen and helium gas which gets thicker and thicker all the way to the “surface” of a strange ocean of metallic liquid hydrogen. The atmospheric pressure here would crush the strongest pressurized vessel from Earth. So if the gravity doesn’t kill you, the pressure will.

Exploration of Jupiter can only happen from orbit or floating/flying in the upper atmosphere, but even here spacecraft are severely challenged. Wind speeds reach 1600 km/h (10 times those in Earth’s jet streams), and lightning occurs in “superbolts” the equivalent of 100 of the terrestrial variety. Huge storms in the atmosphere of this huge planet are common, -one Jovian hurricane, the Great Red Spot (first seen in 1665 and raging still) is bigger than the entire Earth with wind speeds over 400 km/h (twice those of a category 4 hurricane on Earth). Even Jupiter’s magnetic field is huge, extending several million km into space, so we are lucky that we are 600 million km away, -it is a safe enough distance.

Jupiter reaches a point in our sky called opposition on Apr 7 when it is exactly opposite the Sun and highest in our sky at midnight. This is prime-time for Jupiter, when it is well above the turbulent air near the horizon. But if it is cloudy Apr 7, don’t panic. Planets at opposition are in good viewing position for a month before and several months after the opposition date. For the best views on any clear night, observe the planet when it is away from the disturbing air near the horizon. Summer star parties will obviously feature both Jupiter and Saturn, which itself reaches opposition June 15.

Jupiter Apr1 - Sep 1 2017

Jupiter is near the star Spica, the brightest star of Virgo, but Spica does not move, so use it as a reference point to watch Jupiter doing what distinguishes planets from background stars, i.e. wander. Jupiter slowly slips westward until June 8 (retrograding), then, in the summer, it starts back towards Spica. By the end of Jupiter-viewing in autumn, the pair will be setting in the west just after sunset, with Jupiter closest to Spica and right above it.

Observing nights at the Fox Observatory will certainly include views of Jupiter with its always-changing arrangement of 4 bright moons. These are even visible in binoculars, but true to its status as King of Planets, Jupiter has 63 more moons circling it, the most of any planet. By Jove, Jupiter really is an attention-getter!

John H.

Mercury (Evening Star) and Crescent Moon

by: John Hlynialuk

The variable weather of March prevented stargazers in the Bruce and Grey area from seeing Venus and Mercury as double evening stars on March 19. Though the daytime sky was a spectacular blue, a dense cloud moved in above the western horizon at sunset, hid the planets and even obliterated the Sun as it sank below the edge of Lake Huron. Amateur astronomers were again teased by the goddess of astronomy, Urania, but, on that occasion, she perversely hid her beauties from sight.

Though this is not the first time that clouds have defeated local stargazers, (weather cancellations average about 50%) we all understand the following: "whether or not it is clear to you...the universe is unfolding as it should":
Desiderata, Max Ehrmann. If you read "weather" instead of "whether", the line has a slightly different meaning to be kept in mind as we attempt to observe future sky sights.

The next test of local stargazer’s dedication comes when Urania offers a series of crescent moon appearances near Mercury and Mars in the western sky from Mar 29 to Apr 1 (weather permitting, of course). The thin crescent Moon is a very pretty sight and should be high enough above the western horizon on Mar 29 to stand out in bright twilight. (See diagram). Right beside it, the only bright “star” in the area is the planet Mercury. This is an opportunity to spot that elusive planet if you have never seen it before, -it will be in the western sky playing the role of “Evening Star” for a few weeks. On March 30, the crescent Moon moves upwards and will be just left of Mars. On March 31, it appears close to Aldebaran, the “angry red eye” of Taurus the Bull. Aldebaran is indeed a red giant star, 44 times larger than the Sun, and does have a slight tinge of red to it. After April 1, the Moon continues moving eastward, increasing its phase (waxing) and brightening the sky as it does so. The Moon is first quarter on April 3 and full on April 11. April’s Full Moon is also called the “Egg Moon”, the “Grass Sprouting Moon” or the “Paschal Moon”.


Moon Mar29-31
Diagram from Starry Night Simulation Curriculum

Unlike Venus which had a three month period of visibility, the two planets presently in the western sky will not be around for long. On April 1, Mercury starts back towards the Sun and will be lost in the Sun’s glare by the time of full moon. Mars follows Mercury and is hidden in the Sun’s glow a few weeks later. The show is over by the third week of April.

Most of Mercury’s disappearing act is due to the rapid decrease in the amount of sunlight that reflects our way from its surface. Both Venus and Mercury exhibit phases as they orbit the Sun and on March 29, Mercury is half illuminated, -a first quarter phase. By Apr 6, this is reduced to a thin crescent (like the crescent Moon on March 29 and 30) and with less light reflected our way, the brightness of Mercury drops rapidly. With the weather in March so changeable, if you want to add Mercury to your life-list of astronomical objects, you need to observe on any clear night in the next two weeks or so.

If you join the Bluewater Astronomers on Saturday, March 25 at the Fox Observatory for the Messier Marathon, and you arrive before Mercury sets, ask one of the guides to show you the planet in a telescope. At medium power it is possible to see the planet as a thin crescent like a miniature crescent Moon. If you have a telescope of your own, Mercury is a neat sight, -this month is your best opportunity to see it for the entire year. Don’t miss it!

Venus and Mars in Western Sky after Sunset

Two very different planets are visible in the evening sky right now. Venus is obvious even in twilight, -a very bright Evening “Star” high above the SW horizon. Then there is Mars, much dimmer and slightly reddish -to the left and slightly up from Venus- looking like an average background star. Both are visible in February and March, Venus catching your eye instantly, its light so intense that most times clouds cannot block it. And now that you know where to look, you should be able to spot the Red Planet as well.

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Image above shows Venus and Mars above the western horizon Feb 18, 2017
Canon 6D 10 s ISO 3200 f/8 24 mm lens


Venus, on Feb 17, was its brightest for this apparition since it had the largest sunlit surface facing us and was on the inside track of its orbit so it was also larger in area due to proximity. The two effects work against each other, -as the planet gets closer and larger, less and less of its surface is light from our perspective. There is a happy medium, however, on Feb 17 when the two produce a maximum lit surface. See SKY SIGHTS entry for Feb 17 for more.

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Image above shows Venus on Feb 18, 2017 at its maximum brightness. (-4.6)
Canon 6D eyepiece projection through 20 mm eyepiece on C-9.25 Edge HD 1/40 s ISO100 f/40 eff. foc.len.

The difference in visual appearance of the two planets is based mostly on distance. Venus in its orbit is approaching the Earth right now and on March 24, it passes between us and the Sun at a mere 41 million kilometres. On rare occasions, it can even shave another 3 million km off that figure. Mars is about 6 times farther than Venus right now and on the opposite side of the solar system from Earth. In a year or so, however, Mars and Earth will be much closer, only 56 million km apart and so Mars will shine as a bright planet in our sky once again. But because Mars is smaller than Earth, (half of Earth’s diameter) and reflects less light our way (16%) it can never get as bright as Venus in our sky. Venus is an Earth-sized planet and its thick atmosphere of clouds reflects 75% of the sunlight in our direction. Mars and our Moon are very poor reflectors with similar albedos (the technical term for reflectivity) of 16% and 12% respectively, about the same as a slate blackboard.

Both planets, Venus and Mars are named after mythological gods. The Roman goddess of love was Venus and in Greek mythology, she was Aphrodite. She is always depicted as demur, lovely and beautifully curvy. The Roman god of war, Mars, and the equivalent Greek war god, Ares are shown in statues and paintings as bold, handsome and certainly manly (and deadly in battle). As the story goes, Mars and Venus at one point were a couple and produced twin offspring which judging by their names were probably poorly behaved: Deimos (meaning terror or dread) and Phobos (panic/fear). These names are used for the two real moons of the planet Mars.

So in the summer of 2018, a much brighter Mars will be the planet to observe with surface features like ice caps and dust storms visible in a telescope. (Even Deimos and Phobos may be glimpsed). But Venus, though closest and brightest in our sky right now, will forever remain mysterious, never dropping her thick veil of clouds and revealing her surface features (unless you have radar eyes, of course). Do enjoy the naked eye or binocular views of Venus right now because by April, Aphrodite’s month, she passes behind the Sun and disappears from our western sky. Later in spring, Venus returns to the east as an equally bright Morning Star, but by then she has left Mars far behind. This is only a temporary separation as the two are back together in a spectacular “embrace” in October -stay tuned.