Starwatch party brings constellations to life
BAXTER — A green beam of light seemed to stretch across tens of thousands of miles from the Forestview school parking lot in Baxter up to the stars in the night sky.
A group of stargazers watched as Mike Lynch outlined constellations, using the green light beam to make the invisible connections come into view. Suddenly the familiar handle of the big dipper became the tail of the big bear, Ursa Major.
For some constellations, such as seeing the Little Dipper as a small bear, Lynch said it’s not only a matter of needing imagination, “you have to put your imagination into overdrive.”
Last week, Minnesota Starwatch Party participants benefited from a clearing sky for Lynch’s presentation as part of a Brainerd Public Schools Community Education offering.
Lynch is a meteorologist at WCCO Radio and writes a weekly stargazing column for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Lynch brought two 20-inch reflecting telescopes, which look like canons a man would fly out of at the circus. He said they are among the biggest mobile telescopes in Minnesota. The telescopes captured light, bringing into view distant star clusters and nebulae unavailable to the naked eye.
One by one, stargazers took a few steps up the ladder to peer into the viewer. What was a steady white light in the dark sky became a ball wrapped in horizontal cloud bands surrounded by moons — Jupiter. The shadow of one moon was visible on Jupiter’s surface about 55 million miles away from Earth. Jupiter is so large, more than 1,200 Earths could fit inside it. The other telescope provided a vivid detailed craggy view of the moon’s surface some 238,857 miles away.
Lynch has been fascinated by the night sky since he was a child. Beyond his day job, he said his passion is for the stars and in assisting others in their enjoyment of them.
One of the best ways to do that, Lynch said, is to preview what the night sky has to offer and then allowing enough time for eyes to adjust to the darkness. Even in the city, Lynch said, there are ways to enjoy the stars, balls of gas held together by gravity.
Lynch said imagine the chaos inside stars where hydrogen atoms are hitting each other so hard they fuse together to form one big ball. He asked his students to imagine the force it would take to hit pool balls together so they merge. The result is immense energy and light traveling 186,300 miles per second. One of the stars Lynch marked in the sky was 3,000 light years away. Alkaid, the star at the end of the Big Dipper’s handle, is 101 light years away.
“When you look at the stars you are not looking at just tremendous distances, you are looking at a moment in time,” Lynch said.
Some constellations change with the seasons. Others like the Big Dipper and the North Star, also known as Polaris, are ever present.
Other tidbits from Lynch:
■ How hot is the sun? 10,000 degrees on the surface and much hotter inside to the tune of 27 million degrees in the inner core.
■ At the sun’s core the gravitational pressure is more than 500 billion pounds per square inch (psi). Compare that to a car tire at about 40 psi.
■ Our Milky Way Galaxy and the neighboring Andromeda Galaxy are approaching each other at more than 50 miles per second and are expected to merge in about four billion years.
■ The difference between stars and planets? Stars twinkle. Planets have steady light.
■ There may be more than 500 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.
■ Lynch’s favorite stargazing website is www.stellarium.org and he noted there are many apps available for smartphones and tablets such as Sky Walk and Star Chart.
■ In purchasing a telescope, Lynch recommends a reflector telescope and specifically a Dobsonian reflector telescope. Prices can vary from a few hundred for an 8-inch scope to more than a $1,000 for 10-inch diameter scope. For more information, go to www.lynchandthestars.com.
Last week a section of the parking lights off to the side at Forestview were turned off to assist the viewing. But the limited time the school allowed the lights to be off made it a challenge to fit in optimal viewing once the skies cleared.
But Lynch says the stars are readily available to anyone. He suggests getting a comfortable chair and going out to watch the stars, even in a city, by going to the darkest part of the yard. Bring a star chart and use a red light instead of a white flashlight to preserve the night vision.
“You’ll be amazed at how many stars you are going to see,” he said.