Since March, most of our rain has come on just a few days. There was the March nor’easter, the late April rain storm, and the heavier rain of this past weekend.
Other than that there’s actually been significant amounts of dry weather, meaning lots of sunshine during the day and clear skies at night. These clear skies are an opportunity to check out the night sky.
Your favorite app store likely has some wonderful tools in order to know what you’re looking at. Almost anyone over the age of three knows what the moon is so that’s an easy one, but even discerning Venus from Jupiter or Saturn can be difficult for a novice.
May has brought a spectacular show of Venus — it’s the brightest “star” in the western sky you see after sunset. It really is quite brilliant and on a night without any smoke or haze, the planet looks like a diamond in the sky. Mars is also still visible, but is getting less and less bright through the month.
For those of you who might have a telescope, Mercury provides a good show this month and into early June. You have to look low to the horizon and be in a location that is somewhere dark but it is possible.
The idea of getting kids out to see the night sky is something I am quite passionate about. I think that exposing younger people to what’s going on above our atmosphere can spur lots of questions and promote a lifelong interest. One of the easy ways to do this is to observe the international space station streaking across the sky.
Over time the space station crosses 90% of the Earth’s population and is visible not because it has its own lights on it but because the sun is reflecting on it. There’s a great website from NASA that allows you to see when the space station will be passing over your location. You can even set up alerts.
One note is that the alerts will not occur if the station is not going to be at least 40 degrees above the horizon. This is because unless you’re in a very open area, a low pass of the space station would likely be behind buildings or trees. Nights when the station is higher than 60 degrees are the easiest. On most of these higher passes the amount of time you’ll see the station is certainly long enough to spot it and watch it appear and disappear over the horizon.
This can lead to great discussions with kids about what is the space station, what are they doing up there, how long has it been there, what experiments are taking place and more about the night sky itself.