The Day – enjoy the wonders of the dark sky wherever you stay

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On July 30, 2021, the Lyme Land Trust held a public observation session in its dark sky. Participants came from Westbrook, Colchester and Lyme. The observers had three telescopes, a spotting scope and binoculars at their disposal.

We gathered before dark and learned what the Perseid meteor showers were about: why we see them; why they are called Perseids; and why the best observation is after midnight. The participants will now be informed accordingly.

As the sky darkened, one by one the brightest stars became visible, and we learned memory and orientation tips in the summer sky. From the Big Dipper we learned “Arc to Arcturus” and “Spike to Spica”. Next up was the summer triangle formed by celebrity stars Vega, Deneb and Altair. With this starting point we sketched the constellation Cygnus the swan with Deneb as the “tail” and observed the “nose” of the swan Alberio through the telescope. At low magnification, everyone could see that it is actually a binary star system consisting of a blue and a yellow star.

As darkness fell, Saturn and then Jupiter rose in the east. Between the two planets we could see seven moons of these huge planets; four from Jupiter and three from Saturn. The rings of Saturn were easy to see all night long.

Now, very dark, we traced the outlines of Scorpio and Sagittarius with pointing devices and then the “steam” that rose from the teapot in Sagittarius: the Milky Way itself. Throughout the night we noticed how the Milky Way was becoming ever easier to see arched up and north through Cygnus, and eventually disappeared into the northern tree line.

Within the Milky Way, we aimed our telescopes at M8, the Lagoon Nebula, the globular cluster M22 and various other open star clusters. High up in the constellation Lyra (where Vega lives) we examined M57, the Ring Nebula, which is a supernova remnant from times long past. In Hercules we trained the riflescopes on the famous globular cluster M13, a dense collection of individual stars that merge into a round ball of light.

In between telescope observations, we sharpened our Big Dipper, Little Dipper and Polaris observation skills. In the Big Dipper we found that the middle handle star actually consists of two stars, one much darker than the other, called Alcor and Mizar, also known as “horse and rider”. We saw several falling stars blaze in the sky, which were of course Perseid meteors, and several satellites passed overhead during the night. The most famous and by far the most prominent flyby was the International Space Station!

It is so rewarding to look up and enjoy the natural beauty of the night sky. Our Lyme night sky is uniquely dark due to our uninhabited open spaces and prudent land management.

The Lyme Land Trust is dedicated to promoting the dark skies by hosting observation sessions designed to familiarize you with the magnificent views just above your head. Come to our next observation session. Telescopes are welcome and welcome, but beginners without equipment are also very welcome to spend the evening with us. Please find out more about Lyme Land Trust and our upcoming astronomy sessions at lymelandtrust.org.

Alan Sheiness is a Lyme resident, Treasurer of the Lyme Land Trust, and a lifelong astronomy enthusiast and astrophotographer. He is a sponsor of the Dark Skies and, along with Scott Mallory, a Lyme resident, has set up a new astronomy program as part of the Trust’s public offerings. You can contact her at [email protected] and [email protected]

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