When the winter sun sets without a cloud in the sky, the first thing I reach for is my telescope. There is nothing more mind blowing than knowing the twinkling light that has just hit the back of your retina has had to travel light years through space, so what you are in fact doing is looking back in time at distant galaxies and worlds totally alien to our own.
Some see stars as beacons of hope, justification that we perhaps are not alone, or even as the souls of our ancestors. To others, they are simply balls of gas burning millions of light years away. Most however agree, they are magnificent to behold, especially when you are sitting on your own stoep, away from the light pollution of the city and all its chaos.
Likweti provides the perfect setting for novice and experienced stargazers to get lost in the enormity of space and the unfathomable amount of stars that bejewel it’s darkness with shards of twinkling light. So first train your eyes, then invest in a good pair of binoculars or, if you really get the bug, a telescope.
Star or natural satellite?
When a star ceases to burn it may become a natural satellite. A natural satellite will never become a star.
Natural satellites are non-light emitting celestial bodies that merely reflect light from their nearest “parent” star. They can be made from anything, as long as they are smaller than their “parent” planet. There are man-made satellites too, these orbit our planet and beyond, some active, others space junk.
Our moon is the perfect example of a natural satellite with earth as its “parent” planet and the sun as its “parent” star.
Satellites can be easily distinguished from stars thanks to the speed at which they move, crossing the night sky quickly. They do often get mistaken for planes, but do not flash like a plane’s lights do.
Remember the rhyme twinkle, twinkle little star and you will never mistake the two. Stars twinkle, while planets reflect a solid light. They also rise in the East and set in the West unlike stars, which do move but do not rise and set.
Best way to tell a planet from a star, is to see whether it follows the ecliptic belt. This is an imaginary line that follows the sun’s path through the sky. While stars are found within this belt, no planets are found outside it.
Colour helps us distinguish between planets, Mercury is a grey/brown, Venus is yellow, Mars pale pink to red, Jupiter orange/white and Saturn is gold. Uranus and Neptune are both blue and only seen through a telescope.
Invest in a star app
Not long ago, you would have had to invest in a star chart to accurately identify the different stars you see. These become dated in a relatively short period of time. Now, thankfully, there are a suite of apps just waiting to help you explore the night sky.
First five for a star gazing newbie
1. Alpha Centauri – 3rd brightest in the night sky, while this looks like a single point to the naked eye it is actually three stars approximately 4.37 light years away. The Alpha Centauri A star is similar to our sun, the B star is slightly smaller and the third Proxima Centauri is smaller still.
2. Southern Cross – The most famous southern hemisphere celestial body and most easily confused, thanks to the large false cross slight to the right of the real cross. The best way to ensure you find the right cross is to start on Alpha Centauri, star-hop to Beta Centauri and then move three times the distance between these two stars to your right. You will find yourself on the Beacrux star of the cross and from here you should find the others relatively easy.
3. Jewel box cluster – With the naked eye this jewel box looks a little empty, with one reddish star surrounded by three to four blue ones. The magic happens under closer inspection with a telescope. All of a sudden hundreds of twinkling blue and red stars can be seen. So how do you find the jewellery box cluster? By using the Southern Cross, as the Jewel box is close to the Gacrux star.
4. Coalsack Nebula – The dark side of the galaxy, this nebula is in fact a layer of dust that is obstructing us from seeing any stars behind it. It produces a dark band across the Milky Way. Interestingly, when viewed through binoculars or a telescope, the stars in front of the nebula appear to be within it – it is an optical illusion as they are not.
5. Canopus – the Southern Hemisphere’s greatest star – Considered to be the big brother of Sirius (the brightest star in the night’s sky). Canopus is 65 times larger than our own sun and the second brightest star in the sky. The reason why it is considered Sirus’s big brother is that it is far further from earth than Sirius, a staggering 313 light years.