04/20/2018

With Summer Around The Corner, A Guide To The Night Skies

17:21 minutes

a man looking through a large wooden telescope in an observatory
Dean Regas peering through the 1843 Merz and Mahler telescope—the oldest professional telescope in the United States—at Cincinnati Observatory in Cincinnati, Ohio. Credit: Lauren J. Young

It’s been a hard road getting there this year, but spring is finally in the air in much of the country. And that means summer is not far away, bringing with it warmer temperatures and lazy nights made for stargazing. Dean Regas, outreach astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory and co-host of the PBS series Star Gazers, joins Ira to talk about some of the highlights of the summer night skies, from planets to constellations to meteor showers.

[Hot off the presses: the latest issue of ‘Your Martian Daily.’]

We’ll also check in on NASA’s TESS planet-hunting mission, and look ahead to the launch of the InSight mission to Mars in May.  

Read Dean Regas’ new book 100 Things to See in the Night Sky here.


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Segment Guests

Dean Regas

Dean Regas is outreach astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory and co-host of the PBS program Star Gazers in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, I’m Ira Flatow. Did you know that Saturday is Astronomy Day? And it comes at a great time, because Spring is in the air, and that means warmer temperatures and more comfortable conditions for night time stargazing. And I just got a new telescope, I upgraded my telescope, I’ve been waiting to get it outside.

You know, it’s great that I’m coming to you from the Cincinnati Public Radio studios in Cincinnati, because I have with me Dean Regas, who is the outreach astronomer at Cincinnati Observatory. You may also know him as the co-host of Star Gazers on PBS. Always good to talk with you, Dean.

DEAN REGAS: Oh, thanks so much for coming to Cincinnati, we’re glad to have you here in telescope town.

IRA FLATOW: You have the country’s first observatory, right?

DEAN REGAS: Exactly, yeah. So we have one of the oldest telescopes in the whole world. It saw first light, 1845, so we just had its 173 birthday. It’s this beautiful telescope made out of wood and brass, 11 inches in diameter, 16-foot-long, gorgeous scope. And oh, it’s just a joy to look through it.

IRA FLATOW: And is this a good week to look through a telescope?

DEAN REGAS: Well, oh boy, we’ve got a lot going on. Venus is up in the sky after sunset, so maybe you’ve been seeing this extraterrestrial-looking light up in the sky as the sun sets. It’s actually the time where we get a lot of UFO calls.

[LAUGHING]

At the observatory. And I have to put on my– it’s only Venus, it’s only Venus, it’s only Venus. And so that’s going on right now. And then we’re getting ready for Jupiter season to kick off soon. So lots to go on this summer.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I noticed last night was a crescent moon. And people think, oh, I’ll wait for the full moon, but that’s the worst time.

DEAN REGAS: Actually, you’re right. Yeah, I mean the full moon is one of the worst things to try to look at with a telescope. When we point our telescope, at the Cincinnati Observatory, at the full moon, it’s blinding. You are like– you can see that moon for the next 10 minutes in your eyes.

So yeah, it’s best when you can see where the dark meets the light part of the moon. So even if the moon’s halfway lit up, or crescent– and that area is called the terminator. And so you want to always look for the terminator on the moon. That’s where you see the most details.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s because you have long shadows? It gives a three-dimensional feel to it.

DEAN REGAS: Exactly, exactly. And so I like to think of when you’re looking through that telescope, like, how the first people, when they looked in through telescopes– they saw the moon has all these features, and these mountains, and these valleys. And you can see them. And so we showed some of your crew the moon last night.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, they had a great time.

DEAN REGAS: And I said, looks like a bad movie set, doesn’t it? It looks like Plaster of Paris, but it’s the real thing, it’s awesome.

IRA FLATOW: And there is really something– how shall I put it– indescribable. You can look at pictures and movies of things, but when you actually see the real thing through a telescope–

DEAN REGAS: Oh, there’s so much power to that. That’s the biggest kick I get of working at the observatory, is that when people put their eyes up to the telescopes, their face literally lights up. Because that light is coming through this telescope through all those miles.

‘Cause we could put cameras on the telescopes, and we could plug that camera into a TV monitor, and people could watch it down in the warmth of a room. But there’s just something about seeing that with your own eyes.

IRA FLATOW: Even with my little eight-inch telescope. The first time I saw the moons of Jupiter, I said, this is what made Galileo so excited.

DEAN REGAS: Exactly.

IRA FLATOW: You get that same excitement.

DEAN REGAS: Yeah, and that’s so great. And you point it yourself, that’s the other thing. It’s like, OK, so I got this telescope, and I’m aiming it at that light, and that– I just figured out what that light is. Wasn’t that so cool?

IRA FLATOW: It was, absolutely. And some of the rings of Saturn, when they’re tilted the right way.

DEAN REGAS: Oh yeah.

IRA FLATOW: It’s life-changing, I mean, it is. I’m a geek, I like this. But it is, really, I’ll geek out on this. It’s just really life-changing.

DEAN REGAS: I agree. I mean, Saturn’s what got me. When I pointed a little four and a half inch reflector telescope at Saturn, and I said, are you kidding me? That can’t be the real thing. It just looks like a sticker on the end of the telescope. And so that’s what we’re hoping people this summer really taking advantage of the planets, because we’ve got Jupiter starting.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about what to– give me a schedule, I got my telescope, I want to go out. What should I look for in what order?

DEAN REGAS: Oh, so this is Venus season, so you catch Venus right after sunset.

IRA FLATOW: But you’re not going to see a lot when you look at Venus.

DEAN REGAS: That’s true, yeah, Venus is one of the less impressive ones, at least at this time of year, because it looks just like a very bright egg-shaped thing. You want to catch Venus when it’s actually a crescent shape. So that will be later on in the summer, and even in early fall, you’ll see it as a big crescent-looking moon.

But Jupiter’s coming up, it will be closest to us in May, so you’ll be able see that up. And then Saturn comes closest to us in June. And this summer, Saturn is going to be tilted so much.

IRA FLATOW: Oh is that right?

DEAN REGAS: You get see the rings to just maximum tilt.

IRA FLATOW: So that’s a good one for beginners?

DEAN REGAS: Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: If you’re a beginners, take a look at Saturn, ’cause the rings will be tilting right at you.

DEAN REGAS: Absolutely. And you can– if you have a good enough telescope, you’d see the gaps in the rings, called the Cassini’s division. You could see several moons. Oh, don’t get me going. I’m starting, I’m already thinking it.

[LAUGHING]

But then the big news, probably this summer, that shouldn’t overshadow Saturn– because Saturn’s definitely the best– is Mars. Mars is coming closest to the Earth July 27th of this year.

IRA FLATOW: I’m writing that down.

DEAN REGAS: July 27th, and it’ll be the closest it’s been since the infamous close pass of 2003, when it was as close as Mars ever gets. So this is about as good as it gets. And that date, July 27th, is going to be huge in the news, because there’s also a lunar eclipse that day.

There’s also a full moon that day. Unfortunately, the lunar eclipse is not visible from the United States, but it’s going to be in the news. And so the correlation of a giant moon, plus Mars at its closest– this is what I live for, when the media’s going to pick up on stuff like this.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Now, let’s backtrack a little, because we’re both trying to geek out too fast. You also have a book out called “100 Things to See in the Night Sky,” which is a fantastic book.

DEAN REGAS: Oh, thank you.

IRA FLATOW: You know, for a beginning astronomers, and amateurs, you go through. Because we all want to know the first things to look at.

DEAN REGAS: Exactly. And so my book is just basically, kind of– it goes through how I got started in the first place. I started as– I didn’t know anything about the night sky. I started working in a planetarium, and they said, here’s the keys to the planetarium, you have to learn how to do it. And I just dove in and learned all I could.

And so this book kind of gets you started from the basics– how do you identify major stars and constellations? And then we go on to planets, and then we go on to satellites, and meteor showers, and eclipses too.

IRA FLATOW: And you know, when you walked in, you gave me a copy of the book. I didn’t want to tell you I already had a copy.

[LAUGHING]

‘Cause I’m going to keep the second copy.

[LAUGHING]

DEAN REGAS: Well I’ll sign this one for you.

IRA FLATOW: No, that’s great. No, I want it, because you got it around the house. You know, because when you see something, you want to run outside, and pick up the book, and you want to have it right where you are.

DEAN REGAS: Oh yeah, and it has some star charts in it so you can identify where you can find these things in the sky. And for folks listening in the southern hemisphere, my southern hemisphere version comes out in June.

IRA FLATOW: Of course, it’s a different sky.

DEAN REGAS: Exactly. Oh man, it’s so fun learning the Southern sky too. But this one’s for the Northern sky. And yeah, “100 Things to see in the Night Sky.” Those are the top 100. And almost all of them can be found with the naked eye. If you have your telescope, point at all of them, they look even better.

IRA FLATOW: A good pair of binoculars will work too?

DEAN REGAS: Oh, absolutely. Yeah binoculars– I really recommend that for folks to get started, because they’re portable, they’re easy to use, and you can see so much extra stuff with that.

IRA FLATOW: Now what– how do you shop for one? What power? People say, “I want to get the highest power, right? That’s what they advertise.”

DEAN REGAS: I have to admit it– size matters when this comes. The bigger the binoculars, the better. But you can also get some that have coatings on them. Good starter ones are called 10×50, so they magnify 10 times, and the lenses are 50 millimeters in diameter. That’s a good place to start.

IRA FLATOW: Those are the wide lenses. Not those tiny little horse racing binoculars.

DEAN REGAS: No, you kind of want bigger. And then you can get up to 15x70s, and then just strap two telescopes together. I don’t know, if you want to go that far.

[LAUGHING]

IRA FLATOW: Get out a pair of opera glasses if you have them.

DEAN REGAS: There you go.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about what happened. Some interesting stuff happened this week. We had the launch of NASA’s test mission.

DEAN REGAS: Oh yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Which happened on Wednesday. Why is that important?

DEAN REGAS: Well, so I think that is the biggest field right now in astronomy, is finding exoplanets. And that’s what this test mission is going to do. It’s going to kind of pick up where the Kepler space mission’s going on right now, it’s finding these planets orbiting around other stars.

And I mean, it is just a fascinating field that we’re finding so many planets around other stars. Even as optimistic as I am, I thought, there’s no way we’re going to find thousands of planets. And they’ve already found 3,000. This one is going to hopefully find tens of thousands. And the more planets out there, the more places we can look at and dream of going.

IRA FLATOW: Wow and there’s another mission launching soon to Mars.

DEAN REGAS: Yes.

IRA FLATOW: Is there a window, sort of?

DEAN REGAS: Yes.

IRA FLATOW: Is that why? We have to wait, right? For the right time.

DEAN REGAS: Exactly, yeah. So Mars is going to be at its closest approach in July. If we want to launch a spacecraft there, we have to do it in these launch windows that happen about every two years or so. And so it’s going to launch in May, get there in November. And it’s going to join a whole fleet of space crafts.

IRA FLATOW: It’s another rover?

DEAN REGAS: Yes it’s another rover, another lander. Wait, another lander, I don’t know if rover. Lander. But right now, there’s still seven orbiters there on Mars. And two rovers rolling. so Mars is well-covered right now.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, so it’s going to get there– if you launch it now– what, November?

DEAN REGAS: Yeah, so November’s the time. So about six months. Because this is a closer approach. The farther approaches, well, then it’s either seven or eight months.

IRA FLATOW: And so we have the landers and the rovers there, sort of scratching around. Is this going to scratch? Or is it going to go try to figure out what’s underneath everything?

DEAN REGAS: Boy, this one. I can’t remember what the whole– what their plan is with this one. But the story on the rovers, I mean.

IRA FLATOW: They’ve lasted forever.

DEAN REGAS: I can’t believe that Opportunity rover is still rolling. it landed there in ’03 or ’04, and it’s still going. I mean, past its 90-day warranty, that’s for sure.

IRA FLATOW: It’s not a three-hour tour.

[LAUGHING]

Now, of course, this time of year, there’s always a meteor shower.

DEAN REGAS: Yes.

IRA FLATOW: Big one? Get excited?

DEAN REGAS: Oh boy. Well, OK, so this is where we have to dial things back a lot. The best meteor shower of the year is predicted to be the Perseid meteor shower. That’s the one that always comes August 12th and 13th every year.

I like the Perseids a lot because– August. Staying up late at night in August is a lot better than staying up late at night in December. And so it’s warmer, it’s summertime, you may have the night off. But the best viewing is between 2 and 5 AM on the morning of the 13th.

IRA FLATOW: Wow

DEAN REGAS: And so you may see predictions. You’ll see, oh, 80 meteors an hour, 100 meters per hour. That is if you’re in Tucson, Arizona, or somewhere in the desert.

IRA FLATOW: Perfect sky.

DEAN REGAS: Perfect sky.

IRA FLATOW: Dry weather.

DEAN REGAS: So the realistic rate would be about 12 an hour. That’s the Dean Regas rate, that’s the– sorry to be the buzz-kill for that one. But that’s the thing, is we hear people say, “oh, I went out, I was expecting 100 an hour, and I saw two.” I was like, yeah, it’s not my fault. I’m not making the predictions, you never know with these.

IRA FLATOW: So what’s the best way to watch a meteor shower?

DEAN REGAS: Yeah, so the best way, just get out as far as you can from the city. Get out from the city lights. And you don’t need binoculars or telescope. Get a comfy chair, kick back, take in as much of the sky as you can.

Because these shoot from different places. They’re supposed to irradiate from the constellation Perseus, that’s why they call it the Perseids. But they’ll come from behind you, over the side. And it’s always the worst when you’re talking to somebody, and you hear them go, “whoa!” And you say, what? What’d I miss? What’d I miss? And you missed it. You’ve just got to be vigilant, that’s the big thing.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I know you, you have to be patient. You know, have a party. Invite, you get your lawn chairs out, whatever.

DEAN REGAS: Exactly. And that’s what I think is, you know, don’t expect to see the sky falling. But make it a good excuse to get outside with friends and family in the summer, and just kick back, and take some time off.

IRA FLATOW: And also, you know, you see things you don’t expect. Because every once in a while– I remember the last star party I was at– I’m looking up at the sky and I’m saying, it’s moving, but it’s not an airplane. I know it’s not an airplane. What the heck is that? And it’s–

DEAN REGAS: Satellites.

IRA FLATOW: Satellites.

DEAN REGAS: We’ve got lots of satellites going overhead.

IRA FLATOW: Or the space station.

DEAN REGAS: Oh yeah. Yeah, I mean, the International Space Station is so incredibly bright. When it goes over your town, you will notice it. It’s just this slowly-moving, steady, bright light. Doesn’t flicker, doesn’t twinkle. Takes about five minutes to go from horizon to horizon.

But the bigger ones, the brighter ones are called iridium flares. They are these old communications satellites with reflective body panels. And the light hits them, and when you’re in just the right spot, they flare up really fast, and then fade away. It’s like, if you didn’t know what it was, you’d swear the invasion on.

IRA FLATOW: I did. I saw this 20 years ago or something. I saw this main in a dark sky, and I said, whoa, something blew up!

DEAN REGAS: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: It looks just like that.

DEAN REGAS: It does, it’s kind of startling. But you can go to– the website I like the best is heavensabove.com, or heavens-above.com. That usually lists where the satellites are going over your head.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Talking with Dean Regas, author of “100 Things to See in the Night Sky.” And that reminds me, we’re talking about what to see. As long as you’re out there looking for the meteor shower, you can search for some great constellations that you can see. As a beginner, in “100 Things to See,” what constellations should we look for?

DEAN REGAS: Well, so if I’m thinking summertime. So we’re getting ready for summer. The big constellations to look for are things in what’s called the summer triangle. And the summer triangle is not an official constellation, it’s what we call an urban constellation, for us city dwellers. There’s these three bright stars that make this huge triangle– Vega, Deneb, and Altair– you see that all summer long.

IRA FLATOW: Where would I look for it?

DEAN REGAS: So you look to the east, they rise in the east in the early summer, and then get higher up in the south as the season goes on. But Vega has this great constellation, Lyra the harp, around it, that’s supposed to be the harp of Orpheus. And then Deneb is the tail of the swan, Cygnus the swan. And Altair is the eye of the eagle constellation.

IRA FLATOW: And there’s been some very bright stars out too, aren’t there?

DEAN REGAS: Yes. So other than the triangle stars, we also have Antares, the big heart of the scorpion star that’s out there. Which will confuse you a little bit with Mars, because Mars is the same color. And Antares in Greek, is “anti-ares,” the anti-Mars, essentially. They’re both the same color. But yeah, can’t wait to see– that’s the scorpion’s heart star, that’s one of my favorites.

IRA FLATOW: And you just distinguish– by your eye, you distinguish a star from a planet how? What’s the biggest–

DEAN REGAS: Well, so planets twinkle less, way less than stars. So you’ll see stars twinkling, and dancing, and everything. So Antares will be twinkling red, red, red, red, white, red, white, red, white. And then Mars will be steady, orange-ish in color. But planets still twinkle a little bit, so you got to watch out for that. It just takes a little practice.

IRA FLATOW: Now I understand that your home observatory has links to the beginnings of weather forecasting in the US? Tell us.

DEAN REGAS: Well, so the original observatory was near downtown in Cincinnati. And when they built it, it was a small town, we were a small city. But as the city grew, pollution became so bad, of smog, like coal pollution, that the poor astronomer up on the hill couldn’t even see the stars.

So he had to find something else to do. And he was sitting there watching the smoke clouds blow from west to east. And he gets hooked up to the telegraph, and he gets on the telegraph, and says, hey, what’s your weather out West, out west.

And he became the first weather forecaster. His name was Cleveland Abbe. And he had the telegraph 1860 or whatever. Instead of the Doppler 5000, it’s the tele– he used the telegraph. And he started the National Weather Service, all because–

IRA FLATOW: That’s amazing.

DEAN REGAS: He couldn’t see through the telescope.

IRA FLATOW: That’s amazing.

DEAN REGAS: Yeah, and so there’s a lot of firsts in Cincinnati.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s talk about the observatory. I mean, it’s an old observatory. Is it hard to maintain? Has it got the little tiny parts and things?

DEAN REGAS: Oh yeah. Yeah, so the old, the original telescope, it was made in Munich, Bavaria, before Germany was even a country. And so the parts on it are all original, pretty much all original parts. If something breaks, we have to call up our guys– we got some guys we know– that can manufacturer parts to spec. But it’s amazing, the scope is made out of wood, and it hasn’t hardly warped.

IRA FLATOW: Wow.

DEAN REGAS: It’s still perfect.

IRA FLATOW: Well, it’s a great observatory. Dean Regas is outreach astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory, co-host of the PBS show Star Gazers, author of “100 Things to See in the Night Sky.” Thanks, Dean, it’s always good to have you here.

DEAN REGAS: Oh, my pleasure. Keep looking up, guys.

IRA FLATOW: BJ Leiderman composed our theme music. Our special thank you’s to Bill Dean, Don Danko, Kevin Reynolds, Rick Andress, and all the folks at Cincinnati Public Radio have helped make our visit here so comfortable today. Of course, you can always download a podcast if you missed anything. And you can ask your smart speaker– yeah, I won’t say it– to play Science Friday whenever you want. So everyday now is Science Friday.

And of course we’re active on social communities– Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Have a great weekend. It is this weekend, it is Astronomy Day. So we’ll sign off from Cincinnati. I’m Ira Flatow in Cincinnati.

Meet the Producer

About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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