A quick guide to the Missouri night sky

One of the most under appreciated benefits of warmer weather in the spring is how bearable the outdoors become after sundown. With the absence of the sun’s direct radiation, winter nights have little going for them – nobody wants to be dark and uncomfortable. But for those of us without aversions to late nights, spring means the amount of reasonable outdoor time has just doubled, giving us the benefits of clear days, warm evenings and a very different kind of sky at night.

Stargazing is one of those iconic, all-American pass times we get really excited about when we go camping, or after watching the movie October Sky. But its origins go back as far as Old Babylon, when ancient philosophers-turned-stargazers attempted to explain the presence of these flickering ethereal points of light, deciding that some sets seemed to outline the rough contours of bears, scorpions and winged horses.

“See, that could be a horse. Kinda. Come on, doesn’t that look like a horse? I think it looks like a horse. It’s probably Pegasus.”

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A view of the southern sky from central Missouri this time of year. As the season progresses these features will move gradually westward (to the right, in the image). | John Walker, Fourmilab.

And so, arbitrary as they were, the constellations became relevant. Today we understand that they’re made up almost entirely of dissociated stars, and it’s only our perspective on earth that makes them appear grouped.  But they’ve long served as markers and helpful guides, and to date there’s no better system of mapping the night sky.

If you would like better bearings on your orientation in the cosmos, there are several significant features you can immediately identify. A good place to start is figuring out roughly where the brightest objects, the planets, should be this time of year. Venus and Jupiter are the second and third brightest objects in the night sky (surpassed only by the moon’s intensity), and if you look to the west for the next few nights you can see them falling out of alignment. The brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, lies to the lower left of the constellation Orion.

The moon is our ever-present companion, and as such is often taken for granted. But with just a basic telescope or a nice pair of binoculars, its cratered surface is highly observable. With some longer lenses and a tripod, you can even snap impressive pictures from right where you stand (or better yet, you can attach your camera to a telescope with a camera adapter).

A waxing half moon | Dark Sky Astronomy

To get the best sense of the moon’s dimensionality, though, don’t hold out for a full moon, but rather just as it waxes and wanes. The angle of the sun’s light with respect to our vantage point on earth throws the moon’s craters into sharper relief than when the moon is fully lit.

Anyone who has spent any serious time looking at the stars will tell you, there’s nothing to make you feel small like looking at the entire galaxy. If you ever get a chance to see the Milky Way, it’s a fascinating and serene image. It’s maybe even a little intimidating to think that you’re looking straight into the core of everything visible in our galaxy.

Disappointingly, though, any serious stargazing for mid-Missourians is going to require a commute. Columbia is at the nucleus of a wide network of light pollution, breaking only briefly with that of Kansas City, and not at all on the way to St. Louis. It’s one of the hidden costs of being only 2 hours away from major metropolitan areas to the east and west.

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Urban sprawl and scattered townships along I-70 produce a lot of light pollution in central Missouri. Light Pollution Map Layer by P. Cinzano, F. Falchi (University of Padova), and C. D. Elvidge (NOAA National Geophysical Data Center, Boulder). Copyright Royal Astronomical Society.

Light pollution can be thought of as smog. But unlike carbon-based pollution, light pollution is composed of photons. Light from buildings and street lamps reflects off of moisture in the atmosphere and is directed back towards the ground, creating a luminous haze that obstructs a clear view of the sky behind it. It’s the last barrier light has to overcome after at least a 16 year voyage through space and an entire atmosphere. Additionally, Columbia lies only a few hundred feet above sea level, so there’s more atmosphere on average getting between us and the constellations – not quite ideal.

However, if you can find a spot of open sky, you can still easily make out the major features of our solar system and constellations. In fact, huge swaths of open sky are nice, but having buildings and landmarks around you to serve as familiar reference points (when measuring the azimuth) is not a bad idea.

You can also visit the Laws Observatory atop the MU Physics building on Wednesdays from 8:00 p.m. to around 10:00 p.m. (weather permitting, of course).

So, if you find yourself in want of quiet stimulation on a warm, clear evening, there’s nothing like the entire galaxy to make one feel truly, cosmically insignificant. Grab some friends, or go alone (but know how to be safe!), and spend an evening outdoors appreciating the greater cosmos.

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