MVNSC: Mississippi Valley Night Sky Conservation:
‘Observing the Night Sky Around Us’:

Our Night Sky as it appears April 10 2015 around 9pm – courtesy Stellarium
Program developed by:

  • Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority
    • Royal Astronomical Society of Canada
    • Ottawa Astronomy Friends
      • Instructor: Pat Browne
      • Assistant: Bob Hillier
  • Sessions are given at the Mill of Kintail Visitor Center .
    • Course sessions on Fridays: March 27, April 10, April 17, May 1 and May 8.
      • Course time: 7:45 – 10:00pm formally with priority given to observing when clear sky
      • Note: Donations can be receipted as charitable . Donations can be made online to Mississippi Valley Conservation via canadaHelps Choose Night Sky Conservation fund
      • References used in this course: References

What’s in the Sky Tonight – Stellarium Program

Stellarium shows us our Local Night Sky
  •  Our Local Meridian (Green line) – The North South line about our local horizon that traces through the poles and the Zenith
  • The Ecliptic (Red line) that traces the plane of the Ecliptic where the planets rise and set.

The  Night Sky changes as we continue to observe… The Stellarium image is a ‘snapshot’ . Here is what happens for stars and planets on our Celestial Sphere as we the Earth turns.


As stars, planets and even the Sun rotate from East to West, we see the object move upward at an angle. At its highest point, it is exactly on the meridian and after crossing the meridian it descends slowly and sets on the Western horizon.

  • Observers in the Northern Hemisphere face South and look along the Ecliptic . Planets travel on the ‘path of the planets’ also called  the ecliptic to cross (transit) the meridian as they reach their highest point (culminate).
  • The Meridian line starts at direction North on the horizon passes through our local zenith and meets the horizon directly south.

What we see in the sky is always changing for 2 reasons

    • The stars that we see in a certain part of the sky change from hour to hour because the Earth is rotating
    • The stars that we see during the night change from season to season because the Earth is in orbit around the sun
    • We face South in the Northern hemisphere because the Earth we stand on is always hiding half of the Sky. Planets and stars culminate at their highest point along the meridian as we face South.
    • Observers at the North Pole and the Equator see a different hemisphere of stars. Observers South of the Equator will face North to see objects culminate along their meridian.
  •  Constellations along the swath of sky centered on the ecliptic are the 12 zodiacal constellations, like  Gemini, Cancer, Leo, … most observers get to see these constellations unless they are above or below the arctic circles


Simple Stargazing as the Earth Turns

Because the Meridian is fixed to the local horizon, a celestial object (star, planet, and our own star, the Sun) will cross our meridian as the Earth spins.

We say the object “culminates” when it reaches its highest point on the meridian. Right now, in the Night Sky,  Jupiter is transiting the meridian  and Venus is or has already set. Jupiter and Venus are the brightest objects visible, and next comes the brightest star of winter, Sirius .

Measuring separations in the sky

Here is a star chart produced by SkyMap (Chris Marriott). Notice also the Scale beneath. We see 15 degrees in sky angle.

  • Since we are looking through our Celestial Sphere, we are measuring angles. We can use our outstretched hand to measure angles in the night sky, and hence understand size of the moon (1/2 deg) or distance from Polaris to the Bowl of the Big Dipper.


  • When you look through a telescope, you see a field of view of 1 degree or less – a very small slice of sky.

The field of view is the angular diameter of the circle of sky you see when you look into the telescope eyepiece. The full Moon is about 1/2 degree wide, With the 76mm (3″) reflector we saw the moon and some space around it providing a 1 degree field.

See Locating Celestial Objects in the Night Sky

Some ‘reflections’ from last week …

Using a simple reflector

Here is a simple reflector with a tripod and an altitude/azimuth mount.
A reflector telescope has 2 mirrors: the primary mirror which collects all the photons of light, and the diagonal secondary mirror that directs that beam of photons into your eyepiece to be magnified and marvelled at.

Aligning on Jupiter when centered in the eyepiece!

We learned two important things:

  • How to line up the telescope:
      • So that we can find things using the smaller spotting scope (we call it the finder)

    Finders typically have cross-hairs to center a bright star. They are mini-telescopes that produce low magnification.


  • You can also use other spotting devices like LED red-dot TelRads or even an arrow with flourescent paint and a small magnifying lens lined up on the optical tube.
      • The principle is the same: Find the bright object, such as a first magnitude star, planet or even the moon in a low power eyepiece and then center the same object in your finder.


    • You may have to adjust set screws or orient the pointer in some way
    • Once the object is aligned in the center of your finder thanks to your eyepiece, you can find other objects just using your finder.
  • Find things by moving the telescope using the motion controls:
    • The principle is the same for adjusting your telescope altitude and azimuth.
    • Use a low power eyepiece to find the object, use your coarse adjustments to move the scope in altitude and azimuth (or if you have an equatorial mount, in Right Ascension and Declination)
    • Then to keep the object centered, you use fine motion control or just ‘nudge’ the telescope

We learned how the motion of the earth moves these objects out of our eyepiece or ‘field of view’

  • Telescopes magnify the field of view through the eyepiece. So we have very small fields of view, and it is hard to find objects unless they are big and bright.
  • We use the moon or planets to be able to sight along the telescope and find it in the small eyepiece.
    • We discovered that when we aligned our finder and got Jupiter and the 4 moons in the eyepiece (the 3rd picture on the right), they drifted out of our 1 degree field of view
    • What’s going on? – Is Jupiter moving so fast?
      • No  It is not Jupiter that is moving perceptibly in the eyepiece.. Rather,  what we are observing is our own rotation on the face of the earth
    • The earth rotates on its own axis in 24 hours. That represents a rotation rate of 15 degrees per hour or 60 minutes. Divide 60 minutes by 15 and we are turning at the rate of 1 degree every 4 minutes. If we are not paying attention, when we look into the eyepiece we will see that the object has indeed been carried along in the sky… or that the earth has rotated underneath our feet!
      All objects that we view in a telescope will drift out of the eyepiece according to the sidereal rate. Motorized mounts to counter the earth rotation are used when we wish to track the object for imaging and spectroscopic data.

Meet the celebrities – Sirius, Regulus, Betelguese – Winter on the Western Horizon

simpleScopeObserving image courtesy Sky News – Astronomy and Stargazing Magazine of Canada

But before we go out – Let’s look at some Observing Tips

Night Sky Observing Tips

Let’s go out and  Observe the Spring Night Sky!