What's Up? by Adam England
Modern cultures celebrate the summer solstice on June 21 this year, the day the Earth’s north pole tilts farthest toward the Sun.
This tilt of 23.44 degrees is what gives us the seasons as we move around the Sun each year. Midsummer festivals have been held by cultures across the Northern Hemisphere for thousands of years to celebrate the procession of the Sun’s path across the sky. It's one of the first astronomical events we know was recognized by ancient cultures, directly affecting their lives through weather and crop production.
Ancient Persia celebrated Tirgan, when Tishtrya the Archangel brought the rains for the summer crops with the wind of his arrow. Where the arrow landed settled the border between two warring kingdoms, and the rains and subsequent harvest offered a welcome peace.
The Chinese hold their Duanwu Festival on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar, near the solstice. The date is seen as unlucky, when snakes, centipedes, scorpions and other venomous critters emerge from their dens for the season. It's also the day of the Dragon Boat Festival, when elaborate ceremonies and feasts scare away those creatures and bring good luck.
Stonehenge is among the best known ancient structures clearly designed around the solstice. From amid the five central stones, looking northeast across the embanked avenue, one can see the sun rise directly above the Heel Stone on the morning of the June solstice. In recent years the re-creation of this Bronze-Age tradition has drawn solstice-morning crowds of over 20,000 visitors from around the world.
Here in northern Arizona, keep an eye out for local star-parties and solar events, including the annual Grand Canyon Star Party, held nightly on the grounds of the South Rim Visitor Center June 22-29.
To learn more about the sky, telescopes, or socialize with other amateur astronomers, visit us at prescottastronomyclub.org or Facebook @PrescottAstronomyClub to find the next star party, Star Talk, or event.
Adam England is a local insurance broker who moonlights as an amateur astronomer, writer, and interplanetary conquest consultant. Follow his rants and exploits on Twitter @AZSalesman or at Facebook.com/AdamEfromAZ.
Astronomy for Beginners
What's Up? by Adam England
You just bought your first telescope, or even better, received one as a well intentioned gift, and after assembling the pieces into something resembling the picture on the box, you gaze at the blackness of space and see — absolutely nothing.
Sound familiar? Many people obtain a basic beginner's telescope and after one or two nights of fruitless stargazing it is packed away to collect dust until the next yard sale or spring-cleaning purge.
As with so many hobbies, getting off to the right start can mean the difference between a one-and-done or a lifelong passion. Here are my recommendations for how to get the most out of your first attempt at backyard astronomy.
Start with binoculars
Yup, the best way to learn how to use a telescope is to get a pair of good old binoculars. Binoculars more easily replicate the way we see naturally with both eyes, and also project a correct image instead of the inverted image most telescopes give. A decent pair of 10/50 binoculars can be had for around $100, a minimal investment for the beginner. Bonus: you can use them for other outdoor activities like birding or watching football from the cheapest seats in the stadium.
Download a stargazing app
There are so many free applications available for both the iPhone and Android platforms that can help you find faint fuzzies in the night sky. I use SkyView Lite and it works great. After quickly calibrating the app to your phone, it superimposes planets and nebulae over the actual sky you are seeing. Just point up with your phone, then use your binoculars to find the same objects. It will help you learn the sky, as you can choose layers with just constellations, then you will begin to learn what exciting things you can find in the different constellations and seasons.
Join a local astronomy club
Clubs normally meet once or twice a month for educational presentations and outside events where you can learn from other amateurs and seasoned professionals alike. They can help you pick out a telescope that meets your interests and budget, then help you learn how to use it.