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Sightseeing is heavenly between Abaco and Arcturus

Behold the night skies, where stars, planets, meteors and moon present a spectacular show

By Jim Kerr

On a clear, moonless, low-humidity night, the visibility in Abaco is about 9,500 trillion miles. And that’s with the naked eye.
Orion the Hunter marches across the black velvet sky, his head, shoulders and belt easily discerned as six bright stars. His sword, made up of three dimmer stars, hangs at an angle to his body below his bright belt. But the middle “star” in the sword is not a star at all, but a nebula, a sort of cellestial incubator turning out one newborn star after another. The Great Orion Nebula, or M42 as it is known, is about 1,630 light years away.
A pair of binoculars or telescope reveals the glowing cloud of stars that make up this “open cluster,” but in Abaco you won’t need either to discover many other spectacular objects in the night sky. The lack of ambient light, pollution and, at least on some nights, humidity, opens up a vast panorama of celestial treasures rarely seen by city dwellers. The pockmarked surface of the moon is clearly visible as it reflects sunlight down on the water, the beaches and the settlements, casting romantic moonshadows across the landscape, or, if you’re in the mood, eerie illumination of ancient graveyards. In the darkened portion of the waxing moon, you can even see the earth’s reflection.Searching Abaco Bahamas night skies
“The moon reflects only 11 percent of the sun’s light,” says Bob Rogers, one of Abaco’s many amateur astronomers. “But the earth reflects as much as 70 percent of the sun’s light, which we see bouncing back to us from the moon.”
Bob and his wife, Betty, spend many evenings star gazing and moon watching from the deck of their 42-foot trawler Nereid, usually at anchor in Hope Town Harbour. And the moons they observe don’t always belong to the Earth. “With seven-power binoculars, you can see four of Jupiter’s moons as well,” Bob says. “You can also see the the Orion Nebula as it really is, a star nursery in a cloud of gas.”
From our perch aboard the Earth inside the Milky Way, other galaxies, such as Andromeda, the closest, can also be seen, even though it’s light years away. The brightest star, Sirius, is found easily to the left of Orion’s flank, a virtual lightbulb in the sky despite its distance of 8.6 light years. A light year is the distance light travels in a year through the vacumn of outer space, or about 5.878 trillion miles. Thus, the light from the Orion Nebula, as we see it on Earth, is actually as it appeared more than 1,600 years ago.
The moon and planets, on the other hand, are seen in more-or-less real time. From their front porch, or from the roof of their house on Elbow Cay, Al Spapiro and his wife, Gloria, often have star-gazing and moon-watching sessions with friends and neighbors. Their house at Crossing Bay, just north of the settlement, is a perfect spot to set up Al’s digital Meade 144 mm telescope. From this vantage point, not only are the craters of the moon are visible, but the shadowy insides of the craters, all of which Al can identify.
“What’s really unique here is the clarity and lack of pollution in the sky,” says Al, a 30-year resident. “Trade winds from the east bring clean air. The weather is almost always comfortable. It’s very dark, and not even the lighthouse beam interfers because of its low angle.”
At these latitudes, he adds, both Orion and the Big Dipper are in one sky. The former is a central measuring point to the other constellations, and the latter is a virtual “road map to the night sky.” Even casual navigators and star observers know that if you draw an imaginary line upward through the two stars, Merak and Dubhe, which form the leading edge of the Dipper’s cup, you can easily locate Polaris, the North Star. By drawing a similar line arcing through the handle of the dipper, you can find Arcturus, a bright star in the constellation Bootes. Continuing along the arc, you’ll come to Spica in the constellation Virgo. Not to be left out of the “road map,” the other two stars in the dipper cup, Megrez and Phecda, lead down to Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo. It’s 69 light years away. The closest star to the earth is Alpha Centauri, actually a three-star system, 4.3 light years, or 25 trillion miles distant. One of the stars, Rigil Kentaurus, located in the constellation Centaurus, is the fourth brightest star in the sky and is very much like our own friendly sun, which is, fortunately for us, only a mere 93 million miles from Abaco. Abaco Bahamas night sky

Mythology and astrology aside, Abaco’s starry skies enhance romance, invoke scientific curiosity, and lead one to contemplate the creation of the universe and the question of life on other planets. For many, however, just pondering the simple wonders of a beautiful night sky is pleasure enough. In Abaco, any time of year is good for star-gazing, although winter months bring the lowest humidity, and two nights after a cold front is considered the absolute clearest. Some events outshine others in rarity or visual impact. Recently, four planets, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, were neatly lined up in their nightly ecliptic voyage across the sky.
Venus as an evening “star” in the western sky is always the brightest astronomical object after the sun and moon, unless you are lucky enough to catch sight of a large meteor. It seems to be a matter of opinion as to which times of the year are best for spotting these real time visitors from outer space, but August through November is the concensus. Most meteors are produced from comet debris. Larger ones streak across the night sky in seconds as they burn up from friction with the atmosphere. Less dramatic but more fun are the annual meteor showers in which hundreds of tiny meteors can be counted as micro-second streaks of light.
There are half a dozen meteor showers every year. The most reliable one comes every November 17 to 18 when the earth crosses the orbit of the comet Tempel-Tuttle. The resulting meteor barrage is called the Leonids, because they appear to radiate out of the constellation Leo. Even though the meteors are small, ranging from the size of a grain of sand to a pea, they are often very bright, leaving a train of light that lasts several seconds to several minutes. Another major show occurs during summer, and particularly on the nights of August 12-13, when a shower known as the Perseids sends down a volley of “shooting stars” from the sky near the constellation Perseus. On a really good night, when the Earth passes through a particularly dense comet dust cloud, a so-called “meteor storm” can produce several thousand meteors per hour.
Meteors in general are fast. The Leonids, for example, enter the atmosphere at more than 158,000 miles per hour. And while there are slower ones, the only way to catch any meteor’s brief existence is with the naked eye, gazing at a dark, preferably moonless, sky from a boat or lounge chair between the hours of midnight and dawn. It’s best to lay on your back and adjust your feet to face in the direction of the meteor shower.
The same prone position can be assumed for observing certain forms of manmade objects in outer space, including the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as dozens of satellites and rocket debris. However, you have to know where to look, and when. On a recent March evening, for example, the Hubble Telescope crossed the sky in its low orbit in nine minutes, while the Space Station was in view only six minutes. Both are bright enough to be easily spotted, as are nearly 20 other satellites on any given evening. Your guide to finding them is a website at www.heavens-above, where you can check “daily predictions for brighter satellites.” The coordinates for Marsh Harbour, which you will need to insert, are 26.5482 degrees north, 76.9780 degrees west.
Rocket launches from Cape Canaveral are often seen from Abaco. “We’ve seen many a launch, both day and night,” says Bob Rogers. “The manned launches were dramatic, but there are many unmanned rockets. If you see what looks like a jet trail rising in the northwest rising almost straight up, watch for the separation of stages.”
A good way to determine whether it will be a good night for celestial observations is to listen to the Cruisers Net starting at 8:15 am on VHF radio channel ?.
There are, of course, more violent versions of the night sky in Abaco than a moonlit beach, silent meteor shower or distant satellite orbiting the earth. When summer storms build, lightning illuminates spectacular cloud formations. When seen at night from afar, with distant thunder rolling in, it can be somewhat intimidating. Still, it draws photographers making time exposures, and the less timid to roofs, verandas and boat decks, usually with a cold drink or hot cup of coffee in hand.

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©  Jim Kerr, Abaco Life Magazine
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