October 20, 2021

Alberio, Andromeda, Milky Way & More: Super Sights on Most Recent ‘Dark Skies’ Night in Lyme

The Milky Way rising like steam from the teapot of Sagittarius. Photo by Roger Charbonneau Jr.

LYME — As the setting sun dipped below the horizon on the evening of Sept. 3, the quick cooling gave a hint of the damp night to come. Indeed, our equipment was already showing bits of moisture as the wet air let go of its precious cargo.

Unlike previous sessions, the moisture-laden air belied the towns and cities nearby as their unshielded light fixtures reflected against the water vapor in the atmosphere. With this unmistakable glow, we all became aware first-hand of the insidious effects of light pollution.

Despite that, we were ready to observe whatever this evening’s skies were ready to reveal.

Early in the evening, we had reviewed what a Dobsonian telescope is all about, and how it differs in form and function from the other telescopes on hand, namely, Schmidt Cassegrain reflectors.

We also did a quick review of how to locate the Summer Triangle, Polaris, the Little Dipper, and the handle of the Big Dipper. The bowl of the Big Dipper was below the tree line all night, as it will be for several months to come. 

Most striking of the early ‘stars’ to shine in the night sky was the great planet Jupiter and its four brightest moons. Throughout the night we checked back in on Jupiter, and by night’s end it was readily apparent that those little dots of light had actually moved in their orbits around Jupiter.

Up and to the right of Jupiter, we also trained our telescopes on Saturn and its glorious rings. The next few months will afford ongoing opportunities to see both of these gas giants all night long.

With the sky darkening more slowly than usual because of the high humidity and resultant glare of city lights, we challenged ourselves to observe the Milky Way. Lyme skies are pretty dark, and it became easier and easier to discern the Milky Way as the dusk turned to night. Even in the poor seeing conditions that night, everyone was able to see the obvious ‘steam rising from the teapot’ of Sagittarius. At the zenith, the Great Rift of the Milky Way was visible to all. 

From there, we checked in on the globular cluster M13 in Hercules and the open cluster M25 in Sagittarius. Later in the night, we brought M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, into view in Scott Mallory’s 12” Dobsonian.

Despite being almost 3 million light-years away, Andromeda is our home galaxy’s nearest neighbor. It can be observed in binoculars, and on a dark night, it can even be discerned with the naked eye.

To learn how to spot Andromeda, we traced out the Great Square of Pegasus, and then learned how the right-hand triangle of the “W” of Cassiopeia points to Andromeda, and how to star-hop along the lower left corner of Pegasus’ Great Square to the precise location of that great galaxy.

The binary star Alberio. Photo by Alan Sheiness.

At the end of the evening, we observed Alberio, the nose of Cygnus the Swan, and we could all see that it is actually a beautiful binary pair of stars of contrasting colors.

The Lyme Land Trust will continue to hold monthly dark sky observing sessions, usually on the Friday night closest to new moon. As always, first-timers without any equipment are welcome to share the evening with us.

We also highly encourage those with telescopes to bring them out, even if it has been a while since they were taken through their paces. This way, our debutantes will be able to spread out and share the views from more telescopes. Scott and I will be happy to help with setup if your skills have become rusty.

Our observing site is likely just what you have been hoping for. We have acres of open field, with the east and south tree lines well off in the distance, and Polaris visible above the tree line to the north. And we have two other prepped sites in the same large field to allow a setup that better favors the west or the north, if need be.

Learn more about our upcoming astronomy sessions at lymelandtrust.org.

And most of all, come on out!

About the author: Alan Sheiness is a 10-year resident of Lyme, CT, and treasurer of the Lyme Land Trust (LLT). A life-long astronomy enthusiast and astrophotographer, Sheiness is a promoter of dark skies and along with Lyme resident Scott Mallory has established a new astronomy program as part of LLT’s public offerings. Contact them at alan.sheiness@icloud.com and scott.mallory@gmail.com .

Observing Session Explores the Wonders of Lyme’s ‘Dark Skies’

LYME — On July 30, Lyme Land Trust held a public observing session at its dark sky site. Attendees hailed from Westbrook, Colchester, and Lyme. Observers were able to take advantage of three telescopes, a spotting scope, and binoculars.

Observers gathered, darkness fell and the ‘spotting’ began. Photo by Roger Charbonneau Jr.

We gathered before darkness and learned what the Perseid meteor showers were all about: why we see them; why they are called Perseids; and why best observing is after midnight. Attendees are now duly informed.

As the sky darkened, the brightest stars became visible one after the other, and we were taught mnemonics and tips for orienting in the summer sky. From the Big Dipper, we learned to “arc to Arcturus” and “spike to Spica”. Next up was the Summer Triangle, formed by the prominent stars Vega, Deneb, and Altair.

With that starting point, we outlined the constellation Cygnus the Swan with Deneb as the ‘tail’ and observed the ‘nose’ of the swan, Alberio, through the telescope. At low magnification all could see that it is actually a binary star system, consisting of one blue and one yellow star.

As darkness took hold, Saturn and then Jupiter rose in the east. Between the two planets, we could see seven of those giant planets’ moons; four of Jupiter and three of Saturn. Saturn’s rings were easily discernable all night long.

Now fully dark, we traced out the outlines of Scorpio and Sagittarius with pointing equipment, and then the ‘steam’ rising from the Teapot in Sagittarius: the Milky Way itself. All night long we noted as the Milky Way became easier and easier to make out, arching upward and northward back through Cygnus and ultimately disappearing into the northern tree line.

Within the Milky Way, we aimed our telescopes at M8 The Lagoon Nebula, the globular cluster M22, and various other open clusters. High overhead in the constellation of Lyra (where Vega resides), we examined M57, The Ring Nebula, which is a supernova remnant from times long gone. In Hercules, we trained the scopes on the famous globular cluster M13, a dense collection of individual stars that meld into a round orb of light.

The Milky Way was visible throughout the night observing session, becoming consistently easier to distinguish. Photo by Roger Charbonneau Jr.

In between telescope observing, we sharpened our Big Dipper-, Little Dipper- and Polaris-spotting skills. Within the Big Dipper we noted that the middle handle star is actually two stars, one much dimmer than the other, named Alcor and Mizar, also known as the ‘Horse and Rider’.

We saw several shooting stars blaze in the sky, which were, of course, Perseid meteors, and several satellites passed overhead during the night. The most famous such passing, and by far the most prominent, was the ISS International Space Station!

It is so rewarding to look up and take in the natural beauty of the night sky. Our Lyme night sky is uniquely dark owing to our unpopulated open spaces and prudent land management. The Lyme Land Trust is dedicated to promoting dark skies by hosting observing sessions aimed at familiarizing you with the splendid vistas that lie straight overhead.

LymeLine readers are invited to join our next observing session. Telescopes are encouraged and welcomed, but first-timers without any equipment are equally welcome to share the evening with us.

Learn more about Lyme Land Trust, and our upcoming astronomy sessions, at lymelandtrust.org.

About the author: Alan Sheiness is a 10-year resident of Lyme, Conn., and treasurer of the Lyme Land Trust (LLT). A life-long astronomy enthusiast and astrophotographer, he is a promoter of dark skies and, along with Lyme resident Scott Mallory, has established a new astronomy program as part of LLT’s public offerings. You may contact them at alan.sheiness@icloud.com and scott.mallory@gmail.com .

Op-Ed: Save Our Beautiful Dark Skies From The Threat Of Light Pollution

Editor’s Note: This Op-ed was submitted by Alan Sheiness of Lyme, Conn.

How often have you stopped to notice how wonderfully bright and alive the stars are in our peaceful town of Lyme, especially once turning off one of our ‘major thoroughfares’ like Rte. 156 or Brush Hill Rd.?

That dark sky up there is a part of our world. It is as much a gift to us as are the forests, the trails within those forests, the rivers and waterways, and everything else that makes Lyme special.

As part of the Sustainable CT effort (sustainablect.org) we seek to inform the public about light pollution and how to arrest its insidious spread across our region.

What do I mean by light pollution? Light pollution is what occurs when a preponderance of lighting, and poorly-designed lighting fixtures, create a glare both locally and across entire swaths of geography, which renders the night sky as a dim shadow of itself. 

The universe is ours to behold just for the simple act of looking up at night. Except, in so many places all over the country and indeed the world, light pollution is removing those vistas much as deforestation and asphalt and other aspects of modern life remove the natural wonders that are part of our terrestrial consciousness. 

Guarding against light pollution really comes down to two simple principles: do not light what does not need to be lit, and when you do need to light something, do it with a source that is effective and efficient.

Our little town, because of its almost non-existent commercialization and heavy forestation, is indeed a miraculous enclave from the typical onslaught of ineffective lighting. We need to keep it that way. 

We can do so by ensuring that all new lighting projects, residential and commercial, take light pollution into account, protecting the night sky, no different than protecting a watershed or any other natural habitat. To the extent that existing installations are night sky-unfriendly, we should consider replacing those fixtures over time with ones that do a better job pointing down with an efficient light source. 

Our environment makes Lyme what it is, and we can be a leader in the sky just as we are on the ground. Please endeavor to learn more about the beauty of the night sky and the threat of light pollution.

A great place to start is here: International Dark-Sky Association.  Also, you can experience the splendor of our night sky first-hand, with experienced astronomers as your guide, by signing up for future observing sessions hosted by the Lyme Land Trust at lymelandtrust.org

That look up there is through a window into our universe, and it should be our intention to keep that window pristine for ourselves and our future generations.

About the author: Alan Sheiness is a 10-year resident of Lyme, Conn., and treasurer of the Lyme Land Trust. Among other interests, he is a life-long astronomy enthusiast and astrophotographer. He has documented lunar eclipses, solar eclipses, the Venus transit of the Sun, a Mercury transit of the Sun, many of the planets, star clusters, and nebula; all admittedly decidedly amateur in result, but rewarding nonetheless. Sheiness is a promoter of dark skies and interested in establishing a new Astronomy Society in Lyme as an adjunct activity within the scope of the Lyme Land Trust. Contact him at alan.sheiness@icloud.com.