Arushi Nath, 10 years. Toronto On the 6th of July 2020, I completed my “Explore the Universe” observing program of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC). I got my […]
Arushi Nath, 10 years. Toronto
On the 6th of July 2020, I completed my “Explore the Universe” observing program of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC).
I got my Observing Certificate and my first Observing Pin. Both hang prominently from my study table, next to my telescope, reminding me of my journey exploring the universe.
I started observing in 2014 when I was 5 years. What took me so long?
Completing the “Explore the Universe” program was like the trans-Canada train journey I took from Toronto to Vancouver a few years ago. It was long, the view outside was beautiful, I was having lots of fun, and I did not want the journey to end. The journey was more exciting than reaching the destination.
What was my journey around the Universe like?
Observing from my Home, Toronto
I fondly remember countless evenings spent looking up from the balcony of our home and learning about constellations, bright stars, phases of the Moon, and the planets. I had a glow in the dark constellation book that I used to bring outside and try to identify constellations in the sky. Some of the first constellations I learned to recognize were Cassiopeia, Ursa Major, Cygnus, and Orion. It was also fun to listen to my parents telling stories about different constellations such of the Great Bear or the Hunter.
Observing at the Bayview Village Park, Toronto
I have faint memories of taking rides on public transit and then walking to the Bayview Village Park where the RASC Toronto Centre members hosted monthly city star parties. Many of the volunteers brought their telescopes and distributed the star charts. The telescopes usually pointed to the planets and the Moon. That is where I saw the rings of Saturn for the first time and kept on looking at them for a long time. It was my first introduction to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Toronto chapter and its activities.
Observing at the David Dunlap Observatory, Richmond Hill
I remember lining up at the David Dunlap Observatory at the Richmond Hill to peek at my first globular cluster from a telescope that was many times my size. I had to climb up a ladder, and my dad had to lift me up so that I could peek from the eyepiece. I learned that Globular Clusters are like millions of our Sun held together tightly. If I was on a planet around one of the stars in the globular cluster, my night sky would appear very bright as it would be filled with very bright stars like Sirius.
Observing at the University of Toronto Astronomy Nights, Toronto
I remember going to the monthly astronomy nights organized by the University of Toronto to have free hot chocolate, cookies, watch presentations, and planetariums shows.
If the sky were clear, we would go to the top of the building and watch double stars and galaxies through the telescopes. I could ask many questions about astronomy to the university students there. (Read our blog post about Astronomy Nights at the University of Toronto)
Learnings at Recreational Astronomy Nights at the Ontario Science Centre, Toronto
I remember going to the recreational astronomy night meeting all the way to the Ontario Science Centre to watch fascinating presentations on “Sky this Month” which gave me news on new things to observe. I used to listen to other presenters talk about their experiences of observing, building telescopes, or traveling to different countries to watch solar eclipses. As the presentations were held late in the evenings and it used to be dark in the room, I used to fall asleep towards the end of the presentations.
Eventually, I and my brother too started sharing our observations and astronomy projects at the Recreational Astronomy Night meetings and at Award Nights. Together we have given 10 presentations, including Path finding Rover for Planetary Exploration using Maze Solving Technology (2016), Using Satellite Data for Creating Art (2017), Observations from the Total Solar Eclipse (2017), Deep Space Musical (2018), Modeling the Deep Space Network (2018), TRAPPIST-1 Exoplanetary System (2018), Predicting Risk Index of Asteroid Collision (2018), LIGO / Quadruple Pendulum: Swinging to Stability to detect Gravitational Waves (2019), Predicting Exoplanetary Atmospheres using Machine Learning: ARIEL Telescope (2020), Seismic Vibrations: From Outer Space to Subsurface (2020).
Observing at the Carr Astronomical Observatory, Collingwood
My best of all observation memories are from our visits to the Carr Astronomical Observatory (CAO) at Collingwood, Ontario. I fondly remember our overnight stays camping out in our tent in our sleeping bags and waking up to a breakfast of hot chocolate and bread and eggs made on our camping stove.
I remember staying up late in the night watching galaxies, globular clusters, double stars, planets, and even a few comets through the many binoculars and telescopes. I remember the excitement of staying up to see the meteor showers and counting the shooting stars. And I remember waving at the Astronauts when someone pointed me to the International Space Station flying across the night skies. I was excited when I got my first astronomy copy to sketch my observations. I was now an astronomer who could study the night sky and make observations.
Visiting the Carr Astronomical Observatory is more fun because night skies there are much darker than night skies over Toronto. Because there are so many bright and faint stars, it sometimes is more difficult to identify constellations so easily seen from the city!
Sometimes when you are good and no one else is making obervations, the Observatory Supervisor lets you slew the telescope to an object of your interest. Further, I get to do camping, make a bonfire, and eat marshmallows. If you are not having fun, then you are not really learning anything! And Astronomy must be fun if you have to keep doing it over several years.
Why would have I wanted all that fun to end? I am glad that we are family members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the Ontario Science Centre, and the Royal Ontario Museum for many years. It allows me to stay curious, learn new things, have places to go to, and gives me ideas for new projects to build at home.
My “Explore the Universe” Certificate and my observing pin from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada keep inspiring me to take other long journeys. I have already started my next journey – this time to the Moon.
I hope other kids get to take their own journeys exploring the universe, get excited by what they see, and create wonderful memories.
Completing the Explore the Universe Program
The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada runs “Explore the Universe” program for anyone who is curious and interested in stars and planets. You do not have to be a member of the Society to participate in this program. But becoming a Member helps you in your journey as you meet a lot of people, get to watch through many telescopes, participate in group activities, and have lots of fun along the way.
To get the certificate I had to observe a list of planets, moons, double stars, and more. The complete list of objects to be observed to complete the certificate is given at https://www.rasc.ca/explore-universe
There are 110 Objects to be observed in 5 categories. These categories are:
- Constellations and Bright stars
- The Moon
- Solar System
- Deep Sky Objects
- Double Stars
When I found any of the listed objects, I had to tick-mark its name in the list, write the date I saw it on, and note down my observations of the object. But there were a couple rules. The most important one was that I could not use a go-to telescope to look at those sky objects. I had to do star-hopping – moving from bright stars in one constellation to another to reach the object.
Directions and Star Charts
I had to start by learning about East, West, North, and South directions so that I knew which part of the sky to look at. Then I learned using the Star Chart. Star Charts are very cool as you can simply lift them over your head and compare the drawings on the chart with what you see in the sky. It is one of the easiest ways to learn about the constellations. I soon realized why East and West directions were interchanged on the star chart. The Star Charts must be held above your head to provide the correct information.
I learned about many observing techniques from fellow RASC Toronto members. For example, how to first get my eyes adapted to darkness so I could improve my night vision. I should then avoid looking at or using bright lights. I also learned that only red lights must be used to maintain the night vision. And I should never point my light into the eyes of other astronomers. It takes 15-30 minutes to adapt to the night vision again.
I also learned about averted vision when looking at the fainter objects through telescopes. This means looking at the objects from the corners of our eyes that are more sensitive to see the finer details.
Eyes or Telescopes or Binoculars
Some objects could be seen by eyes and some required use of binoculars and telescopes.
Many of the brighter objects such as planets, bright constellations, or craters on the Moon I could observe from my home with naked eyes. But there are other objects such as outer planets, galaxies, globular clusters, and comets that are not very bright. These I observed from the telescopes at the Carr Astronomical Observatory (CAO).
The telescope however looks at a very small part of the sky. It cannot be used to look at the pattern of stars. For this, I had to use binoculars. For example, I used the binoculars to look at the Coat Hanger – a group of seven stars. It is an asterism of the constellation of Vulpecula. Since the stars are spread out, they can only be viewed in the wider field of binocular instead of a telescope. Remember binoculars can be heavy- have a stand when watching through binoculars to keep them steady.
I have been visiting the Carr Astronomical Observatory every year with my family. I and my brother have made several blog posts of our visits to the Observatory and are available at our blog: www.HotPopRobot.com. Example: My First Double-Double at Carr Astronomical Observatory (CAO), Canada. published in Oct/Nov 2014 issue of Scope Magazine. Deep Sky Observing at the CAO and Some Learnings from the NOVA Course published in April /May 2016 issue of Scope Magazine.
Observation Plan for the Night
Astronomy is mostly a night time activity. The best time to look at fainter objects is when the Moon is not there and twilight has ended.
It helps to prepare an observing plan for the night so that one can see as many objects as possible. Best to start with brighter objects that can be seen even in the evening (such as planets) followed by fainter objects that require darker skies or those objects that would rise later in the night. Objects also look sharper when they are up in the sky rather than on the horizon.
Thus a good plan is a key to a very good observing night.
To make my observations, I took a printout of the Explore the Universe program requirements sheet. I also had a copy that I used to bring with me and note down my observations.
As I look back at the pages, I find my very first observation was at 9:30 pm on the 12 of July 2016. I was looking at the constellation of Leo the Lion.
Constellations and Bright stars:
I had to look at least 12 out of 24 bright stars and constellations listed in the Explore the Universe certificate program. I ended up looking at all 24 objects on the list. I also observed many objects that were not on the list.
Some of my favorite constellations are Orion: The Hunter and Scorpius: The Scorpion.
This section looks easy now. But it was not always so. I probably took the longest time completing it as I was just getting started and learning to use the Star Chart.
What is a constellation? A constellation is a group of stars forming a recognizable pattern from Greek mythology. If you look on the internet, or astronomy magazine such as Sky Watch, they provide star charts that give information about the constellation, their shapes, and the chain of stars that form the constellation.
But when looking up from polluted night skies, it is only possible to see the bright stars in the constellation and miss out on the full shape as other stars are fainter. Or these constellations are too low on the horizon. This makes it harder to learn about them and recognize many of them. However, once you have seen them in dark skies a few times, you become more experienced and learn where to look and get better at identifying the constellations and seeing their shapes.
It took me some practice, but I have learned how to easily recognize most of the constellations. For example, for Orion The Hunter I looked for its recognizable belt. The belt appears as three bright stars in a line: Zeta, Epsilon, and Delta. Zeta from Reticulum, Epsilon from Eridanus, and Delta from Leo.
Whereas to find Hercules: Hero of The Greek Myth You look for the center of it called The Keystone of Hercules. It is the most unique part of the constellation. It is shaped as a 4-sided polygon. Two legs appear to be attached to the bottom two stars of the Keystone. And on the top stars, there appear to be two arms sticking out.
I found out that to make it easier to identify constellations I first should identify bright stars of that constellation. To do so, you could either look for familiar stars or planets around that star or you can look at the brightness of the star. For example, if you were looking for Vega, you could try to look for the other 2 stars: Deneb and Altair that form the Summer Triangle. You can also identify stars using their brightness and location in the sky. Vega is a very bright star. So, you would not look for a dim star but the bright stars that start to appear as the evening turns darker.
I soon got curious about comparing the brightness of different stars. I ended up using my math skills to compare the brightness of different stars. The brightness of the stars is measured as their Apparent Magnitude. Brighter stars have a smaller Apparent Magnitude while the dimmer stars have higher Apparent Magnitude. For example, Vega has a magnitude of 0 while Antares has a magnitude of around 1.
The magnitude is actually a log scale. This means that a magnitude 1 star is 2.5 times brighter than a magnitude 2 star. If the difference in magnitude is 5 then one star is 100 times brighter than the other.
Our naked eyes can see up to magnitude 6 stars.
I found it easiest to identify different constellations in a fun way by remembering small rhymes that allow us to hop from one constellation to the other. For example, Arc to Arcturus links the handle of the Big Dipper constellation to Arcturus in the Boots constellation. The Spike to Spica links us Arcturus to Spica in the Virgo constellation.
I have now seen several cycles of constellations appearing and disappearing from the night skies depending on the season. For instance, I know that the winters in Canada have started when I can see my favorite Orion constellation rising in the sky from the south-facing window of my room. And I know that summers are there when I can see the Summer Triangle in the sky made up of Altair, Deneb, and Vega.
I would suggest everyone look at the constellations over several seasons so that they can appreciate the Universe and our journey in the Universe better.
Lunar phases and Lunar basins
I had to look at 16 to 32 of these. Four to eight Lunar phases and six to twelve Lunar basins.
My favorite phase of the moon is the full moon and the very thin crescent. My favorite basins are Mare Cirsium and Oceanus Procellarium.
What are the Lunar phases and Lunar basins?
Lunar phases are how much of the moon you can see from the Earth. It is dependent on how much of the sun’s light is reflected on the moon. A Lunar Basin is a dent in the moon caused by an asteroid hitting its surface. The asteroids must be at least 300 kilometers in radius to cause a big enough dent to be classified as a Lunar basin. There have been over 40 such asteroids striking the moon.
I looked at all the Lunar phases: Waxing crescent, First quarter, Waxing gibbous, Full moon, Waning gibbous, Last quarter, Orbital motion. Each being the first quarter, half, the third quarter, or the full moon. I never get tired of looking at different moon phases.
On very clear days with no clouds, I could see some of the Lunar basin’s naked eye. But on the other days, I looked thru a telescope or Binoculars. I saw most of the Basins on the list of the Explore the Universe Observing Certificate.
I needed to observe at 6 of the 12 Impact Craters. I looked at 8 of them.
Impact craters are marks left on the moon when an asteroid collides with it. As the Moon does not have an atmosphere, many asteroids end up reaching its surface at a very high speed. This causes a dent on the moon. So what is the difference between Impact craters and Lunar basins? Lunar basins are Impact craters that were created by asteroids bigger than 300 kilometers in radius. Impact craters are formed by hits of asteroids of any size. So you can imagine that there are many more Impact craters than Lunar basins!
The Solar System
I had to look at in between 5 and 10 solar system objects. They included Planets, Satellites, and Sunspots in our Solar system. I was able to look at each of these objects multiple times. Eventually, in every season I could roughly point in the sky where any of our Solar System planets were. My favorite planets that I love to keep observing are Jupiter and Saturn.
This section was the most fun. Our solar system has 8 planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Pluto is no longer a planet. Instead, it is a dwarf planet. But I hope it gets recognized as a planet again as the pictures from the New Horizon mission to Pluto and beyond were so fascinating.
But identifying planets took me some time. For the first year, I used to mix up my planets. For example, as you can see in the picture below, I mixed up Saturn and Jupiter. I also mixed up Mars and Saturn. It took me lots of observations: drawing a planet and then putting its correct name. With practice, I was able to recognize and note them down correctly in my observation book.
I have watched several movies about planets in our solar system. But even the best of the movies do not leave you with the excitement you get from looking at a planet from a big telescope. Once you start seeing more details of the planet such as the phases of Venus, or moons of Jupiter, or rings of Saturn, then you want to keep looking through a telescope at every possible opportunity. When you observe planets over several days or weeks then you can start noticing many changes, in their colors, positions of moons, and how they move through the background constellations.
Planets such as Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus are bright enough to see them easily with naked eyes from Toronto and without a telescope. I could see Mercury only a few times as it follows the Sun and appears lower in the horizon making it difficult to see from within a city with tall buildings everywhere. Mars can easily be seen with naked eyes. I remember many times I spent looking up at Mars and wondering when the first astronaut will land there. You cannot see the moons of Mars as they are very small.
Saturn is a cool planet to look at. I like looking at it because of its rings. When observing through a telescope, I can see the different colors, the tilt of the rings, and the gaps between the rings. Sometimes I saw the moons of Saturn too. I learned that Saturn had 62 and probably more moons. But only seven of them can be seen using a telescope from the Earth as the rest are too small and faint.
It is true, that I never get tired of seeing Saturn. But if you are looking at a planet every day, then Jupiter is more fun. When looking through a telescope you can easily see the 4 big moons of Jupiter (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto). It is fun to see them at different positions as they keep revolving around Jupiter.
I soon started sketching the position of the moons every day to see in which direction the moons are orbiting and their speed. Looking at Jupiter is like seeing a mini solar system. This is how our Earth is revolving around the Sun. If you look carefully, you can also see the bands on the surface of Jupiter. From the big telescope at the Carr Astronomical Observatory, I could see the Great Red Spot. It is a high-pressure region in the atmosphere of Jupiter, producing an anticyclonic storm.
During one of the observing nights at the Carr Observatory, I could view all the 8 planets at different times of the night. At that time I did not know how many planets were in our Solar System. After watching seven planets through the telescope, I asked the supervisor of the telescope, “where is the eighth”? He responded: “look under your feet”. And I was able to see the number eight planet: the Earth! Astronomers are really funny and fun to be with!
Uranus and Neptune can only be seen through the telescope as they are very far. They have faint rings around them but these are not seen through the telescopes. To watch Pluto, you have to observe for multiple nights. As it is very small and very faint, one has to see its movements across the night sky over two nights to identify it.
When you look up at the night skies to see the planets, you end up seeing many of the satellites sent up by humans crossing the skies. I clearly remember myself thinking about how many hundreds of satellites would be in the sky waiting for me to see them. It was only later that I realized that the number was in several thousand! Many of these satellites are no longer working and are tumbling through space.
Deep Sky Objects:
I had to observe 12 out of 24 deep sky objects. I looked at all of them on the list. In addition, I also saw many other Deep Sky Objects that were not on the list.
My favorite ones were: M42 the Orion nebula, M11 the Wild Duck Cluster, and M34 the Andromeda galaxy.
What is a deep sky object? It is an object in space that is not in our solar system and is not an individual star. Deep Sky Objects can be galaxies, nebulas, and clusters of stars.
Deep Sky objects are very fascinating as they come in different shapes and sizes. We stay in the Milky Way galaxy. The galaxy closest to us is the Andromeda Galaxy. From the Carr Astronomical Observatory, I could see the Andromeda Galaxy from my eyes. But when you look from the telescope you can see more details including the bright center.
Globular clusters are a very big collection of stars. As mentioned earlier, the first time I saw a globular cluster, it was from the huge telescope at the David Dunlap Observatory at the Richmond Hill.
I found it amazing that on the earth, using a telescope you can see an object that is more than 5 billion light-years away! It means that it takes light (and nothing travels faster than light) 5 billion years to reach me from that object. It also means that I am looking into the past, as I am seeing the object as it existed 5 billion years ago. And it will take me 5 more billion years to see how it looks now.
Looking at globular clusters were like looking at paintings. It inspired me to mix music, arts, and science to represent my observations in new ways!
Double and Multiple stars
Finally, we have come to double and multiple stars. I was supposed to look at between 10 and 20 of them. Over 6 years I looked at each of them a couple of times.
What are Double stars? When viewed from naked eyes, these stars look like a single star. But when looked through a telescope or binoculars one can see that they are 2 different stars. Similarly, multiple stars are the same thing but with more than two stars!
How does this happen? There are two reasons. The first one is that they are optical double stars meaning that because of there alignment with the Earth they look like they are very close to each other. The second one is that they are binary stars meaning that the two stars orbit each other depending on which of the two stars have the bigger mass. Similarly, this theory can be applied to multiple stars: the only difference is that instead of two stars there will be multiple stars.
Looking at double and multiple stars are really fun and magical. They look like a single star but appear as double or multiple stars when looked through a telescope.
The most well-known example of multiple stars is Double Double (Epsilon Lyrae in the constellation Lyra). Here a single star resolves into 2 stars. And then each of these 2 stars resolves into further 2 stars. So we end up seeing 4 stars from a star that appeared to be a single star.
There were some optional observations in the “Explore The Universe” program. These included dwarf stars, eclipses, meteor showers, and asteroids. Over the past six years, I was able to look at all of them.
Dwarf planets are very similar to planets, they have only one difference. A dwarf planet has not cleared the area around its orbit, while a planet has. There are five dwarf planets in our solar system: Pluto, Eris, Ceres, Haumea, and Akemake.
I have also seen both lunar and solar eclipses. A Solar eclipse is when the Moon blocks the light coming from the Sun and falling on the Earth. A Lunar eclipse happens when the earth that comes in between the Sun and the Moon and blocks the light from the Sun falling on the Moon.
The Sun, Moon, and the Earth must be in a straight line for Total Solar or Total lunar eclipses to happen. I watched the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse with my family from Carbondale, Illinois, USA.
We actually made an instrument to measure the changes happening before, during, and after the solar eclipse. We collected over 150,000 readings over several hours. Our Invention and finding appeared on the cover page of the Metro News We also won the Jesse Ketchum Award 2017 from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada for this astronomy equipment.
What are meteors? A meteor is a small rocky or metallic body in outer space. Meteors are significantly smaller than asteroids, and range in size from small grains to one-meter-wide objects When the meteor enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it becomes very hot and leaves a trail. I also learned what causes meteor showers. When comets approach the Sun, they leave a trail of gas behind it while it is moving. While the Earth is orbiting if it goes through the trail you will see a meteor shower. Some of most important meteor showers are the Perseids Meteor Showers.
Now we have come to asteroids! An asteroid is a rocky body rotating around the sun. It can be shaped like anything. Their size can be from a few meters to 1000 kilometers. Recently I have been using a software called Astrometrica to detect asteroids and have made a few preliminary discoveries.
Finally, comets. Comets are objects in space made of ice and dust. When they come close to the sun, they leave a trail of gas behind them. Recently I have been observing a comet called C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE). Neowise is a comet that has come close enough to the earth to be seen through a pair of binoculars. Using binoculars, it looks like a fuzzy object with a trail of gas behind it acting as a tail. While the comet only covers a small part in the binocular its tail of gas covers the whole length.
Tips for Kids, Families, and Adults
Watching the night skies is a wonderful activity. You can do it even if you live in a city as you will be delighted by constellations, bright stars, planets, and moon phases that you can see and learn from.
I will share 5 most important tips for you to get started:
- Learn to use a star chart. It will help you identify some constellations. They are like maps of the sky.
- Get interested in bright objects. Try to identify if they are stars or planets. And keep tracking their movement over weeks. You will learn a lot about the night sky.
- Get a small telescope that will let you see the rings of Saturn or the moons of Jupiter. The dance of Jupiter moons will keep you looking up again and again.
- Share your observations with others. Bring others to look through your telescope or describe to each other what you are seeing.
- Dress warmly. Astronomy is an outdoor activity and it can be really cold outside. If you are not warm, you will not enjoy observing.
A Big Thanks to RASC Members and Volunteers
My journey exploring the universe would not be complete without the support of so many RASC Toronto members, volunteers, telescope supervisors who devoted their time, shared their knowledge and their passion to bring an interest in astronomy in me. I have shared many observation nights with them: looking through their telescopes, asking them questions, and learning observation techniques from them.
I have done many Show and Tell in my school and during community events in English and French. I get to talk to many boys and girls and their parents, and share with them the wonders of night skies.
Even though I have got my Explore the Universe Certificate, I continue to look up at the night skies and practicing my constellations and make observations of the planets. It is important to keep practicing to improve your observation skills. But the most important thing is to keep having fun!