INTERACTIVE, EDUCATIONAL, AND DOWNRIGHT COOL
Santa Barbara and Montecito are renowned for having perfect Mediterranean weather and miles of pristine beaches. But what many don’t realize, or at least notice, is that at night the sky is filled with stars and planets; perfect for backyard stargazing. The night sky seems darker on the American Rivera, and the stars and planets look brighter, even to the naked eye. That’s because there’s less "light pollution" in Santa Barbara in the form of streetlights, as well as house lights due to the many large estates set on acres of prime real estate. When it's darker in your immediate surroundings, the sky is easier to see.
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If you’re ready to join Santa Barbara’s backyard stargazing masses, here are a few stars and planets to look for:
Also known as the “Great Bear,” the “Big Dipper,” or the “Plough,” Ursa Major is the most widely known constellation in the northern hemisphere. Although it doesn’t contain remarkably bright stars, it is readily recognizable all year round because of its distinctive pattern. Look for the seven moderately bright stars that outline it. The star Alkaid makes up the tip of the “handle” of the dipper, or the tip of the bear’s tail, while Dubhe and Merak make up the far edge of the “cup,” or the front of the bear. You’ll need keen eyesight or binoculars to see the middle of the “handle.” You’ll see a famous optical double star there, formed by Mizar and Alcor.
Also known as the “Little Dipper” and Latin for the “Lesser Bear,” Ursa Minor is a well-known constellation that is also visible year-round in the night sky of the northern hemisphere. Seven more stars form a similar shape to Ursa Major. However, these stars are smaller and dimmer. But Ursa Minor contains a very important star: Polaris, also known as the Pole Star or the North Star. Although Polaris is 680 light-years away, it radiates energy equivalent to 6,000 of our suns. This star has guided travelers for millennia, as it lies very close to the celestial north pole.
Experts believe that approximately 4.5 billion years ago, while the Earth was still forming, our planet was impacted by a foreign body that resulted in the moon’s formation. It quickly fell into synchronous rotation with Earth, rotating around our planet every 27.3 days on its own axis. Consequently, we only see one side. The moon’s diameter is one quarter that of Earth’s, but it has only 1/81 its mass. The moon was recently found to have water deposits, which is important for lunar habitation efforts.
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Milky Way Galaxy
Our solar system is part of the enormous Milky Way Galaxy. Consequently, the vast majority of stars and planets seen by the naked eye are part of this spiral galaxy that contains some 200 billion stars, with a diameter of 120,000 light-years. Our sun lies about halfway from the galaxy’s center. Look for a disk-like shape or a band crossing the sky brightly lit by radiating energy from distant stars. Meanwhile, gas and dust create dark patches. Although it’s believed to be just one of 100 billion other galaxies, the Milky Way Galaxy is one of only four other galaxies that are visible to us with the naked eye.
The massive 5th planet from our sun can also be seen with the naked eye. Known as a gas giant, Jupiter is by far the largest planet in our solar system. Jupiter’s thick atmosphere contains 90% hydrogen, 10% helium, and other gases, which turn into liquid as they reach its unimaginably hot (60,000 degrees Fahrenheit!) core. If you have a small telescope set up for backyard stargazing, you can see the creamy and white bands on its surface, caused by powerful 400 mph winds.
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International Space Station
If you are a careful backyard sky observer, you can glimpse the International Space Station (ISS). This research station constructed in low orbit around Earth celebrated 19 years of continuous human occupation. The size of a football field, the ISS is many things: an observatory; a platform to develop spacecraft systems; and a laboratory to explore how people, biological organisms, chemicals, and physics operate in these unique conditions. The research is relevant to space exploration as well as life on Earth. For more observational information, see www.spaceflight.nasa.gov or www.heavens-above.com.
The giant Arcturus, the fourth brightest star seen from Earth as a whole, is unmistakable with the naked eye. However, this orange giant is even lovelier with binoculars. Arcturus lies inside the constellation Boötes, which gives the impression of a distorted “Y” shape. You’ll find Arcturus in the southwestern end along with several other orange giant stars.
Latin for “scorpion,” Scorpius cannot be missed during backyard stargazing. Consisting mostly of a long, snaking line of bright stars, the most brilliant of which is Antares, which literally means “the rival of Mars.” The name of this star comes from its color and mass—it’s red, like Mars. This supergiant radiates 7,500 times more energy than our sun. The Milky Way runs through the Scorpius constellation, making it an ideal place to observe several star clusters in addition to Scorpius. See if you can find M7 located near what would be the stinger.
Stay in the Know About Celestial Happenings
Timeanddate.com allows Santa Barbara homeowners hooked on backyard stargazing to stay updated on what planets are visible in the night sky on any given night. For more resources, visit the Santa Barbara Astronomical Unit.
Maybe you need a new home for backyard stargazing. If so, give me a call at +1 (805) 886-9378 or email me at Cristal@Montecito-Estate. We can even set a tour of any of my listings at night so you can check out the backyard stargazing opportunities before you move in!