Connecting Through Nature: Look Up at the Stars!
By Allie Shoulders, Director of Adult Discipleship
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of God's hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
- Psalm 19:1-2
Connecting Through Nature, Especially Now
So many regular activities and events have been canceled in the last two months and it will be sometime before we resume many activities. In this statement, there is a lot to process and even mourn. Still, one thing that Social Distancing cannot prevent or cancel is the change of seasons is the breathtaking beauty found in nature. Especially in Sonoma County!
My partner in this ministry, Carlyn Knight, and I enjoy coordinating Connecting Through Nature events with the essential help of others in the congregation that are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about bird watching, hiking, flower arranging and star gazing throughout the year. We chose the active word, "Connecting" with care and the reason was twofold. One is that every event we have hosted in the last three years has provided opportunities to connect with others in the First Presbyterian Community, and every event is multigenerational because natural beauty is appreciated universally. Secondly, the word is important because is serves as a reminder that all of nature is God's handiwork and all was spoken into being by Him and by appreciating and observing it, we experience His glory.
We have already missed two Connecting Through Nature Events, a Star Party in April with the Telescope Guys (Pat Caskey, Mario Zelaya and Bob Shoulders) and a hike in May with Bruce Purcell. We hope to invite some of our resident experts to weigh in here periodically on ways we can still connect with nature and suggest ways we can share what we experience. In this article the Telescope Guys will give some pointers on highlights you can spot in the skies this weekend since the conditions are good. But one caution we always have for any nature event, weather permitting, in this case no clouds in the sky. This can be frustrating but also be a reminder we never can take natural beauty for granted.
Let's be honest, the connecting with others aspect is going to require some creativity. If you see something special in the sky this weekend, share it in the comments below, call a friend and tell them what you see, draw a picture or take a picture and consider posting it. But really, when you stop and think about it, when you look at the sky and see a star, you are actually sharing the experience with countless others who have looked at this wonder, many miles away and years ago? When we look at the skies, although separate, we are sharing the same thing. A star shines for each person who sees it.
Suggestions from the Telescope Guys:
1. Planets at dawn: If you're up sometime before 3:00 AM and dawn (5:30 AM), you can go outside to see the Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in the southern sky on any morning this month. Here's a chart to help you tell which one is which:
2. Venus and Mercury: You may have noticed that Venus has been a bright evening star for a while now. Pretty soon, Venus will disappear from the evening sky and will pass between the Earth and the Sun on June 6th. From the next couple of weeks, Venus has a crescent shape, like a new moon, which you can see with a telescope, binoculars (if you hold them very steady) or supposedly with your unaided eye, if you have extraordinarily good eyesight (20/10 or so, according to Sky and Telescope- see link: https://skyandtelescope.org/observing/this-weeks-sky-at-a-glance-may-15-23-2/ ). I have to say that I find it hard to see the crescent clearly with 7x50 binoculars, because Venus is so bright that it "flares". What I see resembles a star with two thin curved horns pointing away from the sun.
On May 21st at dusk, you can get two planets for the price of one and Mercury passes close to Venus in the evening sky. Then on May 23rd the new moon forms a triangle with the two planets just after sunset. On the 24th, Venus, Mercury and the Moon are almost in a straight line.
Here's a chart to show you what to look for:
I should warn you that Mercury is much dimmer than Venus, for a couple of reasons. First, Venus reflects a lot more of the sunlight that hits it than Mercury does, because Venus is completely covered with clouds, while Mercury is cloudless. Second, Venus is much closer to us, since it is passing between us and the sun. Mercury, on the other hand, has just come from behind the Sun, so it is almost as far from us as it ever gets. Third, Venus is much larger than Mercury.
3. Constellations and stars: Once it gets dark, see if you can identify the Big Dipper (officially part of Ursa Major), almost straight overhead. Here's a sketch of the Big Dipper and some other nearby constellations:
Once you find the Big Dipper, you can use it to help find the north star, Polaris. First, identify the two stars on the edge of the bowl of the "dipper" away from the handle. These stars, named Merak and Dubhe, are called the pointer stars. If you follow the line through the pointer stars as shown above, you will come to the north star, named Polaris. The north star is the star that is above the Earth's North pole - that is, it is the star the Earth's axis points (most closely) toward. Unlike the other stars, it doesn't move very much as the night goes on, and it is always directly North, no matter where you are. It is part of the constellation Ursa Minor, which is popularly called the Little Dipper. Going back to the Big Dipper, by following the arc of the stars in the handle as shown, you will come to the bright star Arcturus. This is the brightest star in the constellation Bootes, called the herdsman. You will probably notice that Arcturus has a reddish color. It is a red giant star, which is tremendously larger than the sun.
If you want a guide to help you find more constellations, one suggestion is to download the free May star map at this address:
Other interesting astronomy phenomena:
"Fun astronomical fact: Astronomers have recently discovered a black hole lying just 1,000 light-years (about 6,000 trillion miles!) from Earth. The black hole is closer to our solar system than any other found to date and forms part of a triple system (two stars and one black hole) that can be seen with the naked eye. For more information, please see the following link."
... and here is the link:
Finally, for hard-core astronomers, There's currently a supernova in a galaxy in Leo (NGC 3643) and you can try to spot comet SWAN just before dawn in Perseus.