What can I see in the sky without a telescope? Is naked eye observing really interesting?

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Answered by: Brenda, An Expert in the Space and Astronomy - General Category
I had to think back to what I used to do back when I was primarily doing naked eye observing. There were a few things that I absolutely loved and would run outside to see whenever they happened.

Conjunctions: These are events in which two or more objects in the sky seem to be close together. Obviously, one or more of these will be solar system objects, since they're the ones that move around against the background sky. A conjunction of the Moon and Venus, the two brightest things in our sky other than the Sun, can be spectacular. You can also watch for the Moon to pass by or through the Pleiades star cluster. Your RASC Observer's Handbook will tell you when conjunctions featuring your favourite planet will happen. Desktop planetarium software such as Starry Night or Stellarium will also be helpful in predicting conjunctions.

Meteor showers. Meteor showers happen when the Earth passes through a dust trail left behind by a comet, and the bits of dust burn up as they fall through Earth's atmosphere, producing the classic 'shooting star'. A meteor shower will happen at roughly the same time every year, as the Earth passes through the point where its orbit around the Sun crosses the comet's orbit.

On the date which is the peak of any given shower, go outside before dawn to watch. This is the best time because the part of the Earth experiencing predawn is also the part facing 'forward' as the planet moves in its orbit, and will therefore get to see the most meteors – just like driving a car through falling snow. Some showers will produce only a few meteors every hour The RASC Observer's Handbook contains a list of the upcoming year's meteor showers, as does the International Meteor Organization's website at http://www.imo.net . Some astronomy clubs and even professional research projects will take observational data from amateur astronomers, so if you can do accurate meteor counts, you could be doing some real science.

Eclipses: Eclipses are rare events, only occurring a few times a year, but if you're lucky enough to catch one they're worth seeing. There are two kinds of eclipses: lunar eclipses, in which the Earth's shadow covers and darkens the Moon; and solar eclipses, in which the Moon covers the disc of the Sun as seen from a particular location on Earth. When a lunar eclipse happens, it can be seen from any location on Earth where the Moon is above the horizon during the eclipse.

A solar eclipse, on the other hand, can only be seen from a small area on the Earth, simply because of the geometry – you have to be standing where the Moon and Sun are lined up perfectly. The NASA Eclipse Website at http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse.html will give you detailed information on upcoming lunar and solar eclipses and where you have to be to see them, as will your Observer's Handbook.

Aurora: Perhaps the least predictable of the naked-eye astronomical events, the aurora (also known as the northern or southern lights) occurs when electrically charged material escapes the surface of the Sun in a solar flare event, and encounters the Earth's magnetic field. This combination produces a spectacular light show high in the atmosphere. Because the magnetic field is stronger closer to Earth's magnetic poles, most parts of Canada are well positioned to see aurora when they happen. When a solar flare happens and heads to the Earth, we only have a couple of days' notice before it gets here. Check the aurora forecast on http://www.spaceweather.com every day if you want to see one.

Naked eye observing can be fun and exciting, and you can even do some real science without any equipment. Don't jump into buying a telescope before you've learned what you can see without one!

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