Milky Way and 3 planets: We're in peak stargazing season, says Calgary author

Milky Way and 3 planets: We're in peak stargazing season, says Calgary author

A Calgary astronomy author and photographer says we've now entered stargazing prime time as three planets and the Milky Way are visible in Alberta skies.

Alan Dyer also says the "hot topic" of gravitational waves will be front and centre at an upcoming Rothney Astrophysical Observatory event later this month.

He spoke with The Homestretch this week. This interview has been edited for clarity and length, and you can listen to the complete interview right here.

Q: Why is this a good time for stargazing?

A: This is the time we look forward to. It's getting darker earlier. The nights are longer. It's cooler, yes, but no bugs and we hope no smoke for a while. The nights are clear and dry.

Q: What can we see this time of year?

A: The next couple of weeks are prime time for the Milky Way. Now we have much more time to enjoy the Milky Way with the longer nights. It's across the sky all night long, the centre of the galaxy is right to the southern sky then it goes all the way across the sky.

The spiral arms we live in stretching all the way across the sky right through the middle of three stars in a large triangle, called the summer triangle.

You've got to be out in the country to see it, though. You can't see it in the city. This weekend is the ideal time to see the Milky Way.

Q: The planets are aligning right now for some great stargazing, too, aren't they?

A: We've had a great array of planets in our sky all summer long and they are still there.

Jupiter is quite bright in the southwest in the early evening, 9 p.m. or 9:30 p.m. or so.

To the left, due south, is Saturn, right in the middle of the Milky Way in Sagittarius. If you can see the Milky Way, look at it through a telescope. You will see the rings wide open. It's fabulous.

Then to the left of Saturn — you can't miss it — bright in the southeastern skies is an orange Mars. It was really close about five weeks ago, but it is still close to the Earth and still very bright.

It's a beautiful sight to the naked eye but if you have a telescope, you will see the disc of Mars bigger than we have seen in it many years.

We have three planets across the sky right now.

Q: Is this a good time to see the northern lights?

A: You can, typically, around the equinoxes in March and the fall. We are coming up to that in a couple of weeks time. That is often when we get our best displays. The long-term forecast calls for maybe activity picking up next week, even perhaps this weekend.

If you go to the website, www.spaceweather.com, that will give you some warning something is on the way from the sun and we might see some northern lights in the next couple of weeks.

We are in a good position here in southern Alberta, but again, that is out in the country. You won't see that in the city unless it is a spectacular display.

Q: Where is the best place in Alberta to see the northern lights?

A: The further north you go, the better your chances. We can get spectacular displays down here, but they have got to be a pretty high level of activity.

Fort McMurray sells itself as an aurora-tourism destination. I am going up to Yellowknife on the weekend, where you are right underneath the aurora.

If you really want to chase the northern lights, that is the place to go. As far north as possible.

Q: Talk about the upcoming event at the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory near Priddis, Alta.

A: That's your next opportunity to look through some telescopes supplied by the local astronomy club.

There is a public stargazing night, an open house, on September 15.

There will be a talk inside on the hot topic of gravitational waves but there will be telescopes outside to look at Jupiter, Saturn and Mars and the Milky Way.

Q: How are gravitational waves a 'hot topic' these days?

A: There is tremendous research going on with these incredible facilities that can detect changes in the gravitational strength, incredibly minute changes, caused by the passing of gravitational waves.

It's something Albert Einstein predicted 100 years ago. He said we'd never be able to detect this. It's technically impossible but they have made it possible.

There have been some discoveries of gravitational waves from colliding black holes out in deep space. The talk at the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory will be about that latest research, called multi-messenger astronomy. It's very, very exciting.

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With files from The Homestretch.