By the time I was 11 or 12, I had memorized pretty much all of the constellations and their relative positions, even those I could never see at around 44 degrees north latitude. I rued the fact that two of the four brightest stars in the sky — Canopus and Alpha Centauri — would never be visible unless I traveled substantially farther south. Twenty-plus years later, when I found myself living at 26 degrees north latitude and recalled my then-dormant fondness for the night skies, I discovered that South Florida with its chronic haze and light pollution did not offer a sublime locale for stargazing.
I’m now further north and more or less in the sticks, and the Internet is substantially more useful than it was during the Reagan years. I’m still not as well in tune with the night skies as I was as a pre-teen, and my yen for picking out celestial objects now seems to strike most strongly when I find myself doing a run on a cold, clear evening, which is a little incovneient to both purposes, as more than once I’ve veered onto the shoulder and nearly into a ditch as a result of being transfixed by some astral grouping or another. Because it’s been a while since I paid close attention, I am often not able to locate or name a few prominent stars and other objects; I know just enough to be dangerous, or at least curious. But thanks to the Web, I’m able to resolve any emergent mysteries within minutes of getting home.
A wealth of interactive online star charts now exist — sites which allow users to enter their physical location, the date, and the time of day they observed or will be observing stuff. I especially like this one (you’ll need to disable your pop-up nixer), although better ones as yet unknown to me are surely accessible.
This resource came in handy last week after I found myself clipping along in a more-or-less southward direction and was presented with a bright object about 30 degrees above the horizon that I knew had to be a planet. Given that knowledge, I was able to piece together which constellation the object was in (the characteristic backward question mark forming a lion’s head, at least in some ancient stoner’s opinion, told me I was looking at Leo). I deduced that the planet had to be Jupiter or Saturn, but could no longer distinguish between them (and possibly never could). When I pulled up the S & T chart, I confirmed that I’d indeed been looking at Saturn.
You can see how all of this was a little more fun than it would have been had I gone on to become an expert in astronomy and known the answers to these personal mysteries right away. Now if I can only find a way to perambulate and stargaze at the same time without falling on my ass, getting a crick in my neck, or wandering in front of the cars that pass by about once every eight months, I’ll be all set.