Ever since I was a kid charting stars and planets from my bedroom during Alaska’s long winter’s night, I’ve always loved stargazing. I even entertained the idea of becoming an astronomer – until geometry. While I don’t regret answering my calling as a writer, I’ve never stopped loving a moonlit night or getting out away from the urban haze and looking up into the deep, dark night.
I daresay it has never been a better time to be an amateur astronomer than it is right now. With apps that help you identify constellations and other celestial bodies, anyone with a smartphone can get in on the spectacular celestial show. On NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s website, you can learn about planets, meteor showers, and comets whizzing by every night. To know just when and where to look every night, head to NASA’s Night Sky Network page as well as Space.com’s Skywatching page.
We’re really in a new kind of astronomy renaissance. Because the major observatories and space missions, including the International Space Station, the New Horizons spacecraft, and the newly orbiting Juno spacecraft that just got to Jupiter, are producing mountains of data, scientists sometimes make it available to the public to get help combing through it. In addition, the availability of high-powered cameras and telescopes also make it easier for citizen scientists to make discoveries. Indeed, astronomy is one of the rare sciences in which amateurs can make important contributions.
NASA labs are also upping the game with the success of New Horizons and Juno. After we all fell in love with Pluto’s melting heart-shaped ice field– seen for the first time thanks to the New Horizons spacecraft’s historic flyby last summer – NASA announced last week that they will be extending the spacecraft’s mission to report back findings of the Kiuper Belt – the far reaches of our solar system that is said to hold smaller dwarf planets, including 2014 MU69 and possibly others. And we haven’t even gotten to the hundreds of exoplanets that have been discovered.
Of course, the big news this week (and likely for much of the next 20 months of its orbit) is the successful arrival of NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which reached Jupiter on July 4, after a five-year journey. The spacecraft arrived with a sense of humor, tweeting (@NASAJuno), “Engine burn complete and orbit obtained. I’m ready to unlock all your secrets, #Jupiter. Deal with it.” Clearly, the team in charge of Juno’s social media has the same sense of humor as that of New Horizons’ account (@NASANewHorizons). There are other fun touches on Juno, such as a Lego version of Galileo, which are the kind of kid-friendly details that scientists hope will spark interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields.
Since Jupiter is our solar system’s largest planet – you can fit 300 Earths inside the gas giant – scientists hope to learn more about the planet, its largest moons, and what it might tell us about the formation of our own planet. Jupiter has 67 moons, but the Juno spacecraft will primarily be focused on the Galilean moons (discovered by Galileo Galilei) – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.
Even better, you can see Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus, and Mercury in the night sky this month!
Never before have the farthest reaches of our solar system felt so close. You can live-tweet Juno while it orbits Jupiter! And you can get a guided tour of the night sky from the smartphone in your pocket. The best part is, regardless of your math skills or your day job, you don’t need anything to get started.
Just look up!