Stargazing: experience wonders just by looking up

Published 4:04 pm Friday, September 22, 2023

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There is a whole long list of reasons why people enjoy living in rural areas such as right here in our little part of northeastern North Carolina. But maybe one of the simplest of those reasons is the spectacular view of the night sky.

The darkness stretches overhead as far as the eye can see, like a swath of fabric decorated with millions and more tiny stars. The stars themselves shimmer like glitter scattered across that fabric, some brighter than others. And then there’s also the moon, drawing more attention as it waxes and wanes each month, like the lead performer on stage trying to keep all eyes on itself.

Streetlights and other human-made nighttime lights can obscure the natural view, but even people who live in the heart of the small towns in our four-county area don’t have to travel far to get a glimpse of the stars and moon above. Unlike city folk who have to drive way outside of the city limits for the same amazing visuals! (When I was in college, sometimes I’d bring friends home to visit and was delighted every time they were surprised at how much of the night sky they could see here.)

I have always enjoyed stargazing when I get a chance. I like being able to pick out the Orion constellation – the three-star belt is always the easiest for me to find – and spot our neighboring planets passing by. You probably have seen those planets too, but might have mistaken them for bright stars if you didn’t know that’s what they were.

Without using a telescope, we’re able to see Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn from Earth, but all five aren’t visible every night.

According to, Venus and Mercury will be visible before sunrise during September. So early-risers might get a chance to see those planets before the sun’s brightness chases the darkness away. Mercury, in particular, is often hard to spot, so it’ll be only a short window of opportunity to see that planet before it disappears again for a while.

Conversely, Jupiter and Saturn can be spotted after the sun sets for the day. Look east-northeast for a glimpse at Jupiter, and on Sept. 26, you can see Saturn in the southeast near the moon. It’ll have a yellow-ish glow.

Unfortunately for anyone who wants to see Mars too, you’ll have to wait a while. From our viewpoint on Earth, the red planet is currently passing behind the sun in its rotation.

But if you miss the planets, there are always a variety of constellations to gaze up at and stretch your imagination a bit. There are a total of 88 “officially” recognized constellations, which are a group of stars connected by imaginary lines to form an image. Ancient stargazers around the world used to entertain themselves by creating these images in the stars above.

Other than the aforementioned Orion, I’ve always had a hard time visualizing the images myself. A lot of them are animals like bears and birds and such. It’s not always easy to conjure up a bear when all you have are the dots, and you have to fill in the rest with your mind!

So if you really want to have fun, you can probably just make up a few constellations of your own. It’s the most giant-sized game of connect-the-dots you’ll ever play!

Of course, it’s not just stars and planets in the sky too. Sometimes you can catch a glimpse of “shooting stars” (meteors, meteorites) or comets and other space debris passing by. In fact, people are always continuing to learn new things about space.

Just recently, I read an article from NPR about a comet that was discovered in August by amateur astronomer Hideo Nishimura, who happened to spot it through long exposure shots from his digital camera and telephoto lens. Not even a telescope! I can’t imagine the attention to detail he must have needed to find something new up there before scientists and all their fancy stargazing equipment these days had the chance.

Comets are basically hunks of space ice, and when they get too close to a sun, they start to melt. The melting ice and dust form the “tail” that we associate with the space phenomenon. Comet Nishimura – named after its discoverer – has a greenish tint in photographs, though I didn’t find any explanation as to what caused the coloration.

After scientists started looking into the new find, they realized that this comet takes about 430 years to make its trip around our sun. So people didn’t even have telescopes the last time it passed through! And who knows what technology will be like when it comes back again in the 2450s. Maybe people will be able to put on a special pair of zooming sunglasses to be able to get an up-close look from the comfort of your backyard.

While everyone else’s odds of discovering new space phenomenon is quite low (though not impossible), we all can still enjoy the familiar sparks of stars scattered across the sky every night (except for when clouds get in the way!)

It’s like having front-row tickets to nature’s best art show. All you have to do is look up.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or 252-332-7206.