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Explore The Sky: Night & Day

Color image of loops on the surface of our Sun.
Join the international celebration of Sun-Earth day on Friday, March 20 this year.

In March, the celebration of the 2009 International Year of Astronomy continues with observing the sky by night and by day. Now is the perfect time to get outside and observe our celestial neighbors.

One of the biggest events of the year takes place on Sun-Earth Day (Friday, March 20). Also known as the Spring Equinox, Sun-Earth Day will feature a series of programs coordinated by NASA's Sun-Earth Day program. During a live webcast at 1:00 p.m. EST, scientists will present solar discoveries while students monitor the Sun and create a space weather forecast. Exciting images of the Sun and space weather will also be released.

You can observe the Sun by contacting your local astronomy club to find a volunteer with a solar telescope, as it is dangerous to look directly at the Sun. This type of telescope filters out the dangerous sunlight while providing a magnified view of solar activity and features such as sunspots.

Color picture of a man helping a little girl look through a telescope
NASA's Saturn Observation Campaign connects amateur astronomers around the world to share in the splendor of Saturn. This image was taken in Iraq in July 2008.

At its closest point to Earth this year, now is the time to look into the night sky at the beautiful ringed planet Saturn. Four hundred years ago, during his initial observations Galileo thought he saw two handles around Saturn. Instead, the "handles" were really Saturn's famous rings. Modern telescopes and spacecraft such as Cassini, have shown us incredible close up images of Saturn and its rings, and now you can view Saturn too. Saturn reached opposition on March 8th, 2009, and is visible all night long. An object is at opposition when the sun is on one side of Earth and the object is directly on the opposite side. The result is that the object is fully illuminated by the sun and appears disk-like.

Similar to the full Moon that we see each month when it is opposite the Sun, Saturn is now one of the brightest objects in the night sky. Consider attending a Star Party hosted by your local astronomy club. These groups set up telescopes and share opportunities for viewing objects in the sky with their communities. NASA's Saturn Observation Campaign's "Saturn Observing Nights" runs March 8-28, 2009 and offers the opportunity to observe Saturn with your local community. Contact one of the 400 volunteers in 45 US states and 55 countries around the world and join them in their local events.

If you want to do some amateur astronomy of your own but don't have access to a telescope, consider building your own. A simple, easy to build and use telescope, the Galileoscope was created with the intention that it be available for use to millions worldwide.

To follow in Galileo's footsteps, visit NASA's IYA Calendar of Events for guidance on observing the planets, stars, and beyond from your own backyard. Or check out the Night Sky Network of amateur astronomy clubs. During 2009, the Night Sky Network will be following NASA's special IYA Discovery Guides to host events and star parties that are based on NASA's monthly themes.

Control a real telescope! You can take images with the NASA-funded MicroObservatory. Use this online telescope network to view the very same objects that Galileo observed 400 years ago. You can even compare your images with Galileo's sketches, and to observations made by modern telescopes.

Color image showing the area of stars targeted by NASA's Kepler telescope.
An image by Carter Roberts of the Eastbay Astronomical Society in Oakland, CA, showing the Milky Way region of the sky where the Kepler spacecraft/photometer will be pointing.

Until modern times, naturally dark skies allowed sky watchers to enjoy a magnificent view of the planets and stars. Today, light pollution limits what our eyes can see in the night sky. Dark Skies Awareness is an IYA 2009 Cornerstone project, which works to raise awareness of the problem and to prevent the loss of good observation locations around the globe. There is an urgent need to protect dark night skies from artificial light pollution especially near places where astronomical observations are made. Urban areas and national parks are especially at risk. The group aims to preserve dark night sky places, as well as historical astronomical sites for future generations to enjoy. Between March 16 and 28, the group will run a special citizen-scientist campaign in association with the Globe at Night program. With a special focus on the observation of the Orion constellation, the group will work to get people outside at night to gaze at this amazing grouping of stars.

With its successful launch on March 6, NASA will be seeking out Earth-sized planets around other stars with its newest space-based Kepler observatory. Kepler is the first telescope capable of finding habitable planets around other stars.

March is another exciting month for NASA and the International Year of Astronomy 2009. With the right equipment, you can observe the wonders of the Universe at night... and by day.

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Last Updated: 2 February 2011

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Last Updated: 2 Feb 2011