Night Sky Over Detroit

Last Thursday evening, before crossing into Canada via the tunnel, I was able to walk along the riverfront of Detroit, Michigan just east of the Aretha Franklin Concert Hall, with my binoculars and SkySafari Pro 6.0, my app of choice for observing.

I was wondering how elementary school students, mainly African-American in the major urban areas of the East and Northeast, were able to see the night sky and use software intended to aid in their observation of sky-events? As important, how their teachers and parents could instruct them as they were instructed as students on what to look for in the sky, as their ready companions and navigation aids, or to kindle their interest in space exploration and science? In truth, I was set on this small mission by a couple of these same teachers to “see for yourself what we are dealing with…”

At first, it was disheartening. At 10-11PM, with the unaided eye I could see very few stars. The Moon was beautiful. To the West was Saturn. To the East was Jupiter. Aldeberan was visible as a small reddish star. That about sums up the night sky over Detroit at that time of night. How could kids ever become interested in space or astronomy seeing so little.

As is their sceptical nature, they don’t believe you just because you are an adult, they want to see for themselves. And quite frankly, over the nightskies of American cities there is precious little to see.

The issue was both light pollution and just pollution – smog. Smog has a preference for diffusing and blotting out blue stars, apparently. That is because blue light is refracted, or diffused – why we have a blue sky during the day is the result of this diffusion by the atmosphere. At night, with no Sun nor blue light from the Sun, the sky should be darkened. Point sources of light from blue stars should be obvious, but in urban areas like Detroit with smog and particulate pollution even that light is scattered to the point of invisibility. You can see some red stars, but blue stars? Nothing.

For an hour or more, I searched for the Pleides without binoculars. I knew exactly where they were. I saw them with binoculars and knew their location from SkySafari. Just above and NorthEast of Mars, obvious by its red hue. I left, and vowed to come back when the Pleides would be high in the sky, away from the horizon and their light coming through less dense atmosphere.

At 2-3:30AM I was. I was in the Riverfront Park areas along the waterfront, looking for darker- and darker-lit areas. Finally, I was able to locate and identify the light from the Pleides, as a bluish smudge. Not intense blue stars as seen in binoculars, but a smudge of nebulicity.

The Pleides can be seen in the upper part of the photo; Mars is central.

At about 3:15AM, Orion came fully above the horizon, and was visible as Orion.  I was able to view the sword, and the nebulae that make it up with binoculars and ‘almost’ with the unaided eye.

Then I decided to take exposure photos.  Exposures of upto 10 seconds were taken, with some support from fences, the ground, and truck fenders.  The most successful exposures for an iPhone were at 3 seconds.