STARRY NIGHT

Anyone who has looked at the night sky has wondered about what they see. It would be nice to know if that bright star is Betelgeuse, in the belt of Orion the Hunter, or Polaris, the North Star that has guided so many travelers for thousands of years. In fact, most of us haven’t a clue.

 So we have been trying out a new device from telescope maker Meade (Meade.com). It’s called MySky Plus, and it looks like a ray gun from a sci-fi movie. It has a trigger and a viewing screen a little smaller than a business card. When you aim the gun at an object in the night sky and pull the trigger, MySky Plus will try to identify the target, show you a star map and provide a spoken explanation.

The MySky lists for $199, though we also saw it for $149 to $169 at various Internet stores. We’ve looked at other writers’ reviews of just what it is and what it does and noticed that none of them were right. It is nearly always described as a GPS device that explains what it sees in the night sky when you point it at some celestial object.

 Wrong, wrong, wrong. It is not a GPS device, it simply has a database of major locations around the world and you pick the one that’s closest to you. After all, being a few hundred miles away from a major city is an insignificant difference compared to the distances of space. And, since the device has no lens, it can’t “see” anything. If it were a true GPS, the location would change as you move.

What the MySky does is operate like a modern version of an 18th century sextant, a device with a curved scale marked in degrees, against which you moved a pointer. Sighting along the pointer at some known star or planet, you would read off its angle above the horizon. Then you would mark its elevation against the time and date, comsult your astronomical charts, and get a reasonably accurate fix on where you were. The MySky does much the same thing. When you point it at something in the sky, it registers the angle of inclination and compares that with your Earthly position. It next consults its clock and onboard database of star maps to tell you what you’re seeing.

This can be pretty exciting stuff, if often inaccurate. In short, this is a toy. It is a fun toy, and the descriptions and videos it provides are very educational, but nonetheless it’s a toy. When we searched for commentary from user groups, many adults expressed delight at learning about their night sky for the first time. One man was so excited when MySky informed him he was looking at Saturn, that he immediately went out and bought a telescope so he could see the rings. Actually, you can see the rings of Saturn with a pair of good binoculars, but his purchase of a telescope raises an interesting point: The MySky Plus sells for close to $200, but you can buy a pretty good telescope for around $100-$140.

Of course a good telescope (many of which are also made by Meade) will let you see the actual stars or planets but won’t tell you what you’re looking at. Some newspapers print brief descriptions of what can be seen in the night sky from their location. Public television also carries starry sky descriptions for some locations.

You can also get a good idea of what you’re looking at by downloading Google Earth from Earth.google.com/sky. Once installed, type a location and click the “sky” button to see maps and star names of what the night sky looks like from any place on Earth.

 

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