2009 is the International Year of Astronomy. According the the IYA2009:
The International Year of Astronomy 2009 is a global effort initiated by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and UNESCO to help the citizens of the world rediscover their place in the Universe through the day- and night-time sky, and thereby engage a personal sense of wonder and discovery.
In honor of this great cause, I've compiled a short list of essential web sites and tools to help you view our great universe this year.
The first website I check whenever I'm going to be out and about is: Skymaps.com This site provides the latest monthly start maps. These are very easy to read, yet detailed enough to use if you have a good telescope. They provide PDF versions that print out nicely (the Milky Way is in color!)
The second website I visit is NASA Skywatch. It contains a great little JAVA application that shows you the next pass of various space vehicles. Simply enter your zip code and pick which space vehicle you want and hit the "next pass" button. I always look for passes of the International Space Station. With it's new solar panels, it's very easy to spot. In our latitude, in Minnesota, ISS usually shows up in the northern sky around the star Polaris (the north star). The app gives you the rise and set times and the closest approach times along with all the angles and directions you will need. Try the SkyTrack map for a graphical representation.
If I'm looking for a star party, I always check out the Minnesota Astronomical Society site. I checked out one of their public star parties at Onan Observatory a couple years ago. Their Onan Observatory is located inside of Baylor Regional Park near Norwood - Young America. They have some really nice scopes and extra nice people. There are some links to Onan on the MAS site but here is a brief rundown:
- A computer controlled Meade 16" Schmidt-Cassegrain sitting atop a massive concrete pier
- Two state-of-the-art systems -- one primarily for visual observing, the other intended for video-enabled observing. Each system has multiple refracting and reflecting telescopes, each selected with a specific purpose in mind and installed atop computer-controlled Paramount ME mounts
- Standalone and mounted solar viewing telescopes equipped with h-alpha filters
- 15x80 binoculars on a portable parallelogram mount
- And more!
Their events are free but the park has a small fee. There was no shortage of people willing to answer questions and talk about the sky. It was great fun and I learned a lot. Read their Star Party Guidelines before attending.
In my opinion, these are the best sites for amateur astronomy. The simple and easy to read information is invaluable. I think it's especially fun to wow my friends when ISS flies over. (I got to do that twice last year.)