Natural beauty in the Tehachapi Mountains isn't limited to daytime scenery. When the sun calls it a day, and disappears below the western horizon, the planetarium of our night sky lights up. It's casually gorgeous.
Higher elevations get a clearer view of the stars overhead, because there is less air between us and them, and thus less atmospheric distortion. So Tehachapi has better stargazing opportunities than the lower areas that mostly surround us.
Less populated and more rural areas like ours also tend to have far less light pollution, so the nighttime skyscape is richer with more visible stars. We've had visitors to Tehachapi from the city who marveled at the sight of Milky Way overhead. At home they're lucky to see a handful of stars and the planets.
So how many stars can you actually see with the naked eye? On a dark night in the mountains, it seems like you can see millions of 'em. Or at least many thousands.
Well, the number of visible stars can be subjective, depending on viewing conditions and the vision of the observer. For many decades, the figure most astronomers used was a total of 5,000 stars that could be seen from Earth with the naked eye. Since only one hemisphere at a time is visible to the viewer, that meant that at the most only about 2,500 stars could be seen.
However, an amazing astronomer from Yale named Dorrit Hoffleit, who passed away in 2007 a few weeks after her 100th birthday, compiled the Yale Bright Star Catalog. This is a listing of every star visible from Earth, down to the dimmest ones with a 6.5 magnitude, which is considered to be the naked eye limit for most people.
Dr. Hoffleit came up with 9,096 stars in total, which means that the most stars anyone on Earth can see with the naked eye is about 4,500 (visible stars aren't exactly equally divided between hemispheres; viewers in the Southern Hemisphere can see a bit more of them than we can).
A common criteria used by amateur astronomers to determine if a given location is good for stargazing is this: if you can see all seven stars found in the Little Dipper constellation. On a clear, dark night, after the moon has set or before it comes up, you can see all seven stars from some parts of the Tehachapi area. You do need to be away from the lights of cars, houses and streetlights.
And of course the stars aren't the only thing to see in the night sky. There's the ever-changing moon, which grows from the thin crescent of the new moon, briefly visible in the western sky after sunset, to the plump roundness of the full moon, and then back to a sliver again.
At various times over the course of a year, you can step outside at night and see meteor showers, comets, satellites, eclipses, lightning storms, vapor trails from rocket launches, and even the Northern Lights, on rare occasions.
One Tehachapi area resident who appreciates the visual wonders of the night sky is my friend Toshimi Kristof. She and her husband Les like observing the natural world, which Toshimi often photographs. Sometimes she'll put a camera on a tripod and take long exposures of the Tehachapi night sky.
The photos that accompany this story were taken by Toshimi. She typically exposed each shot for 25 seconds. The colorful image of concentric circles shows star streaks that were obtained by pointing the camera right at Polaris, the North Star, and leaving it there while taking multiple photos. It is a composite image made up of 400 individual photos that Toshimi took over a three-hour period. Toshimi said her only worry with the late night outdoor photography was the large bear that has appeared in their yard about 3 a.m.
I was just outside at 10:30 p.m., looking up to admire the view and get inspiration for this story. An added pleasure this time of year is the natural soundtrack: I could hear the springtime sounds of Pacific Chorus Frogs calling, crickets fiddling and a male mockingbird singing his moonlight serenade.
With warmer temperatures making it more pleasant to be outside at night, treat yourself to a few quiet minutes of stargazing. We have views of the night sky that are simply unavailable to most of California's population. It takes 15 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to darkness, so you'll be able to see a lot more stars if you stay outside long enough for that to happen. Enjoy the show. . .
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to email@example.com.