It's time for a little pop quiz. This isn't a test of your knowledge of the universe, though, but of your ability to see it.
To take the test, first find the Big Dipper. It's in the northwest this evening, with the handle above the bowl.
Next, line up the two stars at the outer edge of the bowl, and follow that line to the right. The first bright star you come to is Polaris, the North Star.
All of that should be pretty easy. But the next step -- the real test -- is a bit tougher.
After your eyes adapt to the darkness, look up from Polaris, toward the tip of the Big Dipper's handle. Can you see a pattern of stars that outlines a second dipper -- the Little Dipper? Polaris is the tip of its handle, with the bowl above it.
One corner of the bowl is marked by Kochab, a star that's about the same brightness as Polaris. But the other five stars that outline the dipper are fainter. The faintest, in fact, is less than one-tenth as bright as Polaris.
And that's the test. If you can see the entire outline of the Little Dipper, then congratulations! -- you have nice, dark skies that'll allow you to appreciate the universe in all its glory. If you can't see anything but Polaris and Kochab, then sorry, but your skies fail the test. They're polluted with artificial light sources, like streetlamps and porch lights, that overpower the glow of faint stars, meteors, and the Milky Way.
But there are steps you can take to return your night sky to its full glory. You can find out how at mcdonaldobservatory.org/darkskies.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.