Last night’s supermoon eclipse got me thinking about star-gazing as one of the ultimate backyard learning experiences. Growing up in a rural area, I have memories of learning constellations, discovering the Milky Way, and watching meteor showers just outside the back door. I remember drinking hot cocoa, sitting under warm blankets, and looking up at the sky, not entirely sure what it was I was about to see or comprehending the enormity of the universe that I had a slight glimpse into. And now, as an adult, it is wonderful to share these experiences with my own children. Often, I think, we forget to look up and take it all in. But, may I suggest you spend some time watching the stars. It’s a good reminder of how unique we really are.
Exploring the night sky can be done in both rural and urban areas. Of course, rural settings, with minimal light pollution have a better visibility. But even in urban settings stars can be seen – the bright ones remain visible while the faint ones get washed out by the surrounding light. This can actually be advantageous for a beginning night sky observer because it is usually the main constellations that can still be seen. Because stargazing can be done anywhere and only requires our eyes and a dark night sky, it is easy.
Here are some tips for keeping your eye on the night sky:
- Start with the easiest and most familiar star patterns to recognize. The Big Dipper is a great one for beginners. It consists of seven stars and is shaped like a pan. The Big Dipper is always visible in the northern sky in Canada and in the northern half of the US. Cassiopeia and Orion’s belt are two other simple-to-recognize star patterns. Cassiopeia looks like the letter W, and is seen in the same section of the sky as the Big Dipper. Orion’s belt consists of three bright stars in a row and is prominent in the winter sky.
- To tell the difference between stars and planets, the general rule of thumb is that planets don’t twinkle and stars do. When looking through binoculars or a telescope, planets appear larger in the night sky (although stars are much bigger) because planets are so much closer to us. It is because of this that the light from planets doesn’t appear to twinkle. Turbulence in the air causes the twinkling of light from stars.
- The Milky Way (our galaxy) is seen best on nights with no moon and away from city lights. To the naked eye, it appears as a faint, pale white trail across the sky. Binoculars can be used to examine the Milky Way more closely, transforming the haze into a glittering stream of stars.
- There are many online resources for helping identify observations of the night sky and remaining up to date with celestial events. NASA, of course, is always a good source of information for anything space related. But a few other simpler resources include: StarDate, Sky and Telescope, and Space.com (which has a great article about the must-see stargazing events for the year).