Extracurricular – Stargazing

Learning about the night sky is something that anyone can do. Believe it or not, you don’t need expensive equipment to start out and you definitely don’t need a science background. The nights become longer and darker this time of year and the air is crisp, which makes for excellent stargazing. It’s an activity that the entire family can enjoy.

The best starting point is to familiarize yourself with some general knowledge about astronomy. If you know a little bit about the phases of the moon and the solar system, then You’re already on your way. Books from your local library can help. What you will be able to see changes from month to month, so a star chart is essential. Fortunately, there are free star charts on the internet that you can download and print. Two good websites for this are http://whatsouttonight.com/ and http://www.skymaps.com/. It takes a bit of practice to learn to use a chart but, once you get the hang of it, it isn’t difficult. If you have a smart phone, there are also Apps available for download that tell you exactly what You’re looking at when you hold your phone toward the sky. But with all that information, It’s easy to get intimidated, so start slowly.

You will probably be eager to rush out and purchase a telescope. Please do not do this. A good pair of binoculars is all you really need. Cheap “department store” telescopes are just glorified toys and will leave you frustrated. If you decide you want to pursue this hobby more seriously, you can invest in a quality telescope from a local astronomy shop where you can also ask advice on the best equipment to purchase for your needs.

But to begin your exploration of the night sky, find a dark open area, sit on a blanket or a lawn chair and simply look up. A good tip is to cover a normal flashlight with a piece of red cellophane secured with a rubber band. This enables you to read your star chart without hurting your eyes with bright light. Remember to dress warm, bring a hot drink and some snacks, and don’t stay out too long. The red flashlight alone makes this a fun activity for young kids, plus you can get them interested in some science.

You will soon start to pinpoint easy objects, such as the Big Dipper, Orion, and Cassiopeia. You can also learn a lot just by looking at the moon. There will be limit to how much detail you’ll be able to see without a telescope but even with binoculars you’ll still be able to see the different areas of it and some of its larger craters. You may also see planets, satellites, the International Space Station or?if You’re lucky?even a “shooting star,” but give yourself time and patience to learn.

A problem with stargazing in urban areas is the amount of light pollution. Any amateur astronomer will tell you that house and street lighting is a big distraction for clear viewing. You will still be able to see quite a bit but you won’t see the amount of detail that you’d be able to see in a completely dark sky. You are unlikely to see the Milky Way in a light-polluted area. If you can, travel to a rural area or to one of the designated “dark sky preserves” around the country that were created to promote astronomy in a light pollution free environment.

Of course, part of the fun of learning how to stargaze is meeting new people who share your hobby and who you can exchange knowledge with. Check to see if there are any astronomy groups in your area. The Royal Astronomy Association of Canada (RASC) has groups across the country, but a local Community College or Meetup.com might also provide some resources. Owning your own telescope often isn’t a joining requirement.

Stargazing is a great introduction to science and once you start learning about our universe you will want to learn more and more. So go outside on a clear night?and just look up.

Carla and her family has recently purchased her first telescope for stargazing. However, they have been frustrated by the cantankerous Calgary weather!