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Stargaze Like a Pro

Technically, this is moongazing. Photo by Mary Reed.

Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Hubble. They discovered mysteries of the sky, but astronomy isn’t strictly for the pros.* “Any time you see something for the first time, it’s like you discovered it,” says Don Partain, manager of Golden Pond Planetarium in Land Between the Lakes, KY. Learn the basics of stargazing and you can join the greats in discovering the sky first hand.

Get the tools. You do not need tools to stargaze, but they do help. A planisphere locates the stars and constellations for the exact hour and day you are observing, which helps because the sky looks different in each season. The Edmund Scientific Star and Planet Locator is great for campers and is inexpensive (scientificsonline.com). Even a cheap pair of binoculars will help you better see star clusters, the Milky Way galaxy and planets. Binoculars with 10 power are more expensive, but best for stargazing. When stargazing in a group, a green laser pointer (www.telescope.com) emits a thin beam of green light to point directly at stars or other objects. That way there is no confusion as to what star you are pointing at.

Get ready. Before heading outdoors make sure conditions are right. This includes a dark night with thin to no clouds. Travel as far away from city lights so there is little light pollution. The moon can add light pollution so it is best to avoid stargazing close to a full moon. Your eyes adjust to the darkness in about 10 to 20 minutes – avoid white light so your eyes don’t have to readjust. Use a red headlamp or flashlight so your eyes stay adjusted to the dark. Go to a website like www.skyandtelescope.com to find out what will be in the night sky the evening you plan to go out – where the planets will be, when the next meteor shower will occur and so on.

Start simple. By simply looking up at the night sky for a few minutes, you’ll find basic constellations and asterisms (a grouping of stars contained in a larger constellation). “It’s easy to find one and once you have found one, you can use that to find them all,” says Don. The most basic to find and utilize is the Big Dipper. The Big Dipper “moves” but it can always be found in the north half of the sky. The two stars on the dipping end of the Big Dipper point to the North Star. The North Star’s position never changes – the earth’s axis is pointing right at it.

Expand your horizons. After finding the basic stars and constellations, you can use that knowledge and your planisphere to find other ones. When you’re ready, buy a small, lightweight telescope (www.best-telescope-guide.com). With it, you can view things like Saturn’s rings and the four moons of Jupiter. “Just go out and get practice,” advises Tom Reiland, Director of Wagman Observatory in Pittsburgh. “The more time you put into it, the better you will be.”

Jaclyn Boland is an amateur gazer who now can find more than the Big Dipper in the night's sky.

Easy-to-find constellations, planets, star clusters
The Big Dipper
The North Star
Venus (aka the Morning Star or Evening Star)
Cassiopeia, the Queen
Orion, The Hunter
The Pleiades (aka the Seven Sisters)
The Summer Triangle
Cygnus, the Swan
The Teapot

Why does the moon look bigger sometimes?
Have you ever noticed that the moon looks bigger on the horizon when it’s first rising compared to later when it’s high in the sky? This is the so-called moon illusion. It’s a real optical illusion, but there’s no final consensus on how it happens. Learn more from NASA at science.nasa.gov.

*Amateur astronomers Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp independently discovered the Hale-Bopp comet in 1995. Just this past July, an amateur astronomer notified NASA that a comet or asteroid had crashed into Jupiter, leaving an impact crater.