Have you ever laid out on your driveway at night and just stared up at the heavens?
Growing up in ‘Big Sky Country’ this is a fond memory of mine. Coming home after a night out with friends and just staring up at the sky, the peace and tranquility opened up space for talking about our fears, our hopes and our, dreams.
Because we, in northern Nevada, live in a place where we lack the distortion of light pollution, we have a better opportunity than most to observe the night sky. But do we? Some people find comfort in the possibility, but others are frightened by the vast expanses of space. This is unfortunate. Our world is dark 50% of the time so perhaps we should learn to make peace with the night. For me, learning a little bit about the stars, their locations, and their stories has brought them to become my close friends. Perhaps this can facilitate your relationship’s growth as well.
Here are a few hints to help you on your way to become an amateur astronomer:
- Turn off your flashlight. We mistakenly believe that our flashlights will provide us with safety, but in reality, they minimize our ability to observe the world around us. Your eyes will begin to adjust in a manner of minutes. You will never be able to see to the extent that you can on a bright, sunny day, but unless the sky is completely overcast or you are in a sheltered location, the stars and the moon should provide you with enough light for slow, calculated navigation. If you require some light, substitute your white light for a red light. Many headlamps and flashlights come with this feature. If yours does not, it is a simple fix with some tape from the auto store.
- Be still. While you are waiting for your eyes to adjust, it is best that you not go bumbling around in the dark. It is dangerous. For that reason, why not be still for a few minutes and listen to the sounds of the night. You might catch the wind rustling through the trees, owls hooting back and forth, or some coyotes calling in the distance.
- Dress appropriately. I am not a night owl. For this reason, I love wintertime for stargazing. With sun setting shortly after 5:00PM, I don’t have to stay up past my bedtime to get in some good time with the stars. That being said, it can be quite nippy sitting still and staring at the stars in February. Make sure you dress appropriately for inactivity and if you plan to dedicate some serious time to stargazing, consider a reclining camp chair, insulative pad, your sleeping bag, and a warm beverage.
- Pay attention to the moon’s cycle. The moon does one revolution around the Earth every 28 days thus going through one cycle from full moon, to new and back again to full. As the brightest thing in the night sky, it makes a huge difference on what your eyes are able to see. If you are a casual observer, any night is a good night to look up. You will see the least amount of stars on a full moon and the most on a new moon. Although beautiful, stargazing for identification purposes on a new moon can be very challenging because there are too many stars. Thus, going out right after sunset or near a full moon when only the brightest stars are visible, are the easiest times for beginners. If you hope to see the intimate details of the moon itself, it is best observed a few days before or after the first or last quarter looking right along the edge where it changes from light to dark. Because of how the angle of the sun’s rays hit the moon with respect to our location on Earth, it is there that you are able to see the best shadows and contrast of elevation.
- Be happy you live in the Northern Hemisphere. To begin identifying stars and constellation all you need to find is Polaris, the North Star. Most people can point out the Big Dipper. The outer two stars on the Big Dipper’s scoop are known as the Pointer Stars and they will point you directly to the North Star. Beware, the North Star is not a very bright star, but is important because all the stars in the northern sky move around it. In the Northern Hemisphere, Polaris will be above the horizon in the northern sky every day of the year, day or night.
- Get some help. A friend who knows a little about the stars can be a huge asset. Alternatively, a planisphere or a star App can go a long way. To start, I recommend buying or making a planisphere https://in-the-sky.org/planisphere/index.php. This way you begin to understand how things move in relation to your location on Earth and you can begin to predict what you will see where. Eventually an App is more helpful, but I’ll explain that later.
- Beware of the planets. Because of their relatively close distance to Earth when compared with the stars, planets can be a confusing detail in your night sky observations. It is all a matter of perspective. We move with respect to the sun and the moon moves with respect to us so those two are constants that are calculated into a star map like a planisphere. The other planets, however, also move with respect to the sun (not the Earth) so their movements are less consistent. The planets will never be shown on a planisphere, however, they are noted on most smartphone Apps. That being said, only Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are visible with the naked eye and they will always be found near the same path that the moon and sun take when crossing the sky. So once you get the hang of things, you will be able to predict planets by their relative location.
- Have fun. The 88 constellations are actually 88 divisions of the night sky and not specifically the Connect-the-dot drawings that we envision. Thus, if you have seen a constellation drawn one way, and you imagine it another way, you are officially given that license. Research the mythology of the stars. Most cultures weave their histories into the mythology of the stars whether it be the Ancient Greeks telling of the vanity of Queen Cassiopea or modern times and how slaves followed the drinking gourd to freedom. Imagine yourself looking up at the night sky when the myth, legend, or history was written. What was it like when this story found its roots?
Good luck and have fun. I’ll be out again teaching about the stars on our next night/snowshoe hike up in Lamoille Canyon on March 14th.
If you are interested in attending and need snowshoes please call the Elko District BLM to reserve (775) 753-0200.