Thursday, April 6, 2017

Stargazing 101

“When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”
-William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Purple and Black Galaxy Illustration

Are you a bookworm?  Do you notice how many books have references and allusions to stars or the night sky?  The number is ridiculous!  If all these stories find stars to be the most sublime thing they can use to compare, then the stars truly must be magnificent!

We all know that the stars are amazing, but do we truly appreciate them as much as they deserve?  Our ancestors used to look up at the stars and study them rigorously, and now, they are mostly just ignored.  Maybe they're getting to feel lonely without some attention.

So in order to brighten up those stars, we've all gotta get outside as these summer nights approach and do some quality star gazing.

I've always loved astronomy, and stargazing is a summer activity I really enjoy.  Usually I just look up at the stars, but recently I've been looking into the actual factual way you should stargaze, and I've been practicing some techniques.  I'm here to share some tips!  Woo!

Image result for rapunzel looking at stars gif

Why to Stargaze

Stargazing is beneficial for many, many reasons.  First of all, it is very humbling and calming to look up into the night sky before bed and it helps slow things down a bit.  If we keep our brains firing on all cylinders by watching TV, even reading, or drawing just before bed, it can be harder to get to sleep quickly.

Looking at the stars also teaches valuable skills, like identifying stars (anyone who does overnight hikes regularly knows how important this can be), patience and focus, not to mention keeping you aware of the season (if you miss the other hints) and can even open you up to learning about the various myths and legends surrounding the stars, and the histories of their founding, naming, and paths across the sky.

Stargazing is an amazing thing to do with friends--or a special someone (*raises eyebrow quizzically*).  Like I said, it's a very humbling position to be in, and may open people up to deep, philosophical discussion.  Or at least discussion about how terrible the mosquitoes are. ;)

Image result for stargazing gif

When to Stargaze

Summer is definitely the most popular time for stargazing just because it's really warm and people are generally outside more.  However, winter is by far better for stargazing because the air is much crisper and clearer.  In the summer the atmosphere can be hazy and blurry, particularly if you live in or near a city.

But, if you're like me and you live in the freezing tundra of the upper mid-west, you may not be too keen to go hiking up a mountain in the middle of winter (likely on a school night--gasp!).  It's still really amazing to look even in the summer, though take note that constellations will change and you'll have to reorient yourself as the seasons change.

Image result for star chart

Follow a local astronomer's Twitter or other social media in order to keep up to date on when important astronomical events are happening in your area so you can plan to go out and see them.  There's a solar eclipse heading through Nashville this summer, and my friends and I are planning an epic road trip to go see it--it's a once in a life time experience!  Try to keep up to date on things like this as well as smaller events like meteor showers, blood moons, and partial eclipses.

I prefer to stargaze between the hours of 9 and 10 pm just because it is a better time for me schedule-wise, but the later you want to go, usually the better (assuming the moon isn't in the way--more on that in a moment).

Stargazing in the morning is often extremely effective because the air is just a bit cleaner and the moon is usually on it's way.  If you're having a tough time getting out late at night (I am more of a morning person too) then I recommend getting up a bit earlier in the morning.  You can just roll out of bed and head out without much getting ready.

Try to look on moonless nights so the moon's light doesn't get in the way.

Timelapse Photography of Stars at Night

Where to Stargaze

All I can say is that you want to get as high as you can.  If driving up a little ways or hiking to some high lands is not an option, consider using the roof of your house.

Try to get away from light pollution which is usually found around cities.  Going "up north" is a big thing where I live, and my grandpa's tree farm is hands down the best place to stargaze.  There is not another house for miles and miles.  Gotta watch out for bears though...

I also live around a whole bunch of lakes, and I find it super easy to see the stars out on a boat on the lake, or even from the dock.  Just be careful for other boats, since most lakes require you to have lights on so you don't get run down by speed boats.  These lights will screw up your ability to see the stars, so if your lake is busy at all, I would recommend laying on the dock instead.  This is also true for going out on the ocean, though I'm not as familiar with night-time-ocean-endeavors, and just by the sound of that it seems wiser to stick near land.

astronomy, cosmos, crater lake national park

How to Stargaze

Locate the local constellations and important astronomical features like the ISS (International Space Station) and Northern Star.  AstroViewer can help, and there are lots of apps and programs you can use and manipulate in real time to locate the constellations in your area.  The following are very popular constellations you can try to look for, depending on the season:
  • Aquarius
  • Aquila
  • Aries
  • Canis Major
  • Cygnus (also known as the Northern Cross) 
  • Leo
  • Orion
  • Scorpius
My favorite constellation to find is Orion because Orion's belt is very easy to find and it's a beautiful constellation.

Look for planets as you stargaze as well.  If an object is twinkling and blinking, it's most likely a star.  If the object is very steady, it's probably a planet.  Be careful you aren't getting confused by any planes or towers!

Stars at Night

Moon Gazing

Sometimes the stars are not out or are difficult to see.  Moon gazing is great for city folk because the moon is obviously a lot brighter and plainer to see.  On nights where the moon is full, it can sometimes drown out the light of other stars, and may be stealing the show.  Might as well give the moon the spotlight on those nights, and take part in some moon gazing.

You can use binoculars or even the naked eye to find the craters on the moon.  The best times to do this is when the moon is a waxing or waning crescent or gibbous.  It can be done on full moon nights, but it is harder to see because it's so bright.

Make sure to keep up to date on interesting moon phenomenon in your area like super moons, harvest moons, blue moons, blood moons, and eclipses.  

One of my favorite things to see is partial eclipses, where the corona, or shadow of the Earth, is visible on the moon.

Phases of Moon Photo

Other Notes

If you are using a phone or other device for a star chart, or to locate the ISS, cover your screen with red paper in order to reduce the amount of blue and white light your eyes are taking in.  This can mess with your ability to see the stars clearly, and it's important your eyes are not being confused.

Visit a planetarium before you stargaze in order to get familiar with locating constellations in the sky, and ask about the formations you can see in your area.  A lot of planetariums actually have convenient guides that lay out where the stars are and at what seasonal periods they are visible.

Check around your area to see if your parks department hosts any stargazing sessions or classes so you can learn from the experts first hand how you can get the most out of your stargazing experience.

Remember that you don't have to always be super scientific about your stargazing.  If you just want an hour to relax, lay low, and pop in some ear buds (*cough cough* Interstellar soundtrack *cough cough*), then go for it.  Especially if you are just starting to stargaze, this can be an effective way to get yourself attracted to the idea before you spend a lot of time doing the more technical parts.

Remember to enjoy stargazing, and invite some pals to go with you.  It's stellar!

Shooting Star during Nighttime With Purple Sky


  1. This is so true! Stars are NOT as appreciated as they used to be.
    I can't wait for Midsummer's Eve this year! The stars are SO beautiful that night!