Stargazing 101

There’s more to the night sky than meets the eye. A lot more. On any given night you can see a thousand stars, five of the eight planets, 88 constellations, the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies – all with the naked eye. Here are some facts and tips for optimal stargazing:

Clear and dark skies are good: Cold, windy, cloudless, moonless nights are prime time to check out the stars. Low humidity is also crucial to seeing those tiny details (like Saturn’s rings) through a telescope.

Look low for planets: Look for planets no higher than 30 degrees above the horizon (hold your fist at arm’s length; three fists up from the horizon is about 30°). Venus comes out just after sunset and before dawn, while Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are visible later at night. You’ll know it’s a planet because they don’t twinkle – that’s what stars do!

Stars twinkle, planets don’t: Stars sparkle because of helium and hydrogen gas within the star; when the gas burns out, so does the star.

Find the “bright star”: The North Star isn’t actually the brightest star in the sky, Sirius is. The brighter the star (or planet), the lower the number in magnitude. For example, Sirius is -1.44 in magnitude while the moon is a whopping -26.

Find the North Star: If you stood at the North Pole, the North Star (or Polaris) would be directly overhead all night long. But the further south you move, the more it rotates due to the degree of earth’s tilt. If you’re in the northern hemisphere you can always find the North Star. The brightest star at the end of the Little Dipper’s handle is the North Star. Can’t see the Little Dipper? Draw an imaginary line straight through the two stars of the Big Dipper’s edge and toward the Little Dipper. The line will point to the North Star.

Know some galaxy facts: Our solar system is just one of thousands in the Milky Way Galaxy, which is one of thousands in the universe. Galaxies are made up of billions of stars and solar systems all bound to each other by the same gravitational pull. So galaxies can come in all shapes and sizes. The Milky Way galaxy is discus and spiral shaped, with Earth located deep within one of the arms of the Milky Way. That’s why when you look up, the Milky Way looks like a streak through the sky – we’re seeing it from the side!

Look for seasonal constellations: Look for Orion’s Belt in Winter, the Big Dipper in Spring, Sagittarius in the Summer and the Andromeda Galaxy in the Fall. Look up any night of the year and you’ll surly see low-orbit, man-mad satellites following a curved path.

Remember, the night sky is always changing: Depending on the seasons and which hemisphere you’re in, you’ll see different constellations. But one day your favorite constellation could be gone… The Milky Way is constantly losing stars and producing new ones – about seven new stars per year! With an estimated 2 billion stars and more than half of them older than our 4.5 billion-year-old sun, the Milky Way is considered a young galaxy. Makes you feel like a kid again, don’t it?

For more facts and charts, we like these tools:
stardate.org for everything about constellations
cleardarksky.com for stargazing forecasts
Sky Guide app to identify celestial objects

stargazing

3 thoughts on “Stargazing 101

  1. A favorite pastime since I was a child! SW Washington State, no light pollution, conditions perfect (unless it was raining, which it often was). Now in the woods of New Hampshire it is even better. a 1/2 mile drive and I have a 360 degree view. Doesn’t get much better except Tasmania or Kilimanjaro. Would love to try Chile. (I just gave away my HornyToad fleece jacket).

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