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

Our First Time in Great Basin National Park

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When was the last time you did something for the first time? The last time you experienced something that made you see things a little differently? The last time you stood in a new place and felt an overwhelming sense of awe? That’s the feeling we set out to find. We grabbed some friends, packed up our bags and set out for Great Basin National Park – one of the least visited parks in the Lower 48 with some of the oldest trees and the darkest skies.

We left Salt Lake City after work on Friday (later than planned, of course), headed southwest toward the Nevada/Utah border. Joel was driving Rita Jean, a semi-trusty ’86 Westfalia vanagon, with Brandon riding shotgun and Crystal and Hannah in the back. Van Morrison was also along for the ride.

240 miles later, we rolled into Wheeler Peak campground around 10pm, hungry but happy. We paid the fee and went to start up the van and snapped off the gear shaft right then and there. After 4 hours of climbing 10,000 ft, Rita Jean had had enough. We tinkered for an hour then finally pushed Rita to an open site and whipped up some 11pm campside tacos. We all agreed they were the best tacos we’d ever had.

The closest “big” town to Great Basin National Park is Ely, Nevada – 70 miles north of the park. Deny and Trudy from Ely showed up the next morning with a flat bed truck to haul Rita back to Ely for fixing over the weekend. Carless but prepared with a cooler full of bacon and bourbon, we got our day started.

We spent the next two days exploring Wheeler Peak. With a height of 13, 065 ft, the summit is covered with snow most of the year – an ideal climate for the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, an ancient pine species that’s been thriving for thousands of years (yes, thousands). These pines are truly mind blowing. Huge, car-sized trunks give way to twisty bark, looking like a lightning bolt that’s been carved from wood. It’s gnarled and split as sections of the tree die off and peel over the centuries. But these mangled trees are alive and kicking, sometimes with only a narrow strip of living tissue connecting the roots to a handful of branches. And those needles that are sprouting out? Those same needles live for an average of 45 years. The oldest tree in the Western Hemisphere is a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, still going strong at 5,062 years old. Those are some deep roots.

Along with ancient pines, we’d always heard about Great Basin’s killer stargazing. They say “Half the Park is After Dark”, and now we know why. Low humidity, minimal light pollution and high elevation give Great Basin the edge when it comes to stargazing. Combine that with Earth’s location deep within the spiral arms of the Milky Way and you’ve got a primo view from the inside looking out. Thousands of stars, five of the eight planets, 88 summer constellations, the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies – all with the naked eye. With binoculars we could easily see Saturn’s rings. Yes, Saturn.

On Monday morning Denny and Trudy picked us up and hauled us to Ely, Nevada. We reunited with a souped-up Rita Jean and hit the road back to Salt Lake City, taking the Northeast route via US-93. We took our sweet time, picnicking at a neat rest stop somewhere outside of Ely. Just across the Utah border, we took a detour off the I-80 to spend an hour cooling off at the Salt Spring Management Water Area , a marshland with natural salt springs and watering holes. Two hours and one roadside diner later, we made it back to SLC – full of memories and ready for our next first experience.

To plan your own trip to Great Basin National Park, visit www.nps.gov/grba

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