Saturday, August 11, 2007

16 Tips for a Great (Frugal!) Stargazing Experience

One fantastic way to have a good time at little or no cost is star-gazing. Whether you make it a romantic couple's night, a family affair, a gathering with friends or an opportunity for solo enjoyment, it can be a truly special experience.

One of my favorite childhood memories is lying in the front yard in the dark with my dad and sister, looking at the constellations and watching for shooting stars. We did all sorts of stargazing and amateur astronomy, but the Perseid meteor shower every August was always a favorite. And this weekend it comes around again. We're very lucky this year, because the Perseids' peak (Sunday night the 13th, although Saturday night is good too, and the meteors will continue through August 22) matches up with the new moon, meaning a darker sky and great visibility.

But while there's something particularly wonderful about shooting stars, there's a lot to enjoy about the night sky whether or not there's a meteor shower going on. Here are some tips to make your stargazing experience memorable, for the Perseids this weekend and in general:

  • Minimize light pollution. If you live somewhere relatively rural, this may just mean turning out all the lights in your house and stretching out in the yard, or finding a local park. If you're in a city, it may involve more of a trip. Of course, if you can't get away from the city, you can still enjoy the sky, there'll just be less visibility.
    • Figure out the best direction to go to put the city lights behind you. For example, the Perseids are in the northeast sky, so you'd want to head northeast; if you went southwest, you'd have to face back towards the city to see the meteors.
  • Dress in layers. Even in August it can get chilly at night, so make sure you're warm enough. You don't want to be distracted from the skies by the temperature. Hats are especially helpful for keeping your body heat in. Warm blankets are nice too!
  • Stock up on good food and drinks. Hot cocoa, sandwiches, pretzels, chocolate chip cookies... whatever your pleasure, it makes the experience more complete.
    • Stay away from alcohol and tobacco, though-- they impair your night vision.
  • Try playing music. You may prefer the sounds of nature, or of good conversation, but music can also be a fine accompaniment to stargazing.
  • Bring the bug repellent. You will be spending an hour or two outside, after all.
  • Do some research ahead of time. What constellations will be visible? What planets will be in the sky? Where in the night sky can you see them, and when? Find some star charts online (or take out books from the library).
    • Use a red light (some red plastic over an ordinary flashlight works), if you're bringing reading materials to reference. It makes it easier for your eyes to stay adjusted to the dark.
  • Pick the right time of night. Depending on what you're looking for, timing can make a big difference. For example, you can see the Perseids best between midnight and dawn. The constellations and planets will rise and set at different times throughout the year. And in its first quarter phase the Moon rises early-- good for inspecting its craters, bad for picking up stars in the surrounding sky-- while it rises late during the third quarter.
  • Bring binoculars, if you have them. Telescopes have greater magnifying power, but binoculars work well too, and are cheaper and easier to use. With basic 7x binoculars you can see craters on the Moon, the moons of Jupiter, and many more stars than with the naked eye.
  • Learn the stories behind the constellations. This is especially fun to share with kids, but enjoyable for adults too. The most familiar stories are the Greek and Roman ones, but nearly every culture has stories about the constellations, many of which are much more interesting!
  • Understand the real story of what you're seeing. For example, meteor showers come when the earth orbits through the debris of a comet-- in the case of the Perseids, Comet Swift-Tuttle-- and the debris burns up in the atmosphere, causing "shooting stars." The Pleiades star cluster has 7-14 stars to the naked eye but about 500 in total! The scientific stories of astronomy are often just as interesting as the mythological ones.
  • Count the meteors, if you're so inclined. Some people feel it's distracting, but it can be fun to keep track of what you saw and perhaps enjoy a friendly competition with your companions. For the Perseids, you ought to be able to see roughly one shooting star per minute.
  • Take pictures. This only works well for meteor showers if you can set your camera for an exposure of several seconds or more, but if you catch a meteor shooting across your screen it's well worth it. For meteors and anything else in the sky, you'll do best if you can use a tripod and/or set your camera to take the picture without touching the button, so you don't shake the camera. Experiment with astrophotography and have fun!
  • Take advantage of meteor showers and other special events. Besides the Perseids in August, other big showers include the Leonids every November and the Geminids in December. Other celestial events include eclipses and "opposition," when planets are at their closest and largest in the night sky.

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