Stargazing: The Perfect Winter Hobby11/02/2022 ● By Carla Knipe
The best starting point is to familiarize yourself with some general knowledge about astronomy. If you know a little bit about the phases of the moon, can find the Big Dipper, and remember a bit from your school days about the solar system, then you’re already on your way! Of course, you’ll be able to observe changes from month-to-month, so a star chart is essential. You can download and print a free star chart off the Internet. Two good websites for this are: http://whatsouttonight.com/ and http://www.skymaps.com It takes a bit of practice to use them, but not difficult once you get the hang of it.
There are also some great Apps available that tell you exactly what you’re looking at (stars, planets, constellations, etc.) when you hold your phone towards the sky. Another idea is to head to your local library and check out some guidebooks geared for beginners. There are also countless websites that will help – and of course the NASA website contains some wonderful space photos. There’s a multitude of information available online, which can be daunting, especially if you’re not sure what you should be searching for, but it’s also interesting in fun, and the deeper you look, the more you find!
Of course, once you’re prepared, you will be eager to rush out and purchase a telescope. Perhaps don’t do this just yet. A good pair of binoculars is all you really need. Cheap “department store” telescopes are just glorified plastic toys and will likely leave you frustrated about your stargazing experience. If later you decide you want to pursue this hobby more seriously, you can invest in a quality telescope, and then, should expect to spend between $300-$400 for a good one).
To begin your exploration of the night sky, find a dark open area, sit on a blanket or a lawn chair and simply look up! (popout?) An expert tip is to cover a normal flashlight with a piece of red cellophane, secured with a rubber band. This enables you to read your star chart in the dark without hurting your eyes. Remember to dress appropriately, bring some hot chocolate and some snacks, and don’t stay out too long if you have young children who get cold quickly.
If your children find looking for the constellations and other objects difficult, ask them to just find shapes in the sky, like a fun game of connect the dots, and make up stories about them. You can also learn a lot just by looking at our moon. There will be limit to how much detail you’ll be able to see without a telescope, but even with binoculars you’ll be able to see the different areas and some of its larger craters. You might also see planets, satellites, or even a ‘’shooting star’’, but give yourself time and patience to learn. You can also find a schedule online for when the International Space Station will be coming past, also a great teaching moment.
The problem with stargazing in urban areas is the amount of light pollution. Any amateur astronomer will tell you that house and street lighting is a big distraction for clear viewing. You will still be able to see quite a bit, but won’t see the amount of detail you’d be able to see in a completely dark sky. If you can, venture out to a rural area or take a trip to one of the designated “dark sky preserves” around the country, created to promote astronomy in a light-pollution free environment.
Of course, part of the fun of learning how to stargaze is meeting new people who share your hobby and from whom you can learn. Check to see if there are any astronomy groups in your area. The local Community College or Meetup.com are good places to research what's available in your area and most of the time, owning a telescope isn't a joining requirement. Science centers are also a fantastic resource for astronomy-related events, they can still provide valuable astronomy information for stargazers with all levels of expertise.
Stargazing is a great introduction to science, and once you start learning about our universe you will want to learn more. So go outside on a clear night...and just look up!
BIO: Carla was born and raised in the West Kootenay region of BC, and is now settled in Calgary, Alberta following a dozen years living in England. Her British husband and their son keeps her on her toes, but she is currently on the final stretch of completing her BA in English through AU. In her free time, she spends as much time outdoors as she can by hiking, biking, gardening and geocaching.