Thursday, November 29, 2012


When you wish upon a star

Crisp, pitch-dark nights while camping beckon the hidden stargazer in all of us, no matter how young or old you are. Sitting outside at a campsite surrounded with limited, if any urban light impacting your gaze, creates the perfect environment to test your astronomy. And it’s a test as the International Astronomical Union (IAU), recognizes 88 constellations covering the entire northern and southern sky.   

Start off simple.  In the northern hemisphere, Ursula Major or the Big Dipper is the easiest constellation to spot.  In the southern hemisphere, it is the Crux or Southern Cross.  Once you know a few basic constellations, do a little research and discover their backstories.  Most constellations are based on mythological tales.  It’s always more fun to find stars, especially for kids, when they know how Orion fights against the charging Taurus while pursuing the beautiful Pleiades sisters.

Is it a bird, a plane, no it’s little green men

Most of us were taught there are nine planets in the solar system.  That was correct until 2006 when poor Pluto was demoted and the official number was reduced to eight by the IAU.  The five brightest planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, can be distinguished from stars because their position changes slightly from one night to the next and they do not twinkle like stars.

Meteorites, or as we all lovingly call them, shooting stars, are small objects that enter the Earth’s atmosphere.  As they pass through, they burn up and leave small bits of burning materials in their wake.  This burning material creates the shooting stars as the Meteorites disintegrate through the sky.

If you do spot a moving object in the sky, it is more likely a Satellite, than an alien spaceship.  Satellites move slowly across the sky.  The most notable Satellite to spot is the International Space Station, which is brighter than Venus in the night sky. Younger kids will have fun waving at the astronauts occupying the space station once it is spotted.   If you have entered your zip code into and it does not recognize the satellite you’ve identified, don’t worry its probably a UFO (just kidding).

21st century stargazing

In modern stargazing, technology comes in super handy.  Grab you smart phone and become an astronomical expert with the click or point of it.  There are amazing apps for smart phones that make identification of celestial bodies easy no matter where in the world you live.  Some are free while others have a nominal charge to download.   We like a few top rated options but there are many more available.
  •        Starwalk
  •        Sky Safari 3
  •        The Night Sky
  •        Gosky watch 
What you’ll need 
  1. Season and hemisphere specific star charts
  2. Binoculars (or a telescope)
  3. Stargazing apps for smart phone
  4. Flashlight beam

So layback on a blanket at the end of the evening.  Put out the campfire and let the night sky envelop you.  The stars will come out and say hello