WINTER SKYWATCHING TIPS
Today, we delve into the more practical aspects of simple star-gazing.
The winter sky has a rich array of bright stars, star clusters and nebulae that you can observe with the unaided eye. Even though we are starting to truly notice the increase in daylight since the solstice, the winter night lasts slightly more than 12 hours. This season affords us ample opportunity to observe our section of the galaxy.
This article is written for those who want to simply go outside soon and enjoy these sights.
1. MOST IMPORTANTLY: DRESS WARMLY
Most of our subscribers are in the northern tier of the US. You know that winter nights can be quite cold. (Well, maybe not this year.) Enjoying the night sights is best achieved if you’re comfortably dressed. People tend not to move around much while observing.
Wearing layers is the best plan: Three or four for the upper body, two for the lower body. (Nifty trick for the feet: Wear Zip-loc bags around the feet and then two pairs of socks and then boots. The feet tend to become cold quickly if they are not sufficiently enshrouded.)
How can you be certain that you’re wearing enough before you go out to observe?
Simple: If you feel hot wearing these clothes inside, you should be fine when you venture outside.
2. PREPARE YOUR EYES
Your eyes need at least 10-15 minutes to become dark-adapted. Before you step out, sit in darkness for a while. Immersing yourself in darkness will enable your pupils to expand, maximizing the light collection capacity of your eye. (For those of you who are not engineers, that means you’ll see a lot more when you go outside.)
3. BRING A MAP (If you can)
Viewing the night sky for the first time can be a daunting experience. You wonder how it will ever be possible to discern patterns out of all those “ivory dots.” All you need is time.
Start with one constellation you know: (Orion works well this time of year.) Take out a star chart and locate your constellation on the chart. Once you find it in the sky and on the chart, you then can learn the patterns immediately surrounding it.
For instance, the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, is to the southeast of Orion’s belt. The v-shaped constellation Taurus the Bull is to the northwest of Orion.
Eventually, with patience, you’ll work your way through the main constellations. Once these are known, you’ll learn the celestial objects within them.
HINT: Use a red flashlight
You will need a light source to see the star-chart, of course. A regular flashlight will enable you to see the chart, but it will hamper your night vision. Using monochromatic light (a light of one color) will allow you to study the chart without diminishing your dark adaptation. (Red light is ideal.)
You can buy special red flashlights or you can use a red filter gel on a regular flashlight.
PLACES TO FIND A STAR CHART
-Astronomy Magazine (astronomy.com)
-Sky and Telescope Magazine (skypub.com)
-Southworth Planetarium (listed us third….that’s modesty)
and many other places.
4. FREQUENCY OVER DURATION
Language teachers will tell you that spending 15 minutes a day learning a language is more beneficial than spending three hours once a week.
Learning your way around the sky works in much the same way. Spending a few minutes outside on every clear night will help you quite a lot in your efforts to become familiar with the heavens. (Of course, if you want to spend 10 hours out every night, that’s great.