I’ve always loved astronomy, despite being a very casual astronomer. I cannot correctly identify a dozen constellations in the night sky, much less individual stars, and I am unable to provide directions to locate even the most well-known Messier objects. (This will change!) Nevertheless, I have very fond memories of setting up a folding chair in my parents’ backyard, armed with my binoculars, a lightweight jacket and/or insect repellent, a night vision-friendly (red filter) flashlight, and a star chart. Looking up at the night sky remains a profound and enjoyable experience for me, although I confess I don’t do it nearly enough. This, too, will change!
One of the many perks of having discovered a diverse and extremely knowledgeable group of fellow space and science enthusiasts (The Space Tweep Society) on Twitter is – the peer pressure is wonderful! I’m serious! Nothing is more inspiring than seeing one’s tweetstream full of people observing a meteor shower, comet fly-by, full moon, lunar eclipse or International Space Station (ISS) pass. If that doesn’t make you want to dust off your binoculars, or at least step outside and look UP for awhile, I don’t know what will!
With all this in mind, I realized it was time to re-outfit myself for some backyard astronomy, starting with a good pair of binoculars. I own a wonderful, 12-year-old pair of Swift Ultralight 8×42 binoculars my husband bought me as a wedding present. They’re acceptable for amateur astronomy, but they were purchased as birding binos and are best-suited to that purpose. Thanks to Christmas, and my dear husband, I now have a pair of Celestron SkyMaster Giant 15×70 Binoculars and a tripod to mount them on when I desire. Check with friends, garage sales, and eBay if you want to snag a pair of binos for less expense, and remember — the only required equipment to stargaze are your eyes, not a set of binoculars!Good Star Chart(s)
Growing up, I had a subscription to Odyssey, a children’s magazine that included a terrific night sky chart in every issue. Later, I migrated to Astronomy Magazine (which I’m considering resuming; that, or Sky & Telescope – any suggestions?) and found it quite useful. The primary star chart I relied on, however, was a planisphere .
A planisphere, also known as a “star wheel,” is a type of star chart that can be set to show the location of objects in the sky for any given date and time in a particular latitude. Any celestial objects visible in the “window” of the planisphere at a given date/time will — weather and observing location, permitting — be visible to a ground-based observer looking up at that time. Here is a great tutorial on how to use a planisphere, if you’re like me and had forgotten a bit over the years.
You can buy a planisphere, or even make one using templates and instructions online. Either way, be certain your planisphere is intended for your viewing location as they are dependent on latitude. I live in the Southern United States, in San Antonio, Texas, so this planisphere works for my location – The Night Sky 30°-40° (Large; North Latitude).
Of course, now amateur astronomers have a variety of computer programs and mobile device apps available, such as Starry Night and Star Walk, respectively. I’ll provide a separate post at a later date to cover some of these awesome software-based tools!
Your Night Vision
Even if you live in a highly light-polluted area, you will want to maximize your natural night vision as much as possible. Avoid looking at bright lights and, if you must go inside to get something, cover one of your eyes so you preserve 50% of your night vision when you return to stargazing.
As for your flashlight or headlamp, you don’t need a fancy one with interchangeable filters (although those can be fun!) In a pinch, some red tissue paper, cellophane or other red semi-transparent material taped over the beam end of your flashlight will do the trick. According to the Instructables, a drop of red nail polish placed directly on the flashlight bulb can also work, but I haven’t tried that myself!
Ready, Set, Observe!
All that’s left now is to head outdoors to enjoy and explore that beautiful night sky. Have fun!