Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Look to the night skies

Summertime is almost here.  With school out, or about to be done for the summer, late night sky watching might be a perfect way to spend some time.  Of course it's cooler at night, so why not sleep a little longer in the morning and stay up late to locate planets and constellations.

My first suggestion is to get away from "light pollution," the reflection of city lights into the night sky.  Light pollution will limit the number of visible stars.  Our family likes to camp at least once overnight each summer to get away from light pollution and stargaze.  I recently downloaded Google's Sky Map app to my smartphone.  This free app uses GPS to plot the constellations in the sky based on my position.  It takes a little getting used to, but is a useful tool for identifying what exactly I'm looking at!

I also think it's important to prep before stargazing by either visiting a local planetarium or doing so virtually.  One of my favorite first stops is NASA's HubbleSite ( From their Tonight's Sky location, you can view a monthly video that highlights the current night sky.  You can also link to sites that will help you build your own star chart to help identify what you're looking at.  The site also includes links to information about astronomy in general (black holes to cosmic collisions).  The menu bar across the top of the page includes a link to Education and Museums.  A quick click on the "Online Explorations" link redirects you to amazing games and other educational resources.  If you're only going to check one website before exploring the summer sky at night, this should be the one!

If you can't get away from light pollution, and there isn't a planetarium nearby, I recommend trying Stellarium. This downloadable, free, open-source program puts a 3-D planetarium on your computer.  According to their splash page:
It shows a realistic sky in 3D, just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope.
It is being used in planetarium projectors. Just set your coordinates and go.
Their splash page also includes screen shots so that you can see what the program offers.  I have not yet used this free resource, but know others who have and love it.  The images, they say, are like those projected at planetariums.  Stars and planets are identified.  It sounds like this would be a good resource for science teachers to use or for older students to use for projects.  Of course, amateur astronomers will appreciate it as well.

One last note about observing the night sky.  During a recent visit to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, our "guide" in the planetarium announced a collaborative effort to open Observatory Park in Geauga County, Ohio.  The first of its kind, the park will offer dark sky opportunities for stargazing.  Details about this remarkable resource are available here:  I think this may be my family's next camping trip for scanning the summer skies!  The park officially opens in August 2011 with some facilities available.  The park should be complete by January 2012.

Avoid summer's heat--explore the night sky!

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