Spectacular Stargazing

The sun goes down, stars come out, wonder begins.

A comet in the desert

iStockphoto.com/Kenneth C. Zirkel

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On a clear evening, the best entertainment is found UP – right up above your head. Forget TV, DVDs or the Internet. Just step out of your house and gaze at the clear night sky. 

Stars, planets and other celestial wonders can produce awe through binoculars, a simple telescope or even with your eyes alone. Here’s how to truly experience the joy of country living – when the sun goes down.

The greatest show on Earth

One pleasure of rural living is a night sky free of city lights. In your own backyard, you’ll be treated to a view of thousands of stars, planets and other heavenly bodies. The only thing crowded in the country is the sky on a clear night.

It’s easy to be inspired by the enthusiasm of Neta Apple, an avid astronomer who lives on 10 acres in Missouri, an hour south of Kansas City.

“I got interested when my husband was ill. He had been involved with astronomy since he was 16. To perk him up, I got him an issue of Sky & Telescope magazine. There was an ad for a telescope that he always dreamed of owning. We bought the telescope and had a blast stargazing that New Year’s Eve.”

Even if you live in a small town or suburb, you can still enjoy backyard astronomy, as Bedford, Indiana, resident Bill Johnson does.

“I live at the edge of a small town where there’s some light pollution, but I have fairly good skies to the east and south,” he says. “I get together with a neighbor who owns a farm for stargazing. The difference in the stars you can see is truly amazing.”

So much to enjoy

“The best way to get started in backyard astronomy is to find like-minded friends and neighbors to share the night sky with,” says amateur astronomer Jane Houston Jones, who also works for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) as an informal education lead for the Cassini Mission to Saturn.

Astronomy clubs and stargazing parties can be invaluable to both new and experienced enthusiasts. Even if you’ve been a backyard astronomer for years, these gatherings can provide an abundance of resources and camara-derie. If there isn’t a club nearby, it’s easy to join the Internet’s amateur astronomy community.

“JPL has several outreach groups comprised of amateur astronomers and space enthusiasts,” Jones says.

“Amateur astronomers are a gregarious group. We love sharing information,” says Apple, who is education coordinator for StarGarden Foundation, an astronomy club in Warrensburg, Missouri.

Consider getting narrated tapes or CDs such as Tours of the Night Sky. For more in-depth instruction, check out the DVD classes offered by The Great Courses ( www.TheGreatCourses.com , 800-832-2412).

“They are like a friend whispering in your ear where to look and what to see,” says Suzanne Gurton, education manager of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

The best things in life

You don’t need to invest in fancy equipment to pursue a passion for backyard astronomy. All you really need is a clear night and a free sky chart from the Internet. Good binoculars reveal more of the heavens and can aid both novice and veteran stargazers. Before investing in a good telescope, gain experience with different models at amateur astronomy events.

So many celestial treasures can delight both beginning and more experienced amateurs. In addition to planets, stars and the moon, look for auroras, meteors, comets, eclipses and satellites. Some general pointers follow.

• Moonwatching – Moonwatching is a great hobby because you can see a lot with just binoculars, says Johnson, a member of the Stonebelt Stargazers Astronomy Club in Bedford.

“The best time to look at the moon is when it’s just a sliver up to a half moon. With binoculars, look along the line where the moon is dark and light, and into the craters where there are shadows.”

Planets – You don’t even need binoculars to follow planetary movement.

“The planets you can see with your naked eye are Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mars and Mercury,” Johnson says.

With 20X binoculars you can see Jupiter’s four largest moons, Apple says. “With a telescope you can see the shadows of the moons on the planet. You can see the same thing that Galileo saw. This is a link to our history.”

Constellations – “My tip for learning the constellations is to take your time and work your way around the sky,” Gurton says. “Pick out something prominent like the Big Dipper, Summer Triangle or Orion. They are hard to miss and can act as a key to unlock the treasures of the night sky. Start with something bright and easily recognizable and keep coming back to it to get your bearings.”

Milky Way galaxy – A real treat that comes with living out where the pavement ends is viewing our own Milky Way galaxy, which can’t be observed in the city.

“We can see the Milky Way quite well if the sky is clear,” Apple says. “There’s an estimated 100 to 200 billion stars in the Milky Way. When we look out we typically can see 2,000 to 3,000 stars with binoculars. However, the bigger the telescope, the more you see.”

“I personally love the summer Milky Way, especially down around the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpiu s,” Gurton says. “There are numerous clumps of stars and star forming regions visible along there.”

Other galaxies – “There are 100 billion galaxies in the known universe,” Apple says. “And many galaxies are even bigger than our own.”

What’s amazing is that you can actually discern the Andromeda galaxy, which is 2.3 million light years away, without binoculars or a telescope.

“This is the most distant object you can view with your naked eye. If you know where to look, you can see a fuzzy spot.”

Meteor showers – You can see two meteor showers with the unaided eye: the Perseids peak around August 11-13 and the Geminids around December 12, says Gurton.

Making starry memories

Most people who gaze up at the night sky – as humans have done throughout time – are completely enthralled.

“The constellations are like old friends,” Apple says. “It’s so wonderful and beautiful to see all the stars in the Milky Way and to know that I’m a little part of it. It’s the most incredible experience.”

Freelance journalist and photographer Letitia L. Star writes about nature and country living.

Observatories & Planetariums

Check with your local astronomy clubs, community colleges and universities to find the nearest to you. Here are a few open to the public: