Gaze up at the nighttime sky and behold the magnificence of the cosmos.
By Amber Lanier Nagle
On a clear evening, the night sky is a brilliant spectacle—a breathtaking extravaganza of millions of stars and galaxies sparkling overhead. Luminous planets adorn the dark expanse with the rare glimpses of cosmic dust we fondly call shooting stars. Meanwhile, the moon remains a shining centerpiece that hangs in the sky as earthbound observers watch its grand progression from new moon to full each month.
We are not the first civilization to marvel at the cosmos. With origins in mythological and religious beliefs, astronomy is the oldest natural science. Early astronomers such as Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Galileo studied and sacrificed to unlock the secrets that make up our universe. The vikings looked to the angle of the North Star to help them determine their latitude.
National interest in all that lies beyond Earth’s atmosphere rose in the years that followed World War II, when the United States competed with the Soviet Union to put the first man on the moon. The fascination seemed to fade over the years, but, in recent years, eyes are again turning toward the skies.
A Lost Art
Perhaps television, computers, video games, and other techno gadgets were simply more alluring than the moon, stars and planets. Or perhaps the increasing glare of modern-day cityscapes and streetlights—“light pollution” that makes it difficult to observe Earth’s celestial neighbors from urban environments—is partly to blame for the dissipating interest.
Today, we are in the midst of an astronomical renaissance, as more people become reacquainted and enamored with the nighttime sky.
“I think there are a few reasons for the renewed interest in astronomy,” explains Dr. James Sowell, an astronomer who directs the campus observatory at Georgia Institute of Technology and author of “The Naked-Eye Sky.” “In the last few years, there have been some interesting events in the sky: the large meteor that streaked across the sky in northern Russia and a couple of [exceptional] eclipses. And I think the prime-time television series, ‘Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,’ got people interested again, too.”
Whatever the reasons, people are once again captivated with space. Thousands have astronomy apps on their smartphones and tablets, and ventured into the night to spend quality time under the stars. If you and your family are somewhat intrigued by what’s out there, you’re in luck. The cooler temperatures and extended darkness of fall and winter combine to offer nearly perfect conditions for backyard—and beach-side—stargazing.
“I tell first-time stargazers to get used to looking up,” Sowell says. “I suggest they start by observing the moon and learning more about it—know its phases and understand how it orbits the Earth.”
The moon completes its orbit in about 30 days and lunar phases are caused by the relative positions of the sun and moon in the sky. A new moon occurs when the moon lies between the sun and Earth. As the moon continues its orbit, more of it becomes illuminated and visible to our eyes.
“The moon is visible with the naked eye, but the view through binoculars and telescopes is quite breathtaking; it never gets old,” Sowell says. “Through a lens, you can see the detail of thousands of craters.”
Lunar maps and geologic atlases help stargazers identify the names of the many craters, mountains and valleys of the moonscape. The ease of visibility and luminous vistas make the most observable object in the night sky a fascinating starting point for novice astronomers.
Star Light, Star Bright
“From the moon, we move on to learning how to identify certain stars and constellations visible in the fall and winter skies,” notes Raleigh Nyenhuis, a naturalist at Sea Island who leads beach stargazing workshops. “We start with the Big Dipper and Little Dipper. I point out the North Star, Polaris, in its location at the end of the Little Dipper’s handle. From there, we move outward and start identifying more stars and formations like Draco the dragon, Canis Major the dog, Orion the hunter, Taurus the bull and Gemini the twins.”
Nyenhuis shows her fledgling stargazers a short PowerPoint presentation and explains how to visually navigate the sky before taking the group to test their skills at a location near the Beach Club. After orienting themselves with north, south, east and west, the fun begins.
Students are awestruck when they recognize the constellations they’ve only discerned from pictures. “They get super excited and want to find more,” Nyenhuis explains. “And they love looking through the telescope.”
Betelgeuse is a popular twinkling light in the Sea Island stargazing class. A distinctly reddish star located at the shoulder position of Orion, Betelgeuse is the ninth-brightest star in Earth’s visible nighttime sky.
“Betelgeuse is more than 1,000 times larger than our sun and 5,000 times as luminous,” Nyenhuis says. “It’s 642 light-years from Earth, with each light-year being about 6 trillion miles, and we can look up and see it. I think that’s what really blows people away.”
Some beginners find circular star charts, called planispheres or star wheels, helpful in identifying constellations and galaxies. Amateur astronomers hold the appropriate chart with the directions marked on the map aligned with the real world’s horizon to match stars and formations. Others prefer getting started with an astronomy app.
“Stargazing is best on cloudless, dark nights,” Nyenhuis says. “Find the darkest location you can, where the lights of civilization won’t interfere. … If the moon is out and bright, you probably won’t be able to see some of the stars in the sky. The darker the sky, the better.”
A Glittering Galaxy
During the autumn and winter months, gazers will notice a misty band of stars stretching across the dark sky, which is part of something much larger: the Milky Way galaxy. The Milky Way, estimated to be about 100,000 light-years in diameter, is home to Earth, the sun and all the other bodies in our solar system—planets, dwarf planets, comets and asteroids.
Planets are wanderers and have different paths, so observers must consult a guide to determine when and where to search the skies for them. Shortly after sunset in October, Mars and Saturn will make brief appearances in the southwestern sky.
In early 2015, Jupiter, usually the second-brightest planet (after Venus), will be at its nearest point to Earth and fully illuminated by the sun on Feb. 6. This will be the best time to observe the largest planet in our solar system.
Although spotting stars and planets is an exciting aspect of learning about what is outside of Earth’s atmosphere, there are many opportunities for discovery before the sun goes down. “I encourage beginners to visit planetariums and observatories and attend local astronomy club meetings,” Sowell says. “Most colleges and universities have clubs, observatories, and stargazing events open to the public, and that’s a great way to break into the field without spending a lot of money. I also recommend two basic astronomy magazines—Sky & Telescope and Astronomy. Both are released a month in advance so readers can plan their stargazing ahead of time.”
Sowell notes that binoculars are a great investment for beginners, too. Often overlooked in favor of telescopes, binoculars are not only more portable, but usually easier to use. “You can purchase a nice pair of binoculars for around $75,” he explains. “They will enable you to see so much more—the details of the moon’s surface, more star clusters and four moons of Jupiter.” For those who want to take their stargazing to the next level, the price of quality telescopes ranges anywhere from $300 to several thousand depending on the size and features.
High-tech instruments aside, any novice has everything necessary to enjoy the twinkling expanse above. Stargazing can be a solitary endeavor or a family memory. Learning about the moon, stars, planets and beyond is a process that was begun by generations long ago and will continue for many to come, as the boundaries of outer space are limitless. But the first step is an easy one—just look up.