Winter is a great time to get outside and soak in the stars. Here's how to get the most out of the night sky.
Winter wonderlands aren't only snowy fields, icy ponds, and colored lights. Look up into the night sky to behold one of winter's most festive displays. A cold, clear night is one of the best times to see the Milky Way and all those shimmering stars. It's also a great time to pile the car with kids, blankets and binoculars for some super stargazing.
Go when and where it's clear. You want a clear night, not a cloudy one. A cloudless night is ideal; as long as it's not overcast, you'll see stars. And you want to time your gazing as close to the new moon as possible so that the moon's light won't block out your view of stars. The new moon phase each month is when the moon has its dark side toward the earth. This is followed by a crescent moon, when the moon is still small enough to give you lots of starlight. A full moon won't steal all the thunder from the stars, but if you can plan for the darkest sky possible, you'll see more. If you can arrange with the heavenlies and the weatherman for a clear, (close to) moonless night, your viewing will be ideal. Check your local newspaper to see a schedule of moon phases.
Seeing in the dark. Set yourself up so your view is not obstructed by buildings or trees. And think dark; you want to be away from city lights. The "wasted" light of cities and suburbs causes what's known as light pollution, creating an unnaturally light sky that would normally be dark. Light pollution wreaks havoc with stargazing. Find a safe open field or park far enough from polluting light sources so that your family can experience natural darkness.
The eyes have it. One of the wonderful things about stargazing is that you can do it with just your eyes and a starry sky. But if you really want to dig in to the experience and do some "deep watching," you can enhance your own eyesight. Both binoculars and telescopes are made to get the most out of starry nights. Search online for reviews of binoculars and telescopes to find instruments suitable for amateur astronomy and for your budget. Even a good camera lens can let you zoom in on the Milky Way and all its twinkling companions and pull the night sky into tighter focus.
Be warm and comfy. Depending on where you live, winter stargazing can get chilly or downright cold. Be prepared with lots of warm winter clothing. Pay special attention to covering your head and feet, and wear gloves that leave you enough finger dexterity to maneuver the equipment you bring. Nothing ruins a cold clear night of sky-watching like freezing fingers and ears. A sleeping bag for every astronomer in the family makes the evening cozy. Or consider viewing with everyone snuggled under several large blankets.
Lie down, and look up. To avoid a crick in your collective family neck, lie down when you're looking up. If you plan to stargaze for any length of time, the best setup is on your back. Reclining in chaise lounges is perfect if you can pack enough of them in the car for everyone in your group. Whatever your family prefers for Fourth of July fireworks viewing will adapt nicely to winter stargazing if you throw in some snuggly warmth. Bring a couple of thermoses of hot chocolate with mini-marshmallows and you'll be the star of the evening.
Advanced viewing accoutrements. In addition to your seating, snuggling, and viewing gear, you can bring a few upgrades for an evening of deluxe stargazing. Take a flashlight or two -- Mini Mag lights do the trick nicely. EEK, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Environmental Education for Kids Web site, suggests covering the light portion with red cellophane (you can attach this with a rubber band) to allow your eyes to remain accustomed to the dark and still read sky atlases, star charts, or astronomy books. The site also suggests cooling off your equipment by putting it out in the cold before using it; this will prevent the equipment from blurring or fogging up.
Search online or at your favorite bookseller for star charts and sky atlases -- some glow in the dark -- and for basic astronomy books to help you bone up and orient yourself to the constellations and other celestial landmarks before you get out in the night. Try keywords like "winter stargazing," "beginning astronomy," and "constellations" to begin your search.
Before you get under the night sky, orient yourself with a map. To do this, you'll need to know the latitude and longitude of your location. Latitude is the distance north or south of the equator; longitude runs north and south around the globe. An atlas will tell you both. You'll also need to know the date and time at which you'll be stargazing. A couple of online resources allow you to customize star charts based on your location. If you visit them ahead of time and print out a chart of your night sky, you'll have the perfect map for your star-search evening.
Where's Orion? It's clear, it's dark, you're looking up into a starry, starry night. Now what? LOOK! Take in the whole sky and drink in the beauty and wonder of the night. Luxuriate in the sheer joy of being together as a family under a canopy shot through with stars. After a suitable time out for silent awe, you're ready to start finding things in the sky.
Special things in the winter sky. Look for planets, constellations, the Milky Way, meteors -- heavenly bodies everywhere above you. Take note of their positions with regard to the horizon or other fixed objects/landmarks. If you stay out long enough, you'll be able to see that everything shifts over the course of the night.
Winter constellations to look for include Orion, Taurus, Gemini, Cassiopeia, Pegasus, Big Dipper or Ursa Major and Little Dipper or Ursa Minor. You can even make up your own constellations by connecting the dots between stars for pictures only you and your family can see. Take turns telling the mythological stories behind real constellations or the impromptu creations you and your family concoct. Take out your books and star charts for some flashlight narration of the night sky.
Bright and colorful stars during the winter months are Polaris (the North Star), Betelgeuse (a reddish supergiant star, sometimes the brightest in the constellation Orion), and Rigel (a supergiant star, usually the brightest in Orion). According to EEK, you can actually see five planets in the night sky without a telescope. And of course, you need to find the Milky Way, that cloudy-looking band of stars that cuts across the center of the sky.
Special things to see. If you've timed it right, you might witness a special celestial event. Far north, you could see the northern lights, also known as aurora borealis. These are the luminous phenomena visible in the sky near the north magnetic pole; the southern counterpart is known as the aurora australis. After midnight is prime time for meteor viewing. Meteors are meteoroids that fly like lit streamers through the sky when they are heated up on entering the earth's atmosphere. Have everyone pan the sky and keep their eyes peeled. During the winter months, several meteor showers should be visible.
A ceiling of stars. If the weather or calendar won't cooperate for outdoor stargazing, propose a trip to a nearby planetarium. Larger cities and many universities have them. It's not the same thing as lying out under the stars, but a planetarium is its own kind of learning experience.
If you're lucky enough to live near an observatory -- call a local college astronomy department if you don't know -- find out if there are viewing opportunities for the public. Seeing the universe through a world-class telescope is an experience you and your family will never forget. Online at Concam.net (CONtinuous CAMera), you can see the night sky live above some of the world's premier observatories.
Indoors or outdoors -- preferably both -- discover the wonder of a night of winter stargazing with your family. When your kids are older, they'll associate the magic of a cold, clear night sky with warm, twinkling family memories.
Dana Joseph is a freelance travel writer based in Dallas, Texas.