Stargazing (Part 1) How to Plan Your First Star Party

The Fresh Perspective Podcast - Episode 19

How’s it going everyone? I’m Nick and you are listening to the Fresh Perspective Podcast.

The summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is drawing near, so why not take a break, go outside, and see if you can find a few constellations in the summer night sky? In this series of episodes, you will be given a guided tour of the cosmos, filled with tips and tricks you’ll need to find stars, clusters, and constellations, as well as deep sky objects such as other galaxies. Along the way, it will also be my pleasure to sprinkle in some anecdotes about Greek and Roman mythology, pop culture, and science!

So before you go out camping with your family, stay up late with a date, host a star party, or spend some time alone under the stars, feel free to download the raw audio files of this series onto your phone from our website! After you step outside, hold your phone up to your ear, look up, and follow these directions to discover some of the greatest treasures of the night sky!

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Tonight’s brief primer episode will help you get started with good stargazing techniques. You will learn when and where it is best to explore the stars. After that, it will be a piece of cake to use the next episodes in this series to find dozens of constellations, planets, galaxies, and more!

Before calling your friends up or marking your calendar, here are six things you need to do in order to prepare for some good stargazing:

1. Memorize the Shape of the “Big Dipper”

Look up a picture of the asterism known as “The Big Dipper.” You absolutely need to memorize this group of stars! Memorize the shape they make. Finding your way around the sky in future episodes will depend on your ability to quickly find the Big Dipper. Sometimes, this group of stars will be turned on its end. Sometimes it will be upside-down. Other times, only half of these stars will be visible on the horizon or blocked by clouds. So in order to prepare for any situation, and before you schedule your next star party, you will need to personally commit the shape and stars of the Big Dipper to memory. For those watching this on YouTube or BitChute, I’ll add a diagram or picture of the Big Dipper to the background image of the video.

2. Dress Warm and Bring Snacks

It may be in the middle of the summer, but it gets cold at night. A cold breeze can quickly ruin any star party as your guests retreat back into the car or cabin. Wear a sweater, pack a coat, and be sure to bring extra blankets. While you’re at it, throw in a picnic blanket or lawn chairs if you think you’ll need them. If you plan on stellar scavenger-hunting for a few hours, then bringing a few snacks will help you and your guests stay awake.

3. Get Away From Light Pollution

To get the most out of amateur astronomy and star gazing, you will want to do your best to get as far away from light pollution as you can. Light Pollution is basically what the sun does during the day. When there is too much light being bounced around in our atmosphere, it is harder to see through it. City lights can make all but a handful of stars visible to your eyes, so the further away you can get from civilization, the better. Take a hike in a national forest, drive a few minutes away from a small town, or travel to a large field, lake, or park on the edge of the city.

A second source of light pollution to consider is the moon. A full moon will generally make it hard to see the rest of the sky, but it isn’t a deal breaker. If you have time to plan ahead, look up which phase the moon will be in on the nights ahead. Remember, the moon cycles through its phases about once per month. Planning to stargaze just before, during, or after a new moon will give you the best results.

4. Wait until Midnight

My favorite time to hunt for stars and galaxies is around midnight. If you do all of your stargazing just after sunset, then the bluish light pollution from the sun still blotches out much of the sky. Plan to start your search deep into the night so that it is dark enough for you to see what the galaxy really has to offer. Now, this is just a general rule. Stargazing much later at night is also a great idea, and there are some things you can only find around sunrise and sunset. But for starters, and for your convenience, plan on beginning your star party at around midnight.

5. Give Your Eyes Time to Adjust

Here is the first rule of stargazing: Put your phones away. Turn them off, tuck them away. The same rule applies to any other light sources. If you are using a constellation map, star chart, or planisphere, don’t use your phone or flashlight to read it. That will ruin your night vision. If you need to use some light, pack a red-filtered flashlight with you, but use it sparingly.

Your night-vision needs time to adjust, at least 30 minutes. If you really want to give yourself the best viewing experience, then you will need to allow yourself about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Allowing your eyes to become more sensitive to starlight will make a huge difference in your ability to enjoy stargazing.

That is actually the best way to get started. Let your guests know that the star hunt will take place in a half-hour or so, in order to allow all of your eyes to adjust. In that time, it will look like an increasing number of stars are “coming out.” Hold your date close, sip some hot chocolate, and just look up. Let your eyes slowly pick up on more and more of those subtle stellar lights.

6. Don’t Sweat about Telescopes or Binoculars

For millions of years, our ancestors studied the stars, traced the constellations with their fingers, and experienced souring spiritual experiences when peering deep into the universe. All they had was their eyesight. The night sky is a treasure trove of sites and stories. You can fill dozens of nights with your friends star gazing before you ever need to pick up a pair of binoculars or a telescope. I think the best way to get started is with the naked eye.

To be sure, in each of the episodes ahead, I will give you a few deep sky objects to find with binoculars and telescopes. I’ll be happy to talk about getting the best inexpensive astronomy equipment at a later time. But we are just getting started! So if you don’t have the fanciest telescope right now, it’s not a big deal at all. The sky still has plenty to offer.

In our next episode, we will start with the Big Dipper and explore the stars, galaxies, and mythology surrounding the most well-known constellation of our night sky.

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That is all I have for you today, but the conversation continues across social media and in the comment sections below. Do you agree with today’s message? Am I mistaken about some detail? How can I better elaborate on this topic in the future? Feel free to share your perspective!


Written By Nicholas Burk, Executive Board Member © 2019 Free Thought Initiative