Stargazing, Family Style
Before you head out the door with everyone in tow, make sure you have everything you need to be comfortable. Lawn chairs that recline are perfect for stargazing, but even a couple of blankets spread out will do. Insect repellent is generally a must on those humid summer nights, but warm clothes are also a good idea once the Sun sets, the temperature can fall rapidly, and standing still or lying down will cool your body quickly. Finally, everyone gets hungry, so have some munchies handy.
As for stargazing needs, the first consideration is finding dark skies you’ll always see more if you can get away from light pollution. Even your neighbors’ porch light shining in your eyes will detract significantly from the view overhead. As a demonstration, go outside and look up. How many stars can you see? After about 10 minutes, check again you should count many more stars. This is due to your eyes adjusting to the dim light levels, also referred to as dark adaptation. Now turn on a light for just a few seconds, and look up one more time. Many stars will have vanished at least until your eyes again adjust to the darkness.
Binoculars of any size are good to take along too, even if you’re also using a telescope. Not only do they give a nice wide-field view of whatever you might be showing in the telescope, but stargazing with binoculars can be a thoroughly satisfying activity by itself.
Learn Some Constellations
Astronomy can be enjoyed without any extra equipment at all just a bit of knowledge can make the night sky intriguing. First, you can learn some of the rich lore about the heavens. Any small fact helps, such as that Scorpius is one of the few constellations that actually looks like its namesake. Another tidbit is that the Big Dipper is only a part of a larger constellation, Ursa Major, the Great Bear.
Why not make up a game with the kids, such as “connect the dots” using bright stars? Or let them make up their own constellations! After all, that’s what ancient skywatchers did long ago, and those are the constellations we see today. Your clan can either make up whimsical creatures on the spot or pick out a star pattern to remind them of a loved one, whether distant or departed, that they can revisit night after night.
An easy way to learn the sky is to use the brighter stars and patterns as pointers to other constellations. For instance, the two stars forming the bottom of the Big Dipper’s bowl point to the right toward Polaris, the North Star. (You’ll be surprised how excited people of all ages get when this is first brought to their attention.) Now note the curved line made by the stars in the Dipper’s handle. Follow that curve upward until it reaches a bright, reddish star named Arcturus you’ll be following the “arc” to Arcturus, whose name derives from Greek words meaning “guard of the bear.”
You can also plays some constellation games with the Star Deck.