As a self-professed space cadet, I grew up dragging friends and family out at all hours of the day or night to look up at the sky. I’m not sure how or when it actually started but I’ve been looking skyward for as long as I can remember. My mom loves to remind me how we used to always look for the Moon at bedtime when I was little. As soon as I spotted it, I’d get all excited, point up at the sky, and call out to it. It was practically my first word, so naturally, I turned out to be an astronomer.
You may think becoming an astronomer requires studying math and physics and owning fancy computer-operated telescopes, but I’m here to tell you that you don’t need anything more than your eyes. If you become hooked, as I expect you might, you can dive deeper at any time, but to start you only need to step outside.
Here’s how to start:
- Find somewhere dark (as far away from artificial lights as you can manage) and open (doesn’t have to be at the top of a mountain, a field, an unlit parking lot–even your backyard or driveway will do in a pinch)
- Lie down on your back if you can or sit in a chair that reclines a bit (it’ll save your neck, trust me) and let your eyes adjust to the dark, this usually takes about 20 minutes (don’t even think of looking at your phone!)
- LOOK UP and take it all in!
Stargazing and hiking are great partner activities. Some of the best stargazing comes when you can escape the concrete jungle or the brightly lit neighborhoods and roads of the suburbs. Hiking takes you out of the day-to-day grind, so does stargazing. Hiking immerses you in nature, so does stargazing. And most importantly, hiking makes you feel like you’re a part of something bigger. So does stargazing–and it’s an experience that might change your life.
For many summers growing up, I would visit my godmother at her house in the heart of the Adirondacks - the largest state park and the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States. At roughly six million acres, it’s bigger than Yellowstone Yosemite, Glacier, Grand Canyon, and Smoky Mountain National parks combined. So as you might imagine, it’s home to some great hiking and great stargazing opportunities.
When I was in middle school, there happened to be a lunar eclipse during my visit. I had never seen one before and I truthfully didn’t fully understand what one entailed. Nevertheless, I insisted we all had to go watch. At the time, we were camping alongside a lake, so after dinner, s’mores, and campfire stories, we all piled in canoes and rowed out to the middle of the water. That’s when I got my first lesson on how long a lunar eclipse can last.
“During a lunar eclipse, the Moon first moves through Earth’s penumbra and dims only slightly. But when it passes through the umbra, the real show begins.”
Unlike a solar eclipse when the Moon crosses in front of the Sun and blocks its light in a matter of minutes, a lunar eclipse is a prolonged affair. The Moon actually passes through Earth’s shadow, which at a distance of over 200,000 miles is quite large, so lunar eclipses are more on the order of hours. A shadow is made up of an umbra and a penumbra. The umbra is the center of a shadow where all light is completely blocked. The penumbra is the outer part of the shadow where the light is only partially blocked. During a lunar eclipse, the Moon first moves through Earth’s penumbra and dims only slightly. But when it passes through the umbra, the real show begins. This particular eclipse was only a partial, meaning that the entirety of the Moon would not pass through the darkest part of Earth’s shadow, just a piece of it.
Everyone humored me for the most part as we eagerly awaited the headline event, but while we sat afloat in the lake, I remember lying back in my canoe and taking in the full starry sky. Friends and family members followed my example and were soon shouting questions to me left and right: Where’s the Big Dipper? What is this cluster of stars? Why is that star so red? I had answers for some, but others I had yet to learn. At some point we all fell silent, captivated by the sky, as if under some celestial spell. As the eclipse reached its maximum, it looked like someone had taken a bite out of the Moon.
That night deep in the Adirondacks, away from buildings, houses and streetlights was the first time I realized how truly vast and full of stars the sky was, and how much I wanted to learn everything about it. The more you look up into the night sky, the more you are bound to learn.
Here are a few facts to kickstart your curiosity:
- You can see shooting stars on any given night if you’re patient enough. There are always small particles of space dust entering the Earth’s atmosphere, just be patient.
- If you’re keen to see the planets, they will always be in the southern sky for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn can all be spotted with the naked eye if they are up. And that first star you think you see after sunset is Venus more often than not.
- From a darker location, you can start to see the color of some stars. Just like the flame on your gas stove, blue stars are hotter (and therefore younger) than red stars. The best example of this is in the constellation Orion. It’s a winter constellation so it becomes more and more prominent in the night sky the closer it is to January. It resembles a capital “K” of sorts with the uppermost left star, Betelgeuse, glowing reddish-orange and the bottommost right star, Rigel, shining bright blue.
- Test your vision using the Big Dipper! The middle “star” in the handle was used as an eye test in antiquity by Arabs, Persians, and Romans. A keen-sighted stargazer should be able to resolve this fuzzy spot into two separate stars: Mizar (below) and Alcor (above). And thanks to over 400 years of observation with ever-evolving telescopic instruments, we now know these two points of light are actually three binary systems - six stars in total!
- If you can find some truly dark skies in the spring and summer, plan for some after midnight stargazing to see our galaxy, the Milky Way, in all its starry glory. Once your eyes have adjusted to the dark, notice how many stars you see strewn across the sky. It’s no wonder the Greek’s thought it looked like someone poured milk over the heavens. The word galaxy even comes from the ancient Greek word for milk: gala/galakt-. And if you look closely at the ground around you, you should even be able to see the shadows cast by it.
- Personally, I prefer to stargaze with my naked eyes because I love to jump around the sky at will, but if you want to see things in more detail, try a pair of binoculars. No need to put down any big bucks for a telescope until you’re ready.
Here’s how to have your own lunar eclipse adventure. On November 17th, get outside in celebration of National Take A Hike day and find a quiet, open spot. The next evening, return to that spot prepared to experience the longest partial lunar eclipse in 600 years. This partial lunar eclipse will be visible in North America on the night of November 18th or in the early hours of November 19th, depending on your location.
Can’t make the lunar eclipse? Never fear, the night sky is sometimes more amazing without our rocky friend. Believe it or not, to astronomers, the Moon is actually a source of light pollution since the sunlight it reflects can often be bright enough to wash out nearby stars. So if you want to maximize your star viewing, nights around the New Moon are more desirable than those around a Full Moon.
But no need to wait for perfect conditions. Any night with a clear sky is all you need, just grab a comfortable pair of shoes, get outside, and simply look up!
Some great places for stargazing or learning more about the night sky include: Mount Marcy in the heart of the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks (which happens to tower above the lake where I saw the lunar eclipse), Lowell Observatory in Arizona where you can stargaze with experts, and Mount Wilson Observatory in southern California where Edwin Hubble made observations that fundamentally changed our understanding of the Universe.