“For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.” -Carl Sagan
I snapped this photo last night with my iPhone on my light-pollution-filled Seattle street. This beauty is above us all the time.
I think it’s safe to say that it’s been a rough couple weeks for all of us. I’d originally expected to write this newsletter just before flying out to Austin to talk about The Last Stargazers at a packed SXSW session! Instead, I’m hunkered down at home in Seattle, in a living room that’s been hastily rearranged to accommodate a work-from-home desk, with a cleared-out travel schedule and a front-row seat to the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic.
My astronomy colleagues and I have been rocked by the same changes, news, and ongoing uncertainty as everyone else. Many of us teach and are scrambling to move our courses online and continue serving our students. I wrote about remote observing in an earlier newsletter; some telescopes can be operated from afar, and others are quickly getting remote capabilities set up to minimize the need for travel. Conferences have been canceled and all of us are doing what we can to help each other and keep ourselves and our colleagues, families, and friends as healthy and safe as possible.
Many people are spending their evenings at home these days and casting around for ways to relax, new hobbies that can be taken up solo and without a lot of expense, or opportunities to focus on something besides the news even for a little while. With this in mind, I thought I’d use this The Last Stargazers update to offer a few simple at-home stargazing tips. These work both for folks who might be new to the art of stargazing and for astronomy enthusiasts who, like me, could still use a reminder these days to pause and soak in the clear and simply beauty of the night sky.
Book Thoughts: Stargazing At Home
Credit: Niklas Arndt
It’s wonderfully easy and affordable to take up stargazing: just head outside at night and look up! You may not recognize much to start with, but names and numbers are less important than simply enjoying the view. Trying looking around the sky and noticing which stars are bright or dim, which ones make interesting shapes and patterns, or whether you notice any differences in color.
As you get curious about what you’re seeing in the sky, there are lots of great astronomy apps for a smartphone that you can use to help identify things! I particularly like augmented reality apps like SkyView and Night Sky; with these you can hold your phone up to the sky and the app will identify key stars, planets, and constellations. If you’d rather go low-tech, you can find star atlases at most bookstores (and remember that many of your favorite local and independent booksellers will deliver orders straight to your house!)
Unfortunately, the best nights for stargazing are the coldest! If you’re feeling healthy and up for it, grab cozy clothes and a hot drink and head outside starting a couple hours after sunset to get the crispest and clearest view of the sky. Right now my husband and I are taking post-dinner walks together around the mostly-empty sidewalks of our Seattle neighborhood; it’s freezing here right now, but these walks are a chance to get some much-needed fresh air and spot some favorite constellations like Orion (I’m still enjoying watching Betelgeuse!), Taurus, and Leo.
If you want to do more than naked-eye astronomy, there’s no need to jump right into buying an expensive telescope: try a pair of binoculars first! They’re cheaper, very effective, and easy for even the smallest stargazers to use. One of my favorite targets with binoculars is the moon. Go out pre-dawn in the next couple weeks and point your binoculars at the shadowy edge of the waning moon; you’ll see the mountains and craters thrown into gorgeous relief:
Something as simple as the waning moon is perfect for backyard astronomy. Credit: NASA/JPL
I’d also recommend looking up your local amateur astronomy society. These exist all over the country, and many also have web and social media presences. The members are most definitely the best experts to go to for amateur observing tips, and some may be organizing remote cooperative stargazing efforts these days.
Finally, just try to squeeze a little stargazing into everyday life! If you’re outside at night, even briefly, glance up at the sky and see if you can spot anything familiar; you don’t have to take a trip to the middle of nowhere to see some stars. That said, every little bit of darkness helps, and this is another scenario where it’s best to keep your distance from others! If you live in a city, try heading to a nearby park or recreation area if you can (even standing in the middle of a dark basketball court works better than standing under the lights on a street corner). If you’re in the suburbs or a more rural area, turn off as many lights as you can before heading out to the backyard. It also helps to stargaze on nights when the moon is dark. The moon was full earlier this week, so in the coming days it’ll be waning, giving us darker nights but clearer stars at a time when we could all use them.
What’s Next for The Last Stargazers?
Like most of us, I’ve canceled all of my planned travel and in-person events for the next couple of months. However, I’m still making plans for online or social-distance-friendly activities, including podcasts, Ask-Me-Anything-style online Q&As, and other remote events. As these plans get finalized I’ll be sharing the info here!
If you know someone who you think would enjoy The Last Stargazers, please share this with them using the button below and encourage them to sign up for future updates! I’ll be sharing future book news, preorder opportunities (including ebook and audiobook formats!), and other updates here as soon as they happen.