Whether you're on an outdoorsy vacation or just getting away from the city lights for a night, one of life's simplest, though most profound, pleasures awaits you: the night sky.
Late summer, with its long, balmy nights and vivid meteor showers, is prime time for a break from our usual media-driven, electric-light-saturated environment. On a dark, clear night, you can see two or three thousand stars sprinkled across the sky. Take the time to marvel at their beauty and you will reap great rewards.
Here are some basic strategies for enjoying a night of stargazing. The tour guide for our field trip is Neil de Grasse Tyson, Ph.D., an astrophysicist and author and the director of New York City's Hayden Planetarium. "Before you go, read a popular astronomy book and visit a planetarium to sensitize yourself," Tyson says.
Schedule your star search for the right time of month. Avoid the full moon. The early phase is best, from the time when the moon is a crescent to half-lit (technically, this is a quarter moon).
Pack lawn chairs, snacks, insect repellent, and anything else you might want for comfort -- this is a spectacle that only improves as the night goes on. Helpful tools include good 10 x 50 binoculars, small flashlights, and sky maps, which can be found in monthly astronomy magazines, on the Internet, or in the annual "Astronomical Calendar" (Universal Workshop; $24), which provides useful information for first-timers as well as advanced astronomers.
Choose your stargazing location. Tyson says the only rule is to get away from city lights. Urban light pollution obscures all but a few hundred stars. Look for an open area or a high point with a view of the horizon.
Start paying attention to the heavens at dusk. The two to three hours after sunset are a "special time," Tyson says. Those dots of light moving across the sky are satellites, two hundred miles up, and they are still reflecting the sun's illumination. You might even be able to spot the International Space Station.
If you wish on the first star to come out, your wish won't come true because, Tyson says, "the first star you see is a planet." Venus, Jupiter, and Mars are brighter than most stars, and because they orbit the sun on the same plane, we can see them along a line, not spread out all over the universe. The only other planets visible to the naked eye (besides the one we're on) are Saturn and Mercury. A sky map will help you locate the ones that can be observed at a given time.
Contrary to popular belief, the North Star is not the brightest in the night sky -- it's not even in the top forty, Tyson says -- but it is about due north, and is the most brilliant in that neighborhood. It stays at a fixed position while the other stars appear to move around it, a phenomenon you can observe throughout the course of the night.
Before the moon goes down, be sure to train your binoculars on it. The sun's oblique light is shining on its mountains, casting shadows that reveal the texture of its surface. "It becomes a living, breathing place," Tyson says.
When the stars are shining brightly, look for the constellations. There are eighty-eight of them in the identification system we have adapted from the ancients, which reflected their mythologies. But different cultures have various explanations for the celestial phenomena (and, of course, they have long been used for the practical purpose of navigation). Tyson proposes a game: Find patterns in the stars that reflect contemporary cultural touchstones, like computer icons, ice-cream cones, or Marge Simpson's beehive. The lesson to be learned is that the constellations are like Rorschach ink blots, random occurrences upon which we impose interpretations.
The Perseid meteor showers provide a fireworks finale to a late-summer night of stargazing. At this time the earth is crossing paths with a comet, which sheds debris that burns up as it enters our atmosphere, resulting in shooting stars. They increase in frequency after 1 a.m. (true midnight during daylight saving time) to a rate of about one per minute. Tyson recommends that stargazers in teams face in different directions to cover the whole skyscape, "but if you see a shooting star, don't tell anybody else to look at it, because by the time they turn around and you point it out, it will be too late." Instead, he says, "just sit back, agape, and look."
In astronomy, a little bit of knowledge goes a long way. Using these resources will enhance the stargazing experience.
Thanks to late-twentieth-century breakthroughs in supercomputer technology and the Hubble telescope's images taken in outer space, planetariums can show us views of deep space, and of Earth taken from that vantage. In recent years, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago has undergone an extensive renovation, and New York City's Hayden Planetarium was rebuilt entirely. The Fels, part of Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, will reopen in October, and renovations of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles was unveiled in 2005.
"An Intimate Look at the Night Sky" (Walker & Company; 2001) is a recent contribution from popular astronomy author Chet Raymo. It contains a blend of scientific information and soulful interpretation that brings the topic fully alive for the lay reader.
"Just Visiting This Planet: Merlin Answers More Questions About Everything Under the Sun, Moon and Stars" (Doubleday; 1998), by Neil de Grasse Tyson, is the perfect book for the family to read aloud in the car during daylight hours -- thoroughly playful and full of facts.
Space.com provides all kinds of news about astronomy and the space program. The Spacewatch page includes a sky calendar.