It's a clear summer evening, one of those rare calm nights where all the regular nighttime noise is silenced. It's the type of night that most definitely does not call for microwave dinners and sitcom reruns. You need to be outside, underneath the stars, gazing up at the tiny sparkling lights that make up the universe. Summer stargazing is a great way to while away the hours, and you'll enjoy it even more with a crash course in astronomy under your belt. Whether you simply want to impress your companion by identifying the Little Dipper or you're looking to start up a skywatching club, here's a few tips on how to get the most of a starry summer's night.
When embarking on any new hobby, it's likely that not only have others treaded the same ground, but that one or two of them have become an expert on the subject. Benefit from their experience by browsing through the astronomy section at your local library or bookstore. Here are a few titles to look for:
• Firefly Astronomy Dictionary (Firefly Books): A comprehensive A to Z guide to astronomy themes and terms, with lots of illustrations.
• National Audubon Society Pocket Guide to Constellations (National Audubon Society Pocket Guides): This compact book (it really can fit in your pocket) has enough maps and information about finding constellations by season to keep any budding astronomer busy.
• Astronomy for Dummies (Stephen P. Maran): The For Dummies series offers a fun, easy to read guide to skywatching in your backyard, with plenty of star maps and charts.
• The Kids Book of the Night Sky (Ann Love & Jane Drake): Yes, it's a children's book, but the colourful illustrations and simple instructions make it appealing, as does a refresher on the planets in case sixth grade science class was a long time ago.
Get the gear
All you really need to observe the night sky is your own eyes, and if you aren't planning on getting fancy, don't bother with all the bells and whistles. But if you really want a closer, more focused look at the constellations and star clusters, you might consider investing in a good-quality pair of binoculars (7 x 50) or a starter telescope (60 to 90 millimetre lens with refractor scope). The binoculars will cost quite a bit less than the telescope. The further involved with astronomy you get, the more gear you'll want to purchase, but start slow and work your way up.
You might also want to pack a few essentials for your night under the stars, like a star chart -- and a flashlight to read it with -- and your own astronomer's log, to write down what you see. If the night is chilly, layer up; grab a blanket or jacket, so you can stay out longer.
Get the terminology down
It doesn't hurt to use the proper language when describing the night sky, and its even better to understand what you're saying. Here are a few basic terms to get you started.
Asteroids (also called planetoids) are smaller than a planet or a planet's moon, and believed to be fragments of larger objects that broke apart during the early beginnings of the solar system.
A grouping of stars that form a pattern in the night sky (example: The Big Dipper).
The outer layer and hottest part of the sun's atmosphere.
The giant mass of stars, interstellar gas and dust that make up the Milky Way (our galaxy) and the billions of other galaxies.
Celestial objects that have a fuzzy or cloudy appearance and are mainly made of gas and dust.
A celestial body that orbits a star -- composed mainly of rock and dense gases.
Commonly known as a shooting star or falling star, it gets its light from the heat it produces as it enters the Earth's atmosphere.
When a planet appears to “travel” backwards, or in a direction opposite its usual one.
A group of stars within the Milky Way, bound by gravity. (example: the Pleiades, aka Seven Sisters cluster).