These hot summer days can lead to some cool nights of stargazing. Once the atmosphere calms and humidity levels drop, the shimmer in the air decreases and the stars stabilize -- leading to great seeing for stargazers of all ages.
Stargazing can be a great family activity -- and an equally fun and inexpensive date. It doesn't take special equipment or knowledge -- all you need for an enjoyable evening are your eyes, relatively dark skies and a sense of wonder.
Some planning will make a night of stargazing more enjoyable. Take along reclining lawn chairs or an old blanket to spread over the ground. Warm clothing is essential. It's surprising how chilly the air can feel after midnight even though the daytime temperatures are in the 80s and 90s.
Gear: Snacks, warm drinks, bug spray, a simple star chart and a red-filtered flashlight are all you need to complete your stargazing gear. Monthly star charts are printed in Sky and Telescope and Astronomy, the two popular astronomy magazines, and are also widely available on the Internet.
A red-filtered flashlight will help you keep your night vision and allow you to check your star chart. You can buy a specially filtered astronomy flashlight or simply make your own by covering the end with red cellophane, a disc cut from a clear red plastic folder or even a red balloon.
If you'd like a more in-depth tour of the night skies, then a star party can be your ticket to the universe. Many amateur astronomical societies sponsor annual events for the public and are great opportunities to see a variety of planets and deep sky objects. As a general rule, astronomers are gregarious people who love to share the wonders of the sky, and a star party evening is the ideal time to get tips about telescopes and learn more about the night sky.
The Mahoning Valley Astronomical Society is sponsoring a public star party Sept. 22 at Scenic Vista Park near Lisbon. The event starts at sunset (which is 7:21 that night) and you can drop in throughout the evening and stay as long as you like.
The MVAS star party is also part of a Skywatch/Stargazing weekend for the Ward Beecher Planetarium at Youngstown State University. For more details, check the planetarium's schedule at www.cc.ysu.edu/physics-astro or the MVAS event page at www.mvobservatory.com/events.htm.
Etiquette: If you plan to attend an organized star party or observing evening, there are several rules of etiquette to follow. By far, the most important rule is no lights. Turn off your car's headlights and just use the parking lights once you enter the grounds, whether an observatory parking lot or a star party field -- and then turn your parking lights off as soon as possible.
It can take 30 minutes or more for the human eye to fully adapt to the darkness. Nothing can turn normally friendly astronomers into a snarling mob faster than the sweep of a car's headlights across a telescope field. One moment of thoughtlessness can literally wipe out a half-hour of patient waiting or destroy a long-exposure astrophotograph. On the other hand, you don't have to stumble around in the dark. Take a flashlight, but cover it with a red filter.
Star parties can be wonderful family events, but use common sense when bringing young children. If a child is calm, patient within reason and truly fascinated by things in the sky, then a star party can be an eye-opening experience that can last a lifetime. A wriggly child who needs to run and touch and who can't sit patiently through "Blue's Clues" probably isn't ready for the telescope experience.
Most kids (and adults, by the way) instinctively grab the telescope for support. Don't! One tiny nudge can knock the object you're supposed to be looking at out of the field of view. Practice the Groucho Marx walk beforehand: Lean slightly forward and clasp your hands behind your back.
Real sky: The images you'll be seeing through the eyepiece will not resemble the fantastic long-exposure, false color posters from the Hubble Space Telescope. On the other hand, they'll be even better: They'll be real. You'll be looking at galaxies, stars, and planets in views that Galileo would have died to have. (Galileo was the first scientist we know of to use a telescope to look at the heavens and probably started the star party idea when he showed off objects in the sky to nobles and other important people in the 17th century.)
More observing opportunities:
The Planetarium opens its 2001-02 season with a Skywatch/Stargazing weekend Sept. 14-15. The Skywatch session starts at 8 p.m. at the Planetarium; the Stargazing portion starts at dark at the Mahoning County Experimental and Educational Farm on state Route 46 near Canfield.
If you're traveling, Sky and Telescope lists star parties throughout the United States and other countries on its Web site at www.skyandtelescope.com/resources/calendar.shtml.
For sites within Ohio, check out The Astronomy Network of Ohio's Web site at www.wro.org/ano.