Stargazing at SMA: Hints for Astronomy Buffs

Editor’s Note: As the school year begins, SMA is preparing to again open our campus observatory for a few evenings each semester. These are times for the students, staff and community members to come learn more about the night sky. The following article is by Ron Carman, SMA Class of 1960, who is an avid astronomer. Ron is our guest expert about all things astronomy at SMA; he volunteers to lead the instruction during our stargazing times and has some suggestions to share for those interested in stargazing.

Some Hints for Astronomy Observers

Whether you have some stargazing experience or are just now getting interested in observing, these notes contain a few suggestions that may help make your learning experience more enjoyable. Forget the mistaken idea that astronomy is very hard or requires lots of advanced mathematics; people were naming the stars and constellations as far back as 3000 years ago! What you mainly need is the ability to read and an interest in learning the sky. Of course, you can get into more advanced stuff if you like, but you don’t have to. You can decide just how far you want to go.

Gathering your Astronomy Equipment

To start, you don’t need lots of expensive equipment. Your own eyes are the most useful tools you will need. The most important thing you should do is  learn the sky; that is, to  know the stars and constellations at least well enough to point out the brighter or more conspicuous ones. You don’t have to  know every single one perfectly to find your way around. In fact, as you go along you will probably find it less difficult than you thought at first. Another useful item is a good reference book for learning the sky. The best one I have ever seen is The Stars: A New Way to See Them, by the late H.A. Rey (the same person who used to draw the cartoon about Curious George, the monkey). This book is available at most book stores, and is written for beginning observers of all ages, from elementary school to adult. The first part of the book introduces the constellations a few at a time, and it also contains full-sky charts for every month of the year. The last part covers a few more advanced topics, but if you have read the first part, they aren’t too difficult. You don’t need to memorize the whole book; proceed at your own rate and take a break whenever you want.

Determining the Best Astronomy Location

The best locations have a good overhead view and no bright lights nearby that can interfere with observing. You may have noticed that in a big city it is hard to see many stars due to all the lights at night. In order to see faint stars or really distant objects, you may need to go to the country to find a really dark sky. Or, Also, when the moon is full its bright light washes out all but the brightest objects, no matter where you are. Stargazing is best when the moon isn’t around.

Clear weather is ideal, although you can still do some observing even when it is partly cloudy.

While you are observing, you may want to have your book with you and a small light to use for reading it. Red lights are better than white, since red light won’t spoil your night vision the way white light will. You may also want a chair to sit in while observing. Also, remember to dress for the weather, especially if it is cold. A thermos full of hot coffee or hot chocolate makes a great companion on a cold night. In summer you don’t need to bundle up, but remember to bring insect repellent if there are mosquitoes. Try to find a place away from trees or overhead obstructions.

San Marcos Academy’s location on the outskirts of town is great for stargazing as city lights do not interfere with the view. The observatory is located on the highest point on campus, which also makes it good for watching the night sky without trees blocking the view.

Don’t be hasty; Astronomy Takes Time!

As you learn, you may want to get additional equipment such as more detailed sky maps, and maybe binoculars or a telescope, depending on what kind of observing suits you best. Don’t be hasty! Before you buy anything, try looking through several kinds of  binoculars or scopes and decide what you like. Don’t spend a lot of money at first,  but take your time and gradually build up a collection of the items you like best. That way,  you will be the most satisfied with what you get. And now–happy observing!