Cold, winter nights are perfect for stargazing

The long nights make it a great time of year to learn how to stargaze

With the starry night sky making its appearance well before most kids’ bedtimes, the long nights of winter offer ideal conditions for looking up to view the moon, planets, constellations and other heavenly bodies that stretch overhead.

Don’t have a telescope? You don’t need one. Learning how to stargaze is a surprisingly easy family activity that in winter just requires warm clothing and curiosity. If you want to know more about the night sky than how to spot the Big Dipper, here’s how to get started.

1. Leave the lights behind

First, you need a clear view. Streetlights, building lights, and other light sources can hide much of the starry night sky from the naked eye, especially if you live in a city or large town. To maximize what you can see, find a place without much “light pollution.” In New Hampshire, finding such a spot usually isn’t much of a problem.

“Night sky visibility throughout much of New Hampshire is quite good. It’s not uncommon for people to be able to see the whitish streak of the Milky Way galaxy from their own yards. Look up on a clear night. You might be surprised at what a good view you have,” said Jason Brown, an amateur astronomer, physics teacher and dad of two from Portsmouth.

2. Get an app or a map

With so many stars blazing overhead, it can be confusing to know where to look  or know what you are looking at.

“What many people don’t realize is that the night sky is actually like a street map…and all you really need to start navigating the sky is to learn a few landmarks,” Brown said. To start finding your way, pick up a book that contains maps of the winter night sky. One classic stargazer’s guide is The Stars: A New Way to See Them, written by H.A. Rey, the creator of Curious George. Rey lived in Waterville Valley where he drew and painted and stargazed. The book contains kid-friendly names and descriptions of constellations.

You can also use your smartphone as a guide. Download one of the popular stargazing apps, like Star Walk, to use your phone’s GPS to generate a custom map of the night sky from the exact spot you’re standing in. Hold your phone up to the sky and the app can tell you the names of constellations you are looking at, and the names of specific stars and planets within the constellation. Once you learn how to find constellations like Orion and Capricorn with your app or map, you can practice doing it on your own.

3. Keep a journal

As the seasons change, so does the night sky. The same constellations that you see in December will be in a different place in January’s sky, and may not even be visible in the North American night sky come summer. Start a family journal of your star findings, noting the location where you spotted the constellation and the date. Compare as the winter season goes on to see which direction the stars move in. You can also make notes about the phases of the moon.

4. Visit a planetarium

If the weather doesn’t cooperate with your plans, take your stargazing inside by attending a planetarium show. In New Hampshire, the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center offers frequent planetarium shows and other fun space-themed leaning activities. The Mark Sylvestre Planetarium at Plymouth State University also offers programs for families.

5. Join a stargazing group

If your family is ready to take stargazing to the next level, join one of many upcoming amateur astronomy events. At most events, telescopes are available for celestial viewing and kids are welcome to attend and peek through the lens. It’s awe-inspiring to see the craters of the moon, no matter how old you are.

Jacqueline Tourville is a longtime contributor to Parenting NH.

Categories: Winter Events