There is so very little that I enjoy about Winter but one of my favorite things to do is to star gaze during Winter. A few Christmases ago, my family got a telescope. The kids’ name was on it but everyone knew it was really for me (is that wrong of me? Wait…don’t answer). I grew up in the middle of nowhere in a place where there was almost no light polltion, whatsoever. I looked up plenty and, I suppose, appreciated the variety and sheer number of stars that one can see from a dark location. But I never really appreciated that viewpoint until I moved to the city where viewing the Milky Way or even seeing the Big Dipper can be a challenge at best. The fact is, though, I live in the city. While we try to do many things as if we live in the country, some realities are inescapable.
So viewing stars is not easy in the city. But, it is certainly possible. Not only is it possible, it can still be prety awesome if you work at it. One thing that makes the Winter particularly appealing for stargazing is that the typical Summer-time haze is not an issue. Although the air is crisp, it is incredibly clear. Without haze, light pollution has a less significant effect. Just don’t lick the telescope in Winter.
One of my most favorite things about Winter viewing is that a number of planets are available for viewing without waiting until the middle of the night. It gives us a chance, as a family to spend time together, gazing into space and pondering life, all before the kids’ bedtime. Well, I probably do more of the pondering than my kids do, but they will follow suit in time I am sure. So, back to the planets…Saturn is spectacular in the Winter-time. My telescope is not terribly powerful, but it is plenty strong enough to allow us to gaze upon Saturn and see, very clearly, its rings. Of course, our view of the rings is nothing like that you will see in the magazines, but I was in awe the first time I saw it with my own eyes. It takes quite a bit for the kids not to run a mile a minute, but when they saw Saturn, they were silent.
I am no astronomer and I do not have all sorts of star charts mapped out in my head. Rather, I use a most excellent program called Stellarium. Stellarium is a free program and is written for Windows, Mac and Linux. Within the program, you set your viewing location and the program shows you the “current” sky. You can alter the time setting within the program to find when a particular planet will rise or explore stars and nebulae visible right where you are located.
If you are looking for an excellent way to spend time with your family this Winter, consider spending a few dollars on a telescope (mine is from Orion and was under $200). Download Stellarium and prepare to be dazzled by the wonders you will find!
Warren can also be found at My Home Among the Hills writing about the adventures of life in WV.