It has been astronomically tragic that for the past week the skies were clouded over on the Mines campus, which means now that the skies are clear, it is the perfect time to get re-acquainted with the stars. Stargazing is one of the easiest activities around, at a basic level there is no need for complicated instruments, arduous classes, and hours of travel to do. All a stargazer needs is a patch of sky and a bit of imagination to partake in an activity as old as humanity. Of course that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways to make the experience better, but the fundamentals are there if the sky is open.
For amateurs and professionals alike, one of the first ways to improve stargazing is with binoculars. Telescopes may be good for finding certain stars and distant nebulae, but nothing gives you the big picture like binoculars. Since the optics of a set of binoculars allows for the light to be condensed down, structures like the Pleiades become all the more vibrant. Most telescopes would not have the capability to see these amazing structures in one single view. To know where to point the binoculars is another important step to a good experience. There are plenty of forums online that can serve as guides to the skies, pointing newcomers to the field in the right direction for easy and spectacular views. Still, it never hurts to have a planisphere to serve as a physical map. Planispheres come in all shapes and sizes, so it is crucial to get one for the observing latitude, or else the stars that are above will not match what is on the paper.
It is important to remember that stargazing is not an immediate activity. There is an acclimation time that is necessary to see the best stars. Even astronomers with big telescopes need to sit with them for a few minutes before the true power of a telescope can be seen. When stargazing with reference material, it is best to use a light which is red, or to use a phone app that will shine a red light. White light washes out the stars and many stargazing events have been ruined by careless members who bring normal flashlights. The red allows for materials to be seen, and since most objects in the sky are not red, it does not wash out the stars.
There are many stories of foolhardy amateurs that run off and buy the biggest priciest scope that they can afford only to find that they do not know how to use it. It is much cheaper, and significantly less stressful to go out with a few friends to a dark hill and just look up. No fancy instruments needed. Just remember, if several millennia of humans could look up and find inspiration and awe with just their eyes, nothing is stopping even the newest members of the hobby from having a great time.
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