by Bryan Bearss
Alaska’s land of the midnight sun has finally yielded to the darkness of winter, but don’t despair. With this impending darkness comes a glorious display in the night sky. While the aurora borealis (or northern lights) may be the charismatic mega fauna of the astronomical family, there is so much more to our skies, and you don’t need to be an “expert” to try stargazing.
To find those star-brights overhead, darker is always better. Luckily for kids in Alaska, total darkness comes as early as 6:40 p.m. in mid-December, near Winter Solstice. Have you noticed that it’s darker, earlier in the day, and stays dark later in the morning? Anchorage is losing five minutes of daylight per day, and it’s fun to keep track of calculations.
To see the best stars, be sure to find a location with minimal light pollution. This could be your backyard, a local park, or a clearing in the woods. Around Anchorage try Point Woronzof near the Anchorage International Airport, Kincaid Park, Beach Lake near Chugiak, Eagle River Nature Center, or Eklutna Lake. For a longer excursion that may involve walking, explore Hatcher Pass, Girdwood, Sheep Mountain Lodge, or Talkeetna. Does your family like to camp? This can be a great time to stargaze. Often bedtimes while camping are later than usual, and many campsites are in a dark area away from city lights. Riley Creek Campground in Denali National Park is open all winter for hardy campers, and is FREE, too.
Stargazing for 30 minutes or less is suitable for children 8 and under, especially for those new to the concept. It can be tough to keep watching, so think of stargazing as “connecting the dots” to make constellations (shapes in the sky). Keep the attention span of your child in mind as you begin to look at objects in the night sky. It’s best to focus on remembering one or two constellations, or use your own imagination based on shapes, animals, or even the letters in your name.
Kids in middle or high school often learn about the constellations, stars, and astronomy in science class, so it can be cool to look for planets and constellations based upon what your teacher has taught. Need to do a science project? Astronomy topics can be found HERE.
LEARNING ABOUT THE SKY – BEFORE YOU GO
– One of the easiest ways to get started is with the help of a good map. Try SkyMaps, a sitte that offers free downloadable maps. Many, many apps are available for smartphones that interact with a device’s GPS to identify the stars and constellations in real time.
– Check out books from the library on constellation myths from multiple cultures and use your stargazing time to tell stories. Sometimes stories can help you remember constellations.
– While you are preparing for the expeditions into the dark, try a few simple activities to spark curiosity. Gluing Cheerios or beads in place of stars on constellation cards can help your fingers remind your brain of the constellation’s shape.
WEATHER OR NOT?
Mother Nature calls the shots on stargazing, so be sure to check the weather forecast for clearish skies and a moon that stays out of the way. Just like pollution from city lights, the amount of moonlight can also determine how many stars you’ll see.
Comfort is a key for star gazing fun.
– Looking up at stars for more than a few minutes will cramp your neck (and style). Opt for a blanket instead (add a sleeping pad for more warmth) to lie down, or use a reclining camp chairs.
– Overdress for the weather, since stargazing is a fairly static (non-moving) activity, and as it gets darker, temperatures drop. Bring a thermos of hot chocolate to warm chilled spirits and keep everyone comfy so they can focus on the stars above. Handwarmers are a also helpful for cold fingers.
– Bring a flashlight (cover the lens with red or green plastic wrap to preserve night vision), star guidebooks from the local library, and a smartphone or tablet loaded with stargazing apps. Advanced optics like binoculars and telescopes are not necessary for nighttime observations, but can take viewing to a new level. For the casual observer, binoculars offer many advantages over telescopes. They are lightweight, easy to use and relatively inexpensive (a decent 7×35 pair on craigslist can be found for $35-$40).
Make a trip to the Anchorage Museum’s Thomas Planetarium for glimpses of galaxies far, far away. Tickets can be purchased online or at the museum front desk. Prices do not include museum general admission; you must purchase a museum general admission ticket in addition to your planetarium ticket unless you are a museum member. Seating is limited, so it’s recommended that visitors purchase tickets in advance. Planetarium doors close promptly on the hour, so make sure to arrive at least 10 minutes early.
The Eagle River Nature Center is open throughout winter and features astronomer-led events the first Friday evening of each month through March. An astronomer presents a special topic (approximately 1 to 1.5 hours) and answers your questions. If skies are clear, be ready to go outside and view the night sky, using your own binoculars or telescope, or share the ones set up by the astronomers. Free; $5 parking for non-memmbers.
Books to investigate include Zoo in the Sky by Jacqueline Mitten; The Big Dipper by Franklyn M. Branley; and The Stars: A New Way to See Them by H. A. Rey
Dare to “boldly go, where no one has gone before!”