Of the many pleasures that come from spending time in the backcountry, none quite compare to the opportunity to observe the engaging nightly display available just for the cost of looking skyward.
As sunset approaches and drifts into dusk, through the moonrise and the vast darkness of the midnight sky, a wordless story unfolds that speaks across the continents and the centuries. It is there, freely offered to any who would pause for a moment to admire and absorb its message.
It’s easy to observe the beauty of the night sky. Contemplating the existence of the planets and stars has the ability to unleash the imagination. Witnessing the movements of asteroids, meteorites and comets can be delightful. With a few simple tools and a bit of knowledge, what is already an enjoyable experience may become much more meaningful and exciting when one knows what to expect and understands what is observed.
Just as with traveling across the earth, a map is a basic and useful tool to find your way around the universe. Sky maps, called “planispheres,” are readily accessible online.
A simple trick to understanding the distance in degrees between various points in the sky is to hold one’s hand at arm’s length toward the sky with fingers extended and compare it to known distances between the stars in, for example, the Big Dipper, or between the Big Dipper and Polaris. Once the distance between known stars is correlated to the width of one’s hand, it essentially becomes a scale measurement for calculating the distance between points in the celestial landscape.
For instance, the distance from the end of the handle of the Big Dipper to the edge of the spout is 25 degrees. If one’s hand with fingers spread wide from thumb to pinkie matches the distance from tip to tip of the Big Dipper, then by using that hand position, one can measure 25 degrees anywhere in the sky. It becomes a simple but useful tool for locating and identifying stars and planets, and with this handy system in place, anyone can begin observing their movements.
Joining an astronomy club, such as the Dark Sky Network in Julian, can add a social element as well as an educational component to one’s enjoyment of the backcountry’s nightlife. Visit www.juliandarkskynetwork.com. With so much to observe and enjoy in the backcountry just by stepping outside and looking up, it is easy to be inspired by the natural world.
By Ann Reilly Cole