From Elynor Gregorich, Graduate Assistant
Get outside and enjoy the spring weather with our Devil’s Lake Activity Kit! The backpack comes with binoculars, a first aid kit, and two books, but you can also use it to plan your adventure in amateur astronomy.
Stargazing can be energizing and stress-relieving all at once. Some people prefer to just look up and admire the points of light shining out of the cool night sky. Others want to find asterisms and constellations and figure out which planets and nebulae are visible. Sometimes, it just depends on the night. Either way, stargazing is friendly to social distancing, and easy to add on to a hiking trip or evening nature walk.
As the weather warms, frogs will wake up and sing, spring wildflowers will bloom, and evenings will become mild. Now is the perfect opportunity to check out our Devil’s Lake Activity Kit and plan a star party! Here are some tips for planning an evening trip to see the stars and planets:
1) Light & Location
If you want to combine hiking with stargazing, Devil’s Lake is not the only place you can go; other state and county parks, state natural areas, and wildlife preserves are good options, too. Most state parks are open until 11:00 p.m., but the details vary by location, so look them up in advance. Wherever you go, try to arrive when it is still light out and walk or hike around. The last light of the day is your opportunity to scope out and settle in to a good spot like a hilltop or an open field. The more of the sky and horizons you can see, the more constellations will be in view.
Another location factor to consider is light pollution. Town and city lights leech into the sky for miles around. This light pollution bleaches dimmer celestial objects into invisibility, leaving only the brightest stars and planets in view. So how do you find a nice dark spot for stargazing? Check the light pollution map! Don’t worry if you can’t get to a spot in the blue (nice and dark) sections; you will still be able to see plenty from an area in the green (medium-dark) areas of the map, like Devil’s Lake, and the binoculars in the kit will allow you to see more clearly.
When you are ready to start stargazing, turn off as many nearby lights as you can and avoid looking at bright screens. It can take around fifteen minutes for your night vision to adjust. Red-tinted light helps preserve your eyes, too, so if you have a flashlight, try fixing a piece of red cellophane over the end. As your eyes grow accustomed to the dark, you will be able to see some of the dimmer stars.
The brightness of a celestial object is called its apparent magnitude. Objects are assigned a number on a scale, with brighter objects on the low end (in the negatives) and dimmer objects on the high end. The moon, for instance, has an apparent magnitude around –12, and the unaided eye can see objects as dim as 6, depending on the observing conditions.
Light Pollution Map
Find a State Park, Forest, Recreation Area, or Trail
2) Weather and Timing
It doesn’t matter how bright the stars are if the sky is covered by clouds! Be sure to check the weather forecast for your chosen location. The conditions of Earth’s atmosphere also have some effect on visibility, but for the most part, clouds are the biggest thing to worry about.
For an astronomer’s forecast for the next few days, check out a Clear Sky Chart. These little color-coded charts are packed full of visibility information, but the most useful parts are the hour-by-hour estimate of cloud cover and the color-coded blocks that show when the sun sets and darkness falls. This is the Madison Clear Sky Chart from a couple of weeks, ago; it can be a bit hard to read at first, but it is easier to decipher if you first look at Darkness (row 4) and Cloud Cover (row 1).
Follow the link at the bottom of this section for a map of all the Wisconsin locations that have clear sky charts generated by Allan Rahill and Attilla Danko. If there is one close to your location, click on the pin to view the chart and a detailed explanation of all the variables. The map also shows some light pollution information. The data is collected and charts are generated for free, but only by request, so depending on where you plan to go, there may not be a specific chart for your location.
If your goal is to see dimmer stars or catch a glimpse of the Milky Way, remember to consult a lunar calendar. The moon is so much brighter than anything else in the night sky that its light blots out many dimmer objects. Just for comparison, the moon’s apparent magnitude is around –12, while Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, has an apparent magnitude around –1.
There are a couple of noteworthy astronomical events happening this month! One is the Lyrid Meteor Shower. It will be active between April 16th and 30th, but the best show with the most meteors is during the peak, April 21-22.
The other seasonal stargazing challenge is called the Messier Marathon, named after 18th-century comet hunter Charles Messier. He composed a catalog of 110 celestial objects that are not comets, but that might be mistaken for one. Messier compiled the list to keep himself and other astronomers from mistakenly identifying the objects as comets, and to this day, many galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae are identified by their Messier catalog number (M49, M52, et cetera.) In the last few decades, it has become a tradition to hold a Messier Marathon event in March or early April in which marathoners stay up all night attempting to observe all 110 objects from Messier’s catalog.
Clear Sky Charts in Wisconsin
3) Bring a chart to navigate the sky
Stargazing is 100 times more fun when you know at least something about what you are looking at! There are lots of free apps with a range of amazing features to help you find what you are looking for, or figure out what you are seeing. Other app features include astronomy forecasts, detailed information on different objects, and notifications about upcoming astronomical events such as eclipses. Star Walk 2 is my personal favorite, but there are plenty of excellent options to choose from.
If you want to travel light and unplug from the screen, you can download and print The Evening Sky Map: Northern Hemisphere Edition on one sheet of paper. It’s easy to read, packs in a ton of information, and explains the basics beautifully. A new version is available every month, so the map is always pretty close to what you will see up in the sky. A copy of the map will be included in our Devil’s Lake Activity kit during the month of April.
And, of course, there are books! There are a couple of suggestions below, but our collection includes everything from oversize star atlases to ebooks- lots of ebooks!
The Cambridge Guide to the Constellations by Michael E. Bakich
Nebulae and How to Observe Them by Steven R. Coe
The Evening Sky Map: Northern Hemisphere Edition
4) Plan for comfort.
Aside from the Devil’s Lake Activity Kit backpack, don’t forget to bring a few other items for stargazing! Appropriate clothing and footwear are essential, especially if you plan to combine hiking and stargazing in one trip. Combine of falling temperatures after sundown, damp spring weather, and long periods sitting still, and you might find yourself colder than you thought you would be, so wear extra layers or pack blankets. Plus, if you don’t have a folding chair, blankets make a useful barrier between you and the cold ground! Even handwarmers might not be a bad idea in early spring.
Even on mild nights, a hot drink is doubly enjoyable if you drink it under the stars, and snacks are always a good idea (just remember- no littering). As the weather warms up, bug spray may become necessary. Finally, toss a flashlight and your star chart into the backpack kit and voilà, you have planned the perfect star party!
Missing an essential piece of gear? Places like REI, Outdoor UW at the Wisconsin Union, and even some nature centers have gear rental programs with various price points; check their websites and call in advance to see what’s available.
The end of the semester is within sight, so whether you need a break to relax or an incentive to reward yourself after studying, stargazing might be the answer.
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer, Walt Whitman
Oscar Rennebohm Library959 Edgewood College Drive - Madison, WI 53711608-663-3300