Holiday Stargazing

Eyes to the Sky

This is the time of year when some of the loveliest constellations of the year show up in the nighttime sky. For many years I’ve shared those with family and friends via a star chart called the “Annual Family Stargaze”.  This year, I’m sharing it online so all my world wide group of friends and family can enjoy it. I’ve chosen a constellation that can be seen from pretty much anywhere in the world, although my friends in the far south will see it in a different rotation than it is in this image.


December 2013 skies around 10 p.m. or thereabouts! Click to get a larger version that will open in a separate window.

December 2013 skies around 10 p.m. or thereabouts! Click to get a larger version that will open in a separate window.

The most recognizable pattern of stars is in the middle—it’s the constellation Orion, the Hunter (oh-RYE-unn). The bright orange-red star in his shoulder is Betelgeuse (BEH-tell-jooze, although some say BEE-tell-juice)). His lower right knee (as we look at it) is called Rigel (RYE-jell). The three stars in a row mark his belt and point directly down to Sirius (SEER-ee-uss), which is the brightest star in our nighttime sky. Sirius is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (KAY-niss Major), the Great Dog. Below him is the star Canopus (Kan-OH-puss), visible to our more southerly family and friends. Just above Sirius is the bright star Procyon (PRO-see-onn), which is the brightest star in the tiny constellation of Canis Minor (CAY-niss Minor), the little dog. Above Orion is the constellation Taurus, the Bull (TAW-russ). You can make out the Vee-shaped face of the bull, with the bright star Aldebaran (al-DEB-ah-ron) as his eye. The V-shape is a cluster called the Hyades (HIGH-uh-deeze). Riding in the sky above the Bull’s back is the small star cluster called the Pleiades (PLEE-uh-deeze).

To the left of Taurus is the constellation Gemini (JEM-en-eye), with the bright planet Jupiter smack in the middle of it. The two stars to the upper left of Jupiter are Castor and Pollux (CASS-tore and PAHL-ucks), the heads of the twins that make up Gemini.

I hope that your weather will permit you to step outside tonight (or any nights during the holidays) to check out the stars. Dress for the weather, of course. Enjoy the sky, contemplate the peace stargazing can bring to your soul, and enjoy!

Happy Holidays (whatever you celebrate at this time of year)!

Give the Stars, Planets, Galaxies and More

Last-minute Gifts for the Astronomy-minded

I’m at a point in my life where the prospect of gifts for the holidays leads me to wish for things like “world peace”, “less political animosity” and “a fully funded and operational space program”. Of course, I can’t buy all those things for people, and most of my friends can’t buy those things for me, but a person can have big dreams, right?

Still, it is the season of good cheer, holiday wishes, and traditional things like giving gifts to others. In that light, then, I realize that many folks are still out there trying to find a gift for a loved one. I’ve already suggested a few things, like my book Astronomy 101, and a wonderful astronomy app called Starmap, which runs on iPhone and iPad.  There’s even a free app called Starmap Media. It was just designated a 2014 Hot Product by the editors of Sky & Telescope, which is a great honor. To celebrate, the developer of Starmap and Starmap Media is giving away free Starmap Media stories. If you have the latest version of Starmap (Pro or HD), or Starmap Media, you can simply select “Media” and download all the stories you want.  Don’t have Starmap or Starmap Media?  Visit the developer’s web page above, get the free Starmap Media, or buy a copy of Starmap Pro (for iPhone) or HD (for iPad), and once you’ve got it installed, download all the stories you want. They’re free until January 31, 2014.

Just a few days ago I also got a nice calendar in the mail called The Year in Space, published in cooperation with the Planetary Society. It’s chock full of gorgeous images, space facts, and a lot more. I love this calendar and learn something from it every time I look at it.  The people behind this put a lot of time into it, so check out their work.

Often enough I get asked what to get for kids who are into space. I wish I could say, “A trip to Mars” but that’s still way off in the future. The next best thing might be a way for them to learn the sky, in book format. (Books?? As in, “tree-based knowledge delivery systems”?  Yeah, sure.  Why not?)  Sometimes there’s nothing like snuggling in with a good book. So, for the little folk in your life who are just learning the sky, I recommend Find the Constellations by H.A. Rey. It’s the book that generations of kids have used to learn the sky.  When they get a little older you can get them The Stars: A New Way to See Them, also by H.A. Rey.  Works well with adults, too. I’ve been recommending these books for years.

Over the years I’ve collected a number of astronomy books that I turn to again and again for helpful info. One of them is the Field Guide to the Stars and Planets by a valued colleague, Dr. Jay Pasachoff. It has very useful star charts, finder charts, some science bits and tids about specific objects in the sky, and very useful photographs of astronomical objects. I began using this book in the first edition, I’m now up to the 4th edition, and if another one comes out, I’ll get that one, too. It’s that good. Recommended for the reference shelf AND the field.

Many people have loved ones and friends who have trouble seeing well, and often wonder what to get for them. My friend Noreen Grice specializes in creating astronomy books for visually impaired and limited-vision people. One of her books, Touch the Universe, is available via Amazon and was created in cooperation with NASA. Noreen has founded a company called You Can Do Astronomy, and you can find more of her work there. Check it out!

Years ago, I attended a star party and we got into a big discussion about music and stargazing. When I mentioned that my husband composes space music, one guy whipped out a CD of Mark’s Geodesium music and said it went with him whenever he was stargazing. Small world and I didn’t even know the guy before that night. But, since then I’ve heard from others who like to use Mark’s relaxing space music as a part of their stargazing experience. Only now, in addition to CDs, they can download music (see the link for details) . So, if you’re in the mood for some space music, check out Mark’s work. It’s cosmic!

Well, those are a few gift suggestions. If you’re still stumped for ideas, check out your local planetarium or science center; if they have a gift shop, you’re sure to find something there to sate the space appetites of your friends and loved ones. If nothing else, get some advance tickets for a show and make it a party!