It CAN Be Done!
The first month of the year is behind us now, leaving 11 more months of sky sights to check out. February for many northern hemisphere observers is still the winter season, so of course you have to dress warmly unless you live in relative sunny climes. For southern hemisphere viewers it’s late summer, so the dress code’s a little different. No matter what you wear, though, there ARE some great sky sights to check out. I outline a few of them in my monthly video called Our Night Sky, produced for Astrocast.TV. You watch it here.
I always come back to Orion for my sky gazing this time of year. It’s just a gorgeous star pattern. What I like most about Orion: it provides a lot of interesting stuff to look at. There’s Betelgeuse, for example. It’s a red supergiant star in his shoulder, and it’s likely to pop off as a supernova anytime (well, “anytime” is relative — it could be in the next million years).
Notice the three stars across Orion’s middle. Just beneath them lies a spectacular star birth region called the Orion Nebula. It’s about 1,500 light-years away from us and it just blazes with hot young stars, set among clouds of gas and dust that are still forming stars.
I’ve been stargazing since I was a kid. I didn’t always know what I was looking at, but over time (and using star charts and taking a few astronomy classes and teaching in the planetarium) I got to know the sky pretty well. You don’t have to do all that to explore the sky. You can start very simply: take it one constellation at a time. Look at it with your naked eye, then scan it with binoculars or a small telescope. Chances are, you’ll find something cool and interesting to check out each time you look.
People often ask me what star charts they should get. I always recommend they check out Sky&Telescope.com or Astronomy.com. Those two sites (and their associated magazines) have very useful star charts that you can customize for your location. If you have an iPhone or an iPad, you can get a wonderful app called Starmap. (Disclosure: I’m working on a project for these guys, but I was using their sky maps (free of charge on their site) long before they contacted me to work with them.) I also very much like Skymaps, which provides both northern and southern hemisphere charts. I also wrote about some good astronomy books and apps just before Christmas — check them out here and here if you’re looking for some more extensive, tree-based information about where to look during your sky gazing sessions. Now, get out there and check out the sky! (Just be sure and dress for the weather!)