Winter is above and beyond the best time (if you can bear the cold) to get out and wonder at the magic of the night sky. During winter, the dark side of earth faces towards the outer arms of the Milky Way, giving us a breathtaking show of many of the brightest stars in the sky. Now, as we transition to spring, we have one last opportunity to catch sight of some of our winter constellations as well as view some spring constellations we haven’t seen for a while. If you didn’t make it out to stargaze in winter, now is a great time to squeeze in a Family Astronomy Night! Late winter/ early spring offers more bearable temperatures for stargazing. If you have younger kiddos, you don’t need to wait until past 10 for it to be dark enough, like you might have to in the summer. Plus, there are no mosquitos to eat you alive yet. Winter has some fun, easy-to-find constellations that are still visible right now, but will soon disappear from the night sky as we head into spring.
So what do you need to get started? Not very much!
A patch of dark, visible sky on a night with no moon - Location definitely matters! Try to find a spot away from city lights and other sources of light pollution. The darker the area, the better the star gazing! (Did you know we have Dark Sky Parks and Sanctuaries in the US? Plan your next family vacation in one!) You also want to minimize things like trees or buildings that might obstruct your view of the sky. Check the weather and make sure it won’t be cloudy. You’ll also want to consider what phase the moon is at when you go. While it is fun to watch a full moon rise, the light from a full moon will disrupt your star-viewing, so it’s better to go stargazing closer to a new moon.
Layers of warm clothes - Stargazing doesn’t typically involve very much movement, so make sure to dress warmly! Even in spring, you’ll want a hat, mittens, and boots!
A tarp, pillow, & blankets - Since you’ll be spending a lot of time looking up, it’s helpful to bring along a tarp for the wet spring ground. Throw the tarp down and pile on the blankets! You can even use an inflatable mattress, camping pads, or sleeping bags to add comfort. Cozy up with your family and enjoy the view! Bring along a thermos of hot chocolate and make a whole evening of it!
A night sky guide - There are a lot of different options for guides to the night sky. You could check out a guide from your local library, make your own simple starwheel ahead of time, or download a free app on your mobile device. Here are some resources we enjoy!
Google Sky - Free app (pros: can use the GPS feature to move your phone around the night sky to ID constellations you are seeing)
Stellarium - Free app for mobile, free software for desktops (pros: you can adjust the sky for different times, allowing you to plan an awesome night out!)
Space.com has a very detailed list of Night Sky events to watch for each month. If you're new to astronomy, this can be a little overwhelming and difficult to follow.
Binoculars/telescope (OPTIONAL) - If you find a dark spot, there are plenty of stars to view without additional tools. If you have birding binoculars or a telescope at home, you can bring them along to see extra details of objects or see objects that may be too faint to see with the naked eye, but this certainly isn’t necessary. Some libraries or state parks rent out binoculars for birding that you could use for the stars!
Now that you’re ready to head out for a family adventure, what should you look for? There are quite a few “easy” constellations to find during this time of year (and many more difficult ones)! Let’s start with the basics. The video below uses Stellarium to demonstrate finding these things in the night sky in March.
Ursa Major & Ursa Minor - The Big Dipper (part of Ursa Major) is one of the easiest constellations to find, especially in March, April, and May when it is high overhead! Once you find The Big Dipper, use the “bowl” of the spoon to point you to the Little Dipper (part of Ursa Minor), which contains Polaris, the North Star. Use these constellations to help you find other constellations in relation to them.
Orion, Canis Major, Taurus, & Pleiades - These are some of the easiest winter constellations to find and contain some of the brightest stars in the sky. They are still visible right now! By the end of April, they will have disappeared from our night sky and won’t reappear until fall/winter. Canis Major has the brightest star in the sky - Sirius. In Greek Mythology, this constellation is said to be Orion’s hunting dog. You can find him at the heels of Orion. Orion has two of the brightest stars - Betelgeuse and Rigel - plus Orion’s Belt has three easily recognized stars. Orion is next to (and rumored to be hunting) Taurus, the bull, which has numerous bright stars of it's own, most notably Aldebaran. Near Taurus you’ll find a very bright cluster of stars known as Pleiades, or the seven sisters.
Mars - Mars will be bright and visible through the month of March. Look in the Southwest-West sky to find this slightly orange looking object in the sky.
Gemini - Also known as the twins, this constellation is easy to find due to it’s two bright stars - Castor and Pollux. The twins can be found just above Orion.
Leo - Constellation guide books mark this one as easy, but I think it’s a bit trickier! The best time to see Leo is February through May though, so now’s the time to try to find it! Look for it’s brightest star, Regulus, and trace the shape of a lion from there.
Bootes - This constellation will become easier to see as we move into April. Then, Arcturus, the 4th brightest star in the sky, will rise in the east shortly after sunset. Use Arcturus to find the kite-shape of Bootes.
We hope you enjoy getting out to admire the night sky this spring!