The great thing about being a watcher of the skies is that you don’t necessarily need any equipment to be out of doors checking out the sky. Just yesterday I was hiking around a park and saw a plane come way low, like it was going to crash or trying to land right in the park. It swooped down and regained altitude then descended over a nearby mountain ridge. Other walkers and watchers commented on what was happening. We became an instant community of strangers- skywatchers looking for telltale smoke signs or listening for a crash. Luckily, neither appeared, so we figured the plane was able to land safely. This is an outdoor activity free for all!
A sky search doesn’t take a certain sky vision besides eyesight, however a pair of binoculars or a skywatcher telescope can really be useful tools. For binoculars you will want to check a few things before purchasing. The images should look sharp in the center - better binoculars have less edge distortion. They should be comfortable to hold, and you should be able to see your chosen field with your binoculars held away from your eyes (not be pressing up against eyes). A telescope takes more research, but some things to look for are: interchangeable eyepieces, a focus that slide smoothly without wobbles, minimal use of plastic on moving parts, and a good finderscope. Also, look into a good telescope mount.
Now the Northern Hemisphere is having spring weather so star watching can be more comfortable in the warmer evenings. You can carry any equipment you might have to a nice destination for watching the skies. Or, if you do have equipment that isn’t easily backpackable, you can drive to a site, unload, get set up for stargazing (if it is night), and take turns touring around the area, or if you are alone, leave your locked vehicle without unloading, and hike around until you find the best viewing spot.
Astronomy posters are readily available, and it is a good idea to have one so you can chart the sky where you are viewing from. The Weather Underground (wunderground.com) site is great for this. All you have to do is type in your zipcode, and you will get a star chart with date and time for viewing from your area. You can click on a star, planet, moon or sun on the chart to get more information.
Starting out with a pair of binoculars is a great way to see new vistas like the thousands of stars in the Milky Way. You could even make a skywatching kit with a sky chart, flashlight, thermos or water bottle with a drink, a snack, a jacket, a blanket to sit on, and a mobile tracking system. Of course observers in the Northern Hemisphere who need to leave the city should travel south, far enough away to be away from city lights. Traveling south will help you to see the southern sky above the darkest horizon (the city lights are left to the north). The point is to travel far enough to find a dark sky.
One benefit of sky watching is becoming a weather- watcher as well. No matter if it is day or night, cloud patterns are learned for what will be good sky watching. For instance, a summer day sky with cumulus clouds often brings a clear night sky. Cumulus clouds are puffy white or gray clouds with a flat base. The planet Venus has a surface that is veiled by clouds. The clouds are made of sulfuric acid, and are quite reflective making Venus look so bright. Weather-watching helps to become a better sky observer. You will find out if you can even see the annual meteor showers.
Spring in the Northern hemisphere also enhances the outdoor activity of sky watching during the day. Although the stars and planets aren’t readily viewable, there are some great storms to watch. Rainstorms often leave beautiful rainbows to gaze upon, and many times a double rainbow graces your vision. Tornadoes are another source of great sky watching. Other objects in the sky present endless fascination. Birds, bluebirds, geese, ducks, hawks, and eagles can be observed from a walk in a woods, park, or even a city neighborhood. What’s really comfortable is to sit outside in natural hot springs and sky gaze. There you’ve hopefully had the exercise of hiking to the springs, and then the peaceful sky watching activity.
During the summer many towns have airplane festivities called air shows. This is great sky watching because the planes are usually being presented doing some incredible feats by talented pilots showing their skills in the sky. Military planes may also be on display showing a formation or two that is worthwhile to view.
How often have you heard about strange sightings in broad daylight, aka alien sightings? Those are from sky watchers who can’t relate the object in the sky to anything they’ve seen on earth. A lot of UFO (unidentified objects) photos are taken during the day, in day skies. Maybe you’ve thought you saw an alien spaceship? It’s nice to explore the sky space from outside on earth, and know that there is more out there than meets the eye.
Become a watcher of the skies and join some ancestral relatives who painted the skies in caves, or joined the unexplained mysterious places. Make new friends in the astronomy world, and try out your skills as an amateur astronomer. Exploring the skies can take you to places that you never dreamed of. You could end up in the Southern Hemisphere (New Zealand or Australia for example) and see the Southern Cross (a treat not viewable in the Northern Hemisphere). It is a self-educating study to observe, maybe record your observations, draw them, photograph them, and research what you find. Maybe you’ll discover a new star, or an unusual bird flight pattern, or save lives by notifying communities of oncoming storms that could be deadly.
photo credit- footloose