Cabins and stars are a match made in the heavens. Both give us an escape from our modern, busy lives and revitalize our connections to nature’s rhythmic flow. Whether your retreat is tucked far away from civilization or in the suburbs, taking the time to step outside and explore the expanse of the night sky can unlock the door to a new perspective of the world.
Here’s a primer on how to make the night sky your cabin’s star attraction.
Tools of the Trade
For stargazing, all you really need is a genuine sense of curiosity, some patience, a night sky and your eyes. Beyond that, the rest are just tools to upgrade the experience. Consider:
- A flashlight covered with red cellophane or a red gel sheet. Another option is to make a dedicated stargazing flashlight by painting the light with red nail polish (red light doesn’t interfere with night vision).
- A stargazing chart or app.
- A blanket and pillow, reclining lawn chairs, or an inflatable raft for lounging on the ground and looking up.
- Appropriate clothing for the evening and season.
- Treats or a thermos full of hot chocolate, especially if you have kids with you.
- A telescope or a pair of good binoculars. You’ll be surprised at how much more you can see in the sky.
Embrace the Dark
The darker the sky, the brighter its celestial inhabitants will appear. Any residual light source on the ground will diminish your ability to see them. Turn off your porch lights, lanterns, or any other light sources that can impact your ability to experience the dark. You will also need to give your eyes 15-30 minutes to adapt to the dark for optimal night vision.
Light pollution is ubiquitous. Skyglow, a diffuse luminescence in the sky due to light pollution, can impact even seemingly remote areas. That said, remote locations always offer the most ideal conditions, but if you live in a more populated area, don’t get discouraged. Prominent constellations like the Big Dipper, Orion, and Canis Major can be easier to pick out when they aren’t backdropped against an infinite number of sparkling stars. This can help novice stargazers gain confidence and familiarity with the night sky.
Where in the World?
The night sky is a giant road map to the universe. Sailors used stars to navigate the seas, but even without a sextant or even a compass, the stars can tell you where you are on planet Earth, what season it is and your cardinal directions.
To find North, use the Big Dipper.
Visible throughout the continental United States, the Big Dipper is probably the most familiar celestial sight (aside from the sun and Earth’s moon). Comprised of the seven brightest within the constellation Ursa Major (The Great Bear), the Big Dipper is technically not a constellation, but an asterism, the name for a distinctive star pattern. Ursa Major (and with it, the Big Dipper) is a North American circumpolar constellation. Circumpolar constellations do not set below the horizon and are visible all night. Three stars make up the Big Dipper’s handle and four stars form its bowl. Make an arrow using the front of the Big Dipper’s bowl moving from the base to the rim. These two stars, Merak and Dubhe, point directly to Polaris, the North Star, which is the end star of the handle of the Little Dipper. Polaris is not very bright but can be picked out with the unaided eye in most locations.
To find the sun, use the moon.
A crescent moon, by the way it’s lit, reveals where the sun is in the sky long after it has set. The illuminated crest of the crescent indicates the direction of where the sun is positioned in the sky. Regarding the sun, even paying attention to the sunrise and sunset is a form of skywatching that informs you of days and nights getting longer or shorter.
To find the galaxy’s tilt, use the Milky Way.
Earth is part of the Milky Way galaxy, so by default, we exist in the Milky Way. But to find the Milky Way’s ecliptic plane (tilt), look for a gauzy strip of light “painted” across the sky. This gorgeous haze is formed from stars that cannot be distinguished with the naked eye. For a treat, look at this band with a pair of binoculars, which will make countless stars and star clusters visible. In North America during summertime, it’s visible around 10 p.m.
Constellations, asterisms and their stories have been captivating our imaginations for thousands of years. Of the 88 constellations identified by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), most are linked to Greek and Roman mythology. These stories can provide a fun basis for introducing astronomy. Many of the constellations identified on modern astronomical maps contain the same stars that were assigned to them thousands of years ago. Recognizable figures like those of Orion and Cassiopeia adorn Egyptian pyramids and Sumerian tablets thousands of years old. Indigenous cultures also identify star groupings and have a rich, elaborate history with stories associated with these stars, whose importance continues today.
In addition to constellations and asterisms, the night sky has other forms of entertainment: meteor showers, nebulae, star clusters, comets and lunar eclipses (when Earth passes between the sun and moon). Some places in North America may also be treated to the aurora borealis, or Northern lights.
Every season has its highlights in the night sky. Using a star chart or app (some, like SkyView® or Star Walk 2, use augmented reality) can make it easier to find constellations in their natural habitat: the night sky. Here are a few seasonal showstoppers to get you started:
- Summer. The heart of summer offers the best time to view the heart of our Milky Way galaxy. During July and August, the thickest portion of the Milky Way is easily seen in places without too much light pollution. Just look up. It’s also a magnificent time to view the aptly named Summer Triangle. This asterism is made of three bright stars — Vega, Altair and Daneb — each being part of a different constellation. Coincidentally, each of these constellations represent a bird: an eagle (some say vulture) carrying a lyre, an eagle and a swan, respectively.
- Autumn. With nights becoming longer and the colder temperatures making the air clearer, autumn ushers in some fun sky shows. The Great Square of Pegasus (yes, that is its proper name) is an easy-to-identify asterism that is part of the constellation Pegasus. Autumn is also a time to catch an early evening meteor shower, the Draconids. For a more dramatic (and late-night) meteor shower, the Geminids light up the December sky.
- Winter. Because cold air holds less moisture, wintertime stargazing can provide spectacular, crystalline views. Orion with his distinct belt, sword and shield is an easy-to-find constellation and makes a prominent appearance during winter. Once you find Orion, try finding his two dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor as well as his quarry, Lepus the rabbit. Taurus the Bull with the Pleiades star cluster is another nighttime jewel and situated near Orion.
- Spring. Spring unleashes another cast of characters to the night sky. Leo the lion dominates with his reverse question mark pattern of stars. Hydra, a massive water snake, can be a little tricky to find despite being the largest constellation of the IAU’s official list. Tracking the snake’s body as it swims through the sky can be very rewarding.
Whatever the time of year, step outside into the dark where the sky’s natural treasures are waiting for you. Happy stargazing!