jervin
Friday 31st , 2014
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1951

It might seem counter-intuitive, but winter is actually an awesome time to go stargazing.  You might ask, why wait until the coldest months of the year to spend all night outside?  Well, for one, the winter stars are the some of most spectacular, with a good number of the brightest stars visible from the northern hemisphere out at this time. And  hey! We live in Southern California, it never really gets cold down here.  Of course, when I used to go stargazing with my parents in the Sierra Nevadas, winter stargazing was more of an extreme sport.  We would sweep out a little hole in the snow and armed with down sleeping bags and thermoses of hot chocolate we would spend many of our winter vacation nights staring into the diamond-bright night sky that seemed to sport more stars than blackness.

1952 I have to say, I miss the perfectly clear and unobscured night sky of a high sierra meadow. Here in L.A. County, on your best clear moonless night the city lights may still block out all but the brightest stars.  And even those look somewhat unimpressive.  However, I have come to appreciate L.A.'s astronomy opportunities.  For one, star-gazing here is much more accessible and kid-friendly than back home.   There is, after all, an entire public institution devoted to star-gazing right here in L.A. County in the form of the Griffith Observatory.  Unlike my childhood experience of braving wild animals and frostbite for a look at the stars, there are plenty of warm and relatively open areas to star-gaze that are probably within a 15 minute drive of your house.  There are many internet resources that list where these areas are and the relative merits of each.

I think it often flies over people’s heads what a valuable and not to mention totally, completely and no-holds-barred free and accessible learning resource our night sky is.  Especially in a city where the view up after dark is relatively unspectacular, people tend to forget that it even exists. When I conducted astronomy talks in Yosemite National Park as part of my duties as a Naturalist Guide I was flabbergasted to meet people, who, as lifelong city dwellers, had never seen the milky way and a few who didn’t know that the moon was closer to earth than the stars.  It’s not that they were exceptionally dim or under- educated, they just never really bothered to give the night sky a second thought.  But if you think about it, what an awesome source of artistic inspiration, cultural connection and intellectual stimulation just pops out of the sky every night.  After all, every culture that ever grew up on earth has some manner of star-lore.  While these stories often give us a connection to the past they are also great ways of organizing the myriad information and data that the night sky presents to us. Staring up into the night sky we can infer the existence of other star systems and the heat of their stars.  We can see the evidence of the Big Bang and the origins of the universe. Just by watching the behavior of the moon, stars, and planets around us we can get a sense of where the earth is in the big blob of celestial stuff and the part we play in it.  All this we can get from just paying close attention to the stars without so much as a stick to assist us. 

1953 One of the great things about fostering an interest in astronomy, especially in children, is it is relatively cheap.  Unlike piano lessons or Karate class, stargazing is an extra-curricular activity that one can get serious in for less than 100 dollars.  First and foremost you will need a good guide to what you are looking at.  I would suggest something simple and straight-forward such as “The Stars” by H.A. Ray of Curious George fame.   This book is great because Ray has the uncanny ability to tell you just enough about the stars and universe without bogging you down with too much unwieldy lingo or numerical facts. In addition to being a great text for children I would not shy away from suggesting it to adults looking for a great astronomy 101 primer as well.   While you and your kids are still learning to identify the constellations and by proxy the names, locations, and relative properties of individual stars, I would suggest getting some star charts.  There are all manner of commercial options available 

1954 1955 from simple printouts to high-tech  G.P.S.  and gyroscope powered  apps.  However, I prefer to make my own.   With a bit of transfer paper or a good eye for spatial relationships, copy individual constellations out of your star guide of choice onto black construction paper.  With a sheet of glow-in-the-dark star stickers, place stickers over the points representing stars.  I like to add an extra touch by using glow-in-the-dark fabric puff paint to fill in the lines that flesh out the constellation picture.  If you want to make your charts extra durable slip them into clear sheet protectors.  Now when you need a reminder of what a certain constellation looks like you can use your flashlight to charge your charts and match the images to stars you are seeing in front of you.  I would also suggest investing in a good green laser pointer with a high wattage. You can pick one of these up on the internet for anywhere between $10 and $100.  As far as magnification goes, you would be surprised what you can see through your average every-day pair of binoculars; many binary stars, nebulas and even our next closest galaxy are visible through a relatively low powered pair of binoculars.   What’s more, binoculars are much easier for use by children, more accident proof and portable than a telescope.  If you really, really want the telescope experience there is a free public access to telescopes every clear night at the Griffith Park Observatory before 9:45pm.

Sadly if you really want that mind-blowing experience of seeing a truly dark, night sky you will have to head quite a ways outside of L.A. to the farther reaches of the Mojave Desert.  Even Joshua Tree National Park depressingly holds the record for being the most light-polluted national park in the system.  We tend to think of this pervasive loss of our night sky to the glare of city lights as an unfortunate symptom of civilization.  However, it turns out there is actually a lot we can do as normal everyday citizens to reduce light pollution. Remember to turn off unnecessary lights in rooms with windows, point outside lights downward or use special shades to redirect the light. Also, replace blue or white tinted lights with warmer orange tinted lights. If we all do our part to help reduce light pollution, we can all enjoy the beauty of and learn from the precious night sky.

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Jenna Ervin, Science Specialist, has been with Kidspace since 2013. Raised in the Sierra Nevadas, she has previously worked in Yosemite National Park as a Naturalist Guide. She currently oversees the programming for Kidspace’s newest exhibits Imagination Workshop and Galvin Physics Forest.