The Best Kind of Party? A Star Party. A beginners guide to finding constellations, spotting planets, and learning moon phases while at McKendree.


By Gabrielle Madewell, Contributive Writer

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The light pollution around the St. Louis area affects cities and towns miles outside of the St. Louis. On the map, white, red and orange illustrate the areas suffering from most light pollution, while the yellows and greens showcase the darker areas which are best for viewing the night sky. You can visit http://darksitefinder.com/maps/world.html to check out that areas are best for star watching.

One magical thing McKendree has to offer, outside of its great wifi and very organized housing arrangements, is something that does not even factor into tuition: the night sky. While you may just think of stars as a silent backdrop to your everyday life, there is a lot more to learn about them besides just being bright dots scattered across the sky.

Stars are bright, luminous bodies of energy that are so large and bright that we can see them down here on earth with just the naked eye. Constellations are groups of stars, forming imaginary lines and creating representations of images, including animals and mythical gods, goddesses and creatures.  

Living near a city is drastically different from living in a generally rural town. There is one huge benefit of living away from large cities and towns, and that isbeing away from light pollution. At this point you are probably thinking “Um, cool?” ‘Um, cool’ is right because the farther you are from light pollution, the brighter and clearer you are able to see all the night sky has to offer.

Living on the outskirts of St. Louis does not help Lebanon escape the large, overbearing light pollution that follows big cities. While we may have a better view of the stars than those closer to the city, it is still not great. Driving just 30 minutes east of McKendree would decrease the amount of light coming from St. Louis, increasing your odds of seeing more stars clearer.

While there is not a club or organization at McKendree that provides structured and guided viewings of the night sky with a telescope or educator, some places nearby offer free events to the public. A few events coming up include:

 

 

  • Astronomical Society of Eastern Missouri

 

      • Every Friday Night, dark or at 7 p.m. (whichever is later) and runs for 2 hours
        • Depending on weather, event may be cancelled for rain.
      • Library Telescope Program – “functional, easy-to-use telescopes for the general public to borrow” from St Charles Libraries.
        • A good place to take rented telescopes is Broemmelsiek Park’s astronomy site which is free and open to the public. The park, which is free to access 24/7, features 9 paved telescope stations, with 20-amp electrical service for electrical powered telescopes.
        • To find out more details, go to http://www.asemonline.org/Home

 

  • SIU Carbondale Physics Department and Astronomy Association

 

    • Sunday, Dec. 10, 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. at SIU Farms Dark Site
      • “Geminids Meteor Shower Site has 10 concrete telescope pads, an open observation area, and parking. No bathrooms or additional facilities are on this site. Bring your own lawn chairs and blankets. A few public telescopes will be on hand, but the real show, the Geminids Meteor Shower, is best without the use of a telescope.”
      • To find out more details, go to http://www.physics.siu.edu/events/astronomy.php

 

If you do not have a car, or lack the motivation to drive anywhere to look at stars, there are a few places around Lebanon that are open enough to have a relatively decent view of the night sky:  anywhere that is not too close to large trees and buildings is a good  place to start. A few places like this include the golf course next to the West Apartments, or the small field next to the Perryman Townhouses.

And of course, like any ~snazzy~ amature astronomer, you will need some reference to be able to spot planets and constellations in the sky. A few apps that are actually helpful include: SkySafari (99 cents), SkyView (free), StarTracker Lite (free), Sky Guide AR ($2.99), Sky Walk (99 cents). I personally use StarTracker Lite, and if we are being completely honest here, it is not great but it works (most of the time.) Not everyone wants to spend money to look at a shape in the sky so there are free options, but you do get the quality you pay for.

It is always best to use a reference when finding new constellations, so learning a few constellations to use as a starting point is extremely helpful. A few of the most basic constellations are the Little Dipper, the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia, which is the constellation shaped like a “W” drawn by a toddler.

In my experience looking for stars on campus, I figured the most I would be able to find was the Big and Little Dipper and maybe Orion’s Belt if I was lucky. The more I became accustomed to the StarTracker Lite app, the more I found. Not only did I find constellations I have  never been able to identify before, like the zodiac constellation, Sagittarius, I was also able to find the planet Jupiter.

The more practice you get, the easier it is to find constellations and identify planets, but there isno shame in getting some help. Apps that are designed to show you what is in the sky based on your current location and websites that tell you what phase the moon is in are unbelievably helpful. Websites like earthsky.org are the best for learning about different constellations, planets, moon phases, ect. You can check what is in the sky tonight, or look ahead to different, more rare events like supermoons, visible meteor showers, and eclipses.

People usually ask the question ‘what phase of the moon is best to stargaze?’ and in all honesty, it is really up to the person watching stars. Some people may enjoy watching the moon transition from waxing to waning or how the clouds change the moon’s appearance. However, if you are only interested in looking at stars, new moon is the phase where the moon is not visible in the night sky and does not  give off light pollution or take away from your vision’s abilities to focus on smaller, less obvious stars.

Knowing about space is important because it puts our reality into perspective. Carl Sagan said it best in his famous 1994 speech, Pale Blue Dot, when he described earth:

That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Every time you are  angry,  stressed out, or contemplating what seems like life’s most difficult choices, you can look up at space and think about how miniscule your problems really are. We are one speck of life on a tiny dot suspended in a giant, black, uncharted void, surrounded by billions of other tiny, uncharted specks. Crying over a failed midterm seems a little silly now, doesn’t it?

On a less philosophical note, knowing a few constellations is always a cool party trick. Wherever you are, you can always look up and say “Hey! That giant star “W” in the sky has a name and I know it!” No one’s going to question it, and you will look very educated and very cool because who does not  love a good fact? Trust me on this one.

My advice for this winter is to grab a warm cup of coffee, a big blanket, and a friend, and go try to find some stars. There are benefits to knowing more about what lies beyond our own planet. Whether it is  feeling a sense of awe and altruism, or just picking up a new hobby, diving deeper into the world of astronomy may be a fun and eye opening experience.

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The big dipper, the little dipper and cassiopeia are some of the most basic constellations to identify. If you’re able to locate them in the sky, finding more intricate constellations becomes easier to navigate because you have a reference point to work from.
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The moon phases include: 1) new moon 2) waxing crescent 3) first quarter 4) waxing gibbous 5) full moon 6) waning gibbous 7) last quarter 8) waning crescent.

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