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The Laurel Inner Space: Look up with us: family stargazing under Laurel’s skies

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Posted on: June 6, 2024

By AGNES PASCO CONATY

If you think about it, a lot of the wonders we’re in awe of are free: All you need is to look up.

My husband and I, who both work at Goddard Space Flight Center, gave out safe-viewing glasses last October for the annular solar eclipse. We hoped everyone we gave a pair to would use them again for this April’s partial solar eclipse, too. Although it was entirely cloudy for last year’s eclipse, but we had great weather this year and most of Maryland fell within the 90% totality range, making the event even more spectacular. The eclipse far exceeded the expectations of all of us fortunate enough to witness it!

This rare event was followed by an extraordinary dance of lights and magnetism from solar flares the aurora borealis, or northern lights. More typically occurring in skies far north of here, the northern lights, on May 11 and 12, could be seen as far south as Georgia. And with expectations of more spectacular events to come this summer, I’m dusting off my 4-inch reflecting telescope and getting ready to aim it at the night sky.

Austin and Joseph Conaty observe the moon during a family stargazing night in summer.
Credit: Agnes Pasco Conaty

During the warm nights when the moon is full, my family is eager to set up our telescope and aim it at the moon in hopes of seeing interesting craters. But you don’t need a telescope to see features on the moon; binoculars with good magnification can also give you a good view of some details of the seas (called mares) and shadows of hills. Even a cellphone camera can capture some features of the lunar surface with amazing clarity.

When my 18-year-old son was still young, we spent memorable late nights looking up for summer’s meteor showers. Braving the prospect of mosquito bites, we lay on a blanket on the front lawn and spotted the meteors of Perseids with our sleepy eyes.

If you are eager to learn more about sky watching or star gazing, I’d like to offer you some resources you could explore.
There are many good apps, and most of them are free. Some of my favorites are Stellarium, Star Walk, Sky Guide, Night Sky and Clear Night, all of which are available for Apple iOS and Android. Each of these apps can help you orient yourself to the night sky so you can learn to spot the visible planets and locate constellations. Another app I like is MeteorActive (available only for iPhones), which offers information about when meteor showers will occur and the best time of night to watch them. Nightshift Stargazing is similar and is available through the Google Playstore. My final favorite is Satellite Tracker, which will help you determine when the International Space Station is above you; you can also use it to track other visible satellites in your area. It’s available for both Apple iOS and Android.

There are also a number of websites that offer great information for beginning stargazers. Sky & Telescope (skyandtelescope.org) has a tremendous amount of information for free. Sky & Telescope also offers a terrific guide, Astronomy for Beginners: How to Get Started in Backyard Astronomy, by Alan MacRobert (for the full manuscript, go to tinyurl.com/23u8yvw3). Stellarium Web offers a terrific star map (stellarium-web.org), and NASA Science has an excellent site for skywatching enthusiasts (science.nasa.gov/skywatching).

Front yard and backyard adventures are on my family’s front burner this summer, which will be packed with phenomenal sky events we don’t want to miss. I hope my family’s enthusiasm for night skies is contagious and that you, along with your own family and friends, will catch the sky-watching bug, too. All you have to do is look up!


Agnes Pasco Conaty is a college math and environmental science adjunct professor who also works as senior research scientist and science lead for the GLOBE Observer Program at NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center.

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