Need a Free Family Activity or Date Night? Try Stargazing

Moyan Brenn under Creative Commons

Long before high-definition TVs and IMAX movies were invented, humans found entertainment in a very simple activity: looking up at the stars.

But watching the night sky isn’t just an ancient pastime. It’s a modern and inexpensive way to marvel at the vastness of the universe, contemplate the cosmos, or just check out some neat shooting stars. It’s a great free date night, and a cool way to help kids engage with the natural world at no cost.

Ready to give stargazing a try?

Join an Astronomy Club

Joining an astronomy club, or even just going to their events, is a great way to meet other keen stargazers, learn more than you’d ever imagine, and even get to take a peek through some incredible telescopes.

Sky and Telescope offers a handy tool to search for clubs in your area. MeetUp is another useful resource for finding nearby groups of enthusiasts with whom you can hone your stargazing skills.

Attend an Astronomy Event

Even if joining a club and attending meetings isn’t your cup of tea, plenty of astronomy clubs and other groups host public events.

Look for colleges, universities, planetariums and observatories near you and check out their offerings and upcoming events. Most of these organizations are non-profits with educational missions, and they are often very eager to educate and inspire new stargazers. It might cost tens of thousands of dollars (or more) to buy a high-powered telescope of your own, but many planetariums, schools, and universities make these resources available to the public (often for free) during events.

Just Look Up

While groups and clubs are helpful and good ways to learn, they’re by no means a necessity.

In keeping with Walt Whitman’s Famous poem “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” sometimes it’s simply better to head outside alone, savor some nighttime air and gaze at the stars. You don’t even need a telescope to look up and enjoy the nighttime sky.

Tips for Beginners

Get an App

Stargazing is a lot more fun if you know what you’re looking at. Look for apps to help you de-mystify the night sky, from NASA’s app to iPad-exclusive planetarium apps. This list will get you started with 10 great sky apps.

Check the Weather

I’ve been in locations that were forecast to have great northern lights but, instead of seeing magnificent colors dance across the sky, I was greeted with clouds. If it’s cloudy out, it will be quite difficult to see what’s going on out in the universe. Be sure to check the weather before you get too far into your stargazing plans. Rain delays are a fact of life for many skywatchers.

Check the Moon Cycle

When the moon is full or close to full, the brightness will interfere with the light of the stars. A new moon is best for stargazing, as the sky is at its darkest then. Be sure to consult a lunar calendar when making stargazing plans to be sure you’ll have optimal conditions.

Dress Warmly and Bring Bug Spray

Standing or sitting in one place at night can get mean you get chilly in no time. Be sure to bundle up and be ready for whatever the weather brings. Also, if bugs are out, be sure to cover up and wear repellent so you don’t end up with itchy souvenirs.

What Can I See and When?

Mark your calendar for these upcoming not-to-miss astronomy events. If you miss these ones, you can find plenty of other upcoming events online.

May 5: Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower

August 12: Perseids Meteor Shower

September 27: Total Lunar Eclipse (The eastern U.S. will enjoy all of this total lunar eclipse. The rest of the country may be able to sneak a peek as the moon rises.)

October 21: Orionids Meteor Shower

Other Events: Every night, the night sky offers up marvelous wonders. There’s no need to wait for a major meteor shower to get outside and appreciate the sky. Here’s a week-by-week list of astronomy events, from a particularly good view of Saturn to the appearance of constellations you’ve never even heard of. If planet-watching is what you’re after, this list shows the best times and places to see the planets this year.

Northern Lights: And don’t forget the aurora! The aurora borealis, or “northern lights,” is a not-to-miss spectacle that typically happens in the far northern stretches of the globe.

The aurora borealis (and its southern equivalent, “aurora australis”) are based on solar activity, so scientists can predict to some degree when and where they will be at their prime. The Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks publishes an aurora forecast rating the day’s likelihood of aurora activity and showing where it’s likely to occur, and the site even offers a real-time aurora map.

But even if you don’t live in the far north, keep an eye out. In March 2015, a particularly strong solar storm brought the northern lights down as far as Oregon and Illinois.

Your Turn: Do you enjoy stargazing as a free date night, hobby or family activity?

Kristen Pope is a freelance writer and editor in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.