'Following Yonder Star' - Stargazing

by Catherine Fournier

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Have you ever been driving at night and your children have asked "Mom, what's that star?" Or have you ever stepped out into the yard, looked up at the sky, and just gasped with wonder? (Doesn't it make you want to just go?) Have you ever noticed a feature on the moon, or seen a shooting star, and wondered what it was?

The night sky is one of the great wonders of our beautiful world that God has made for us. Throughout history, mankind has looked to the sky for direction and inspiration. Greeks, Romans, North American Indians, and many other peoples have looked to the sky and named the constellations they saw there. Learning the many names of the constellations can teach us the history and culture of the societies that came before us.

Our own history has been formed by the stars. The scribes and mages saw portents in the sky when Moses was born, and warned the Pharoah of the danger to his throne. The magi saw the star in the sky that heralded the birth of Jesus, 'and came in search of the king, that they may give him homage.'

Astronomy, or stargazing is an enjoyable and inexpensive hobby. Astronomy can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it, as occasional or as absorbing as you want it to be. It is satisfying just to be able to identify a few constellations or planets, if that's as far as you want to take it.

From a family perspective, it is something you can all do together, with enough to interest every member of the family. Astronomy also combines easily with other family activities like camping trips, long distance driving, or the weekly family night.

A special memory in our family: Two nights after my father-in-law suddenly died, we were driving home from the funeral home, travelling in convoy back to our home for dinner. Suddenly the lead car swerved off the back country road and stopped. Wondering what was the problem,I pulled up behind them, as people began climbing out of the car. They were all pointing at the sky, so I looked to see what had captured their attention. And as quickly as I could, I got out of my own car.

It was the most spectacular sight I have ever seen. In the north eastern sky, a full moon was shining serenely about two diameters from the horizon. In the north western sky and at about the same distance above the horizon, the Hale-Bopp comet was streaking downwards. And across the entire northern hemisphere of the sky, dancing and weaving above and below, in front and 'behind' the moon and comet was the best display of Northern Lights I've ever seen. We stood in awe, shivering and weeping at the beauty of it.

'Grand-pere' saying "Good Bye?" God giving a sign of comfort in a way that our scientifically minded family would grasp? Co-incidence? I don't really care. It was beautiful, awe-inspiring, and gave us some measure of peace in a difficult time.

Here are a few simple pieces of advice to get you started, and a list of links to further information.

What to Do

1.The public library is the beginner's most important astronomical tool. Comb through the astronomy shelf for beginner's guides. Look for aids to learning the stars you see in the evening sky.

2. Learn the sky with the naked eye first. Astronomy is an outdoor nature hobby. Go into the night and learn the starry names and patterns overhead. This will give you something to learn right away, a show you other areas of interest to learn about.

3. Don't rush to buy a telescope. Astronomy, being a learning hobby, has no such entrance fee. To put a telescope to rewarding use, you first need to know the constellations as seen with the naked eye, be able to find things among them with sky charts, know something of what a telescope will and will not do, and know enough about the objects you're seeking to recognize and appreciate them.

4. So, start with binoculars. A pair of binoculars is the ideal "first telescope," for several reasons. Binoculars show you a wide field, making it easy to find your way around

5. Invest in maps and guidebooks. Once you have the binoculars, what do you do with them? You can have fun looking at the Moon and sweeping the star fields of the Milky Way, but that will wear thin after a while. However, if you've learned the constellations and obtained detailed sky maps, binoculars can keep you busy for a lifetime.

6. Find other amateurs. Self-education is fine as far as it goes, but there's nothing like sharing an interest with others. There are more than 400 astronomy clubs in North America alone

Links for More Information:
  • Kids and Astronomy at the Mining Company A great resource of links.
  • Explore the Moon The ittybitty blackboard is a wonderful web site. Each page is small, but packed with well-organised information
  • Beginner's Star Chart This star chart, updated monthly for the 15th of the month, shows constellations, planets, and bright stars at mid-northern latitudes (+40 degrees).
  • Astronomy for Kids A good site about basic astronomy for kids and families. Check out the How do They Know page for answers to some astronomy questions, and also look at the Sky Maps page for nice maps of the sky each week.
  • Starchild Starchild is a astronomy learning center for ages 4-14 with information on the Solar System, the Universe, and other space material.

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