Stargazing
by Dave

Couple laying out under the night sky
If done right, stargazing can be an amazing date! Think about it, the scenery's beautiful, there's no one else around, and you're lying next to each other in the darkness, looking up at the sky. Mix in cuddling under a blanket and sipping wine or eating chocolate, and this might not be so bad after all.

Where to go

Unfortunately for those of us who live in cities, we can't just grab a blanket, a bottle of wine, and drive over to an open field and see much through all the light pollution. If you live in a populated area, try to get even 15-20 minutes outside of town and you'll have a much better stargazing experience. You really can't compare the majesty of a brilliantly-lit night sky with what we see in the cities. It's worth the trip, really!

Take a look at the light pollution tool I've added in the Links section to help find the nearest unlit spots. Once you find an area, you'll need to narrow it down to where you can actually park and place the blanket. If there's a campground or park nearby, call their office and talk to a ranger or someone at the front desk and tell them what you have planned. They can be an excellent source of information and will probably have suggestions for you. Get a few specific ideas with street names and pull them up on a google map in satellite view to get it clear in your mind. Or find a nearby town and call their visitor's center and ask the same questions. Most of these people will be more than happy to help you find a spot for a memorable night. If they steer you toward a public park or campground, be sure to ask the park hours, whether alcohol is allowed, and the cost of parking and use fees.

If you absolutely can't get away from the city, find a secluded area and turn your stargazing date into moongazing! Whatever the choice, think quiet and secluded.

When to go

The best stargazing begins about an hour after sunset, when twilight has faded. Use the moon phase tool under Links to find an upcoming night with no moon, or vice-versa if you’re looking to do some moongazing.

Some of you will automatically think a sunset picnic would be a great addition to this date. And you'll be right...to a point. If you want to go all out and have dinner, plan to arrive right around sunset, which will provide an amazing backdrop. This gives about 1/2 hour or so to eat before it gets too dark to see the food, and then another 30 minutes for sipping drinks as the show begins. Some of the kinks in this plan include the amount of bugs that come out around sunset (in warmer weather), difficulty seeing the food, and the biggest problem - our unavoidable bodily functions. If you aren't in an area with restrooms, one of you may start to get uncomfortable before the romance really starts. For this date I tend to think it's best to have dinner before arriving at your location well after dark, stopping at a restroom right before you arrive, and having simple snacks like wine in warm weather or cocoa, hot cider, tea, or coffee in cold, along with dark chocolate or strawberries.

What you'll see

I’ve included a few links to good sites with star charts and what’s currently happening in your night sky, but you may also want to stop by your local library and pick up a beginner’s book on the constellations. Some of the best books for casual watchers are in the children's section. Along with what you will physically see, familiarize yourself with the history and mythology of the constellations, there are a lot of interesting stories to discuss.

You may have read a lot about the benefits of binoculars for the amateur astronomer, but speaking from experience they pretty much just make small white dots look like big white dots. The two exceptions being Pleiades, a small cluster of bright stars between Orion and Taurus, and the moon. Those are both worth viewing through a pair of binoculars. Oh yeah, and satellites too! If you notice any slow-moving stars that aren't blinking, those are satellites and you can see a bit more of them with binoculars.

The two of you will just be lying there, so remember to bring clothes that are warm enough for the conditions, but not so warm that you won’t need to snuggle up!

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Tips

Depending on the temperature, you may want to bring a bottle of wine or a thermos of hot cocoa, cider, tea, or coffee. For foods, bring simple snacks like cheese, crackers, strawberries or chocolate. Whatever you decide, remember that it will be dark, so don’t bring anything too complicated.

Links

Current Phase of the Moon
Light Pollution Tool
Star Chart and more
Sky Chart & Calendar (left side)
Week at a Glance
Easy Constellation Guide
Constellation Stories
The Constellations
Meteor Showers

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