Now that the nights are starting to get warmer (in some places, at least!), it’s time to start considering some outdoor activities. But after all the hikes, cookouts, and kite flying, what’s a good activity after dark? After you’ve filled up on s’mores, consider studying the night sky. The experience is always a bit humbling, but it’s a fascinating way to look at our galaxy and universe, and it’s literally a way to look backward in time, since the light we see from the stars originated many moons ago. Most people will recognize familiar shapes in the sky, and may be able to pick out a constellation or two, or maybe you even know the trick to finding the north star (if you’re in the northern hemisphere). But if you want to learn more about what you’re seeing, and to teach your kids at the same time, a good guidebook is invaluable.
You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to study and enjoy the night sky. All you need is good eyesight, a clear night, and a decent guide. Some guides go into great depth into each Messier object and constellation, with star map after star map after star map. It can be quite intimidating for someone new to night-sky study. Maybe you just want to look up and know what it is you’re seeing. Maybe you just want to learn how to recognize more than just the dippers and Orion.
One great option for an entry-level guide is the brand new second edition to National Geographic’s Backyard Guide to the Night Sky written by Andrew Fazekas, also known as “The Night Sky Guy.” In full color, this book breaks the sky down by distance and category, describing how to find and identify some major constellations, planets, and objects, all from your backyard (assuming you don’t live in a location with a lot of light pollution). The last third of the book includes seasonal night sky charts with a brief run down of constellations you can see at that time of year, how to spot them, and a bit about their mythology.
Though you can jump straight to the section of the book that is most useful to you, I recommend you begin at the beginning, as the book describes how and why the night sky changes throughout the year and gives you tips on such things as maximizing your night vision, getting oriented on how the celestial sphere is arranged, and using various parts of your hand to measure distances in the night sky. It also covers some things that are more Earthly, such as noctilucent clouds, auroras, and other phenomena.
Other chapters go into depth on the sun, the moon, the planets, comets and meteors, and things beyond our own solar system, including deep sky objects. Included in these chapters are smaller sections on studying the night sky together as a family, choosing equipment like binoculars and telescopes, viewing eclipses, finding space stations, astrophotography, and more. The book details what to see mostly in the context of constellations rather than individual objects, which makes it an easier entry point into night-sky observation than some guides. It’s easier to see shapes than particular single points of light.
I love this book because it’s an easy-to-digest entry point to exploring the night sky, especially with the naked eye or perhaps some binoculars. It does go into a few things that would be best seen with a telescope, but it mostly focuses on larger areas of the sky at once, which are best seen unaided. The book’s pages are well organized and not at all cluttered. You’re getting mostly an overview of each item, but there is just enough meat in there to give you a starting place to dig deeper, if desired (and there is a helpful section with further reading suggestions). Or, just take this book as it is and work your way through it as the year progresses. You—and especially your kids—will learn plenty, just from using this book on its own.
The end matter in the book also includes helpful, at-a-glance charts on upcoming solar and lunar eclipses, meteor shower dates, when and where to view certain planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) with the naked eye, and even dates of when Mercury and Venus will next transit the sun.
Note: This book focuses entirely, except for a couple of pages in the back, on the night sky of the northern hemisphere. I hope there are comparable books for those of you in the southern hemisphere!
The National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Night Sky is a perfect entry point for those wanting to get oriented to the night sky. It includes just enough information to give you context for further learning, and can be enough on its own for those who just want to casually study the night sky or to get their kids hooked. To get a preview, check out Amazon’s Look Inside feature for this book.
For those who want to dig deeper, there are countless fantastic references out there. I recommend, to anyone, a night sky finder and a good star atlas, but there have been a few books that have been invaluable to me in my decidedly-amateur astronomy studies (though do note that there may be more recent references than these). The National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to the Night Sky is a very nice all-around reference book to the night sky. Star Watch: The Amateur Astronomer’s Guide to Finding, Observing, and Learning about Over 125 Celestial Objects by Philip S. Harrington teaches you just how to find objects by literally giving you directions using landmarks. Objects in the Heavens: The Complete Mag-10 Northern Deep-Sky Viewing List & Fieldbook by Peter Birren acts as a general field notes journal and “life list” for keeping track of deep sky object spottings (though this one does seem to be out of print). There are also some fantastic apps which can aid you in finding particular night sky objects and constellations, or tell you what you’re currently looking at. My most recent favorite of those is Sky Guide.
Note: I received a copy of this book for review purposes, but my love of all things astronomy is lifelong.