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August 24, 2010

Guest blog: Seven tips for stargazing in Ottawa's suburbs

Today's guest blogger is Elizabeth Howell. She blogs about space, she's a science/business journalist and an amateur stargazer here in Ottawa.

Astronomy lovers in the greater Ottawa area are lucky: the city is small enough that you can do some pretty serious stargazing even in areas close to downtown. The best thing is, it's a hobby that's easy to do on the cheap: all you need are your eyes and some star diagrams. Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Download a star map. Before you head outside, make sure you have a map of the constellations to guide you. The sky changes depending on the season and time of day, so make sure you're up to date! There are a lot of websites you can use, but a couple to get you started include Fourmilab and SkyMaps.
  2. Know what to look for. Look at the Ottawa magazine SkyNews for local stargazing events. You can also learn about which planets and meteor showers are visible on Sky and Telescope's Sky at a Glance, which is updated weekly.
  3. Dress for the weather. Check the forecast and glance outside to make sure the sky is clear enough, and take out blankets and extra coats for cool nights -- or mosquito repellant during the high biting seasons. Bring some granola bars and water so you don't have to go back in your house or apartment if you get hungry or thirsty.
  4. Let your eyes get used to the dark. Pick a spot away from streetlamps -- houses are great for blocking those. Bring a flashlight to make sure you can see where you're going, but cover the light with red tissue paper. This will stop the glare from ruining your dark-adjusted eyes when you want to check your star map.
  5. Figure out where north is. You need to know your directions to find the constellations. The North Star is actually really hard to see in the city, so the best way to find it is to look for the Big Dipper. Find the two stars on the outside of the "bowl" in the Dipper. (Be careful -- depending on what time of year it is, the bowl could be upside-down!) Then trace a line from the bottom of the Dipper, through those two stars and up to the North Star. Here's a diagram to help you.
  6. Pick two to three targets a night. There are lots of things to look at in the sky, so it's best to keep it simple at first. Learn a new constellation, find out where Mars is or take a pair of cheap binoculars to check out craters on the moon. If you have a small telescope, you can look at the rings of Saturn, moons of Jupiter, or bright objects like The Andromeda Galaxy and the Pleiades.
  7. Get involved in the astronomy community. If you or your kids have a hankering to learn more, there are lots of capable people around to help you out. Attend meetings of Ottawa's chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and check out the regular astronomy programs at the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

Here's to clear skies!

Related: Ottawa Nature Guide

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