DIAMOND, Mo. —
The ability to identify constellations has been a hobby for many amateur stargazers and an important job for astronomers. For African-Americans before the Civil War, identifying a constellation meant escaping slavery.
Thanks to the tilt of the earth and some fortunate positioning, the North Star, located at the end of the Little Dipper, is always in the northern sky. Slaves using the Underground Railroad could navigate by that star to make their way to free states in the North.
"There was a hymn named 'Follow the Drinking Gourd,'" said Randall Becker, a park guide at George Washington Carver National Monument. "It was a message; a way for slaves to find their way to the North."
More about that connection, as well as the love of backyard stargazing, will be shared during "Wonders of the Night Sky," a recurring program held at the monument. The program includes a 30-minute presentation inside the park's visitor center, then a trip outside to spot some of winter's common constellations.
Despite the temperatures, winter is the best time for stargazers to see the beauty of the heavens, Becker said. Warmer temperatures can cause distortion and haziness in the sky,
"The crisp, clear, cold nights are wonderful," Becker said. "Warmer air has turbulence. That with humidity and clouds all can hinder seeing."
Winter also has some of the brightest, most beautiful constellations, Becker said. The same tilt of the earth that keeps the North Star in the North also means that the stars in the South change with the season.
"My favorite is the winter sky," Becker said. "With constellations like Gemini, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Taurus and Orion, it's easy to find your way around."