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."
Though darker environments away from light pollution are preferred (the darker, the better), a night of stargazing at home can be just as entertaining and educational. Keep these tips in mind:
- Find the darkest place you can and stay there so your eyes can adjust to the darkness. Becker said it takes about 30 minutes. Once the pupils open up wider, more stars will be visible.
- Use peripheral vision, which is better for detecting small points of light. Also, instead of looking directly at a star, look around it.
- There are many star charts that can help gazers spot constellations, from printed materials in books to special apps for tablet PCs. If you take those charts with you, use an amber or red lens over any light sources so that night vision isn't harmed. And because apps require bright tablet screens to be seen, they may not be the best option (unless they have a night-vision mode). Instead of taking them outside with you, look at them inside for basics, Becker said.
- Dress warmly. Stargazing is a static activity, which means you'll have to generate warmth through ways other than movement.
- Parents with smaller children don't need constellations, Becker said. Have kids pick out shapes they see to make up their own constellations.
Want to go?
Wonders of the Night Sky will be held from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday at George Washington Carver National Monument in Diamond. The program includes a 30-minute program indoors and a constellation tour outside. Dress appropriately for weather. Details: 417-325-4151.