If the thought of heading into the long nights of winter with some pandemic-caused restrictions still in place has you feeling a bit dark, we’ve got just the activity to make you feel starry-eyed—literally—once again.
Stargazing is fun, family-friendly, and can be enjoyed right in your own backyard. All you need is a clear, open sky free of thick tree stands or interfering light sources. If you need to venture past your own property to find that, you won’t have to go far. Rural Wisconsin is full of parks and public nature areas that offer great celestial viewing and plenty of social distancing, especially in November when park crowds typically thin a bit.
The lack of crowds is not the only advantage to stargazing in November, however. This time of year, right after Daylight Saving Time, is considered to be an ideal time for stargazing by many veteran stargazers.
That includes Lauren Likkel, retired astronomy professor at UW-Eau Claire and a member of the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society (CVAS), and John Heasley, astronomy educator and founder of Driftless Stargazing LLC.
“It’s getting cold in November, but the nights are longer so there’s a trade-off,” said Likkel. Heasley added, “The sun sets before 5 p.m. and the sky is fully dark by 6:30 p.m. Mosquitoes are gone. Humidity is lower. The stars are brighter in the crisp skies. And it’s such a safe outdoor activity. Yes it’s colder, but we know how to dress for the weather.”
Likkel and Heasley have professional backgrounds in astronomy, but both are well practiced in—and enthusiastic about—breaking down their extensive knowledge for stargazing novices. The CVAS operates Hobbs Observatory on Beaver Creek Reserve, on Eau Claire Energy Cooperative’s lines. In a typical year, Likkel and other CVAS volunteers staff the observatory on clear Saturdays from May through October during public viewing times, guiding visitors as they take their turn at the telescope. Heasley is a former English teacher who received training as a space educator through Space Education Initiatives and Arizona State University Mars Education Program. He leads stargazing workshops and programs at a variety of venues including Kickapoo Valley Reserve in La Farge, on Vernon Electric Cooperative’s lines.
The pandemic has put a hold on most formal classes, including public viewing nights at Hobbs. However, the skies are still open, and stargazing itself never gets canceled.
Another Dark Sky Park Proposed for Wisconsin
With its abundant public parks and nature areas, Wisconsin has long been known as a great state for stargazing. One of those parks, Newport State Park in Door County, is currently one of only 18 in the United States—and one of only two in the Midwest—to be officially designated a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), according to IDA’s website. IDA recognizes and promotes excellent stewardship of the night skies.
However, a second Wisconsin location may at some point be included in that exclusive list. Kickapoo Valley Reserve (KVR) and the adjoining Wildcat Mountain State Park, both served by Vernon Electric Cooperative, are proposed Dark Sky Parks. This designation is granted to land “possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment,” according to the IDA.
That description certainly fits KVR, with its 8,589 acres along the Kickapoo River Valley, including 3,600 acres that have been designated as State Natural Areas. All that natural space in the wide open makes for ideal nighttime sky viewing.
“We’re adjacent to Wildcat Mountain State Park, so it’s easy to get a high spot,” explained Marcy West, executive director of Kickapoo Valley Reserve. “Because there is no big city nearby, there’s no artificial light and you get an incredible view. It’s like the stars fall right into your pocket.”
To achieve official Dark Sky Park status, an applicant must undergo a rigorous designation process and meet specific requirements in establishing outdoor lighting policies and community education regarding the importance of dark skies.
West said Vernon Electric Cooperative has been an important partner in helping the reserve achieve its Dark Sky goals by installing energy-efficient LED lights that are night-sky compliant on yard lights around the reserve as part of the co-op’s yard light program.
Dave Maxwell, director of marketing and communication at Vernon Electric, explained the program involves the co-op installing a yard light on a member’s meter or transformer pole for a monthly charge. He said the co-op used to install high-pressure sodium lights, for which participating members could also purchase hoods that would direct the light downward toward its targeted area instead of sending excess light into the sky. The co-op has since switched to the night-sky compliant LED lights and is replacing existing high-sodium lights within the program to the LED lights.
West said the reserve has also been working with the co-op in exploring ways to encourage homeowners to use yard lights that are night-sky compliant or install hoods on those that aren’t.
The reserve seeks to educate the public on the value of dark skies through its programming as well. In a non-pandemic year, the KVR calendar is filled with educational programs including popular stargazing events lead by astronomy educator John Heasley. To protect public safety, all programs are canceled through April 10. However, the hiking trails and outdoor property are open, and stargazers are always welcome.
Likkel and Heasley pointed out that you can stargaze wherever you are. If you’re in search of a darker spot than your backyard offers, Likkel suggested scouting for an area before packing up the kids in the car, looking for an open field with a low horizon, in a safe spot away from traffic.
“Have a plan,” she advised. “Check out the southern horizon and look to see if there are floodlights or streetlights that are going to ruin your observing.”
And, be prepared for those colder temperatures. Heasley reminded that you won’t be moving around much when stargazing, so he advised dressing in layers for about 20 degrees cooler than the temperature.
Both say there’s no need for fancy equipment. In fact, they say there’s no need for equipment at all; however, some fairly common items will enhance the sky-viewing experience.
“Telescopes are wonderful, but you really don’t need one,” Heasley said. “There’s much to see with our unaided eyes. Many of us already have binoculars, and we can see even more with them. They really bring out the color of stars.”
Likkel noted that binoculars also allow you to see the details on the moon such as craters and the varying shades of light. Consulting a star chart—easily obtainable online or even from the local library—can help show you what to look for. Another option, Likkel said, is using a stargazing app for a smartphone or an iPad, provided you’re not in a location that’s too remote for reliable cell service.
“It’s fun for a lot of people to get an app on their phone that identifies the stars and the planets,” she said. “That can be a total lifesaver. Now you can get a free app for the phone that can do a pretty good job of telling you what you’re seeing.”
Likkel recommends the Skyview and Sky Safari apps, both of which have free versions. Star Walk is another app that works particularly well with an iPad, she said.
Heasley mentioned several other guides that are readily available, such as the websites EarthSky Tonight, and the Driftless Stargazing Facebook page, all of which give daily updates, and Sky & Telescope’s This Week at a Glance feature. He also suggested printing a sky map available free each month from Skymaps.com. The sky shifts each month as the Earth orbits the sun, so be sure the map is current.
“Bring it outside, turn it so the direction you are facing is at the bottom, and have fun identifying constellations and discovering galaxies and star clusters,” he said.
Amateur Astronomy Activities
Likkel and Heasley suggested several simple activities that families can enjoy together to enhance their stargazing venture, including tracking the moon as it rises a little later each evening and goes through all of its phases. The moon provides an easy way to see that the entire sky is moving all the time. Likkel suggested spotting a tree branch or some other marker to establish where the moon is, and then returning to the same spot an hour later to see how much the moon—and entire sky—has moved.
Planets are also easy to spot, as they are generally brighter than the stars and don’t twinkle, but shine steadily.
“Jupiter outshines everything in the evening this month, and then Saturn is near it,” Likkel said. “So if you see a very bright ‘star’, that’s Jupiter, and you know Saturn is to the left. If you do this over a period of days or weeks you can track how close together they are. They’re moving compared to each other; Jupiter is catching up to Saturn and it’s kind of cool to see them change in position to each other.”
This is an especially good time to be watching Jupiter and Saturn because they’ll soon be reaching a rare alignment. Heasley said that Jupiter and Saturn’s position will line up in a “great conjunction,” which happens only once every 20 years, on December 21. Likkel noted the two planets will be closer together at that point than they have been in 400 years.
Likkel also suggested families mark November 19 for stargazing for particularly eventful viewing. On this day, she explained, the crescent moon will be near the planets. Also, that’s close to when the Leonid meteor shower peaks (November 16/17), so if the sky is clear, families will have a good chance at seeing a meteor shower on the 19th as well.
Another well-known meteor shower—the Geminids—will peak on December 13/14. Heasley said meteors, which are streaks caused by comet dust, peak after midnight, but there are typically quite a few to see in the evening an hour or so after sunset. But you have to be alert to see one—meteors flash by quickly.
Not everything you see in the sky is a natural phenomenon. Some of the twinkling lights up above are actually satellites sent from the Earth, but they can be fun to spot as well.
“You can tell if they’re satellites because they’re moving,” Likkel said. “Stars maintain their same pattern. If you see a star moving, that’s not a star.”
Nor is it likely a meteor, which only appears for a second or so. “A satellite moves at a constant speed and then disappears because it goes into the earth’s shadow,” Likkel said. “Any blinking light, especially if it’s red, is an airplane. But if it’s moving at a pace where you can point it out and it’s not blinking, you can be 90 percent sure it’s a satellite.”
Once you get familiar with how to spot them, counting the satellites can be a fun nighttime activity for children, she said.
And if you spot an especially bright satellite, chances are it’s the International Space Station (ISS).
“It’s just a bright light moving across the sky and it’s totally predictable because it’s orbiting the earth,” she said. “It takes about two minutes to go across the sky, so it’s not like a meteor that shoots down really fast.”
Likkel said a phone app such as ISS Finder can tell you when the ISS will be crossing the sky in a week’s time so you can schedule your stargazing activity around it.
With all there is to see and learn from simply looking up into a night sky, it’s easy to think of stargazing as a wonderful hands-on science lesson. However, astronomy is not all there is to be learned from this activity; stargazing is also a great way to show that we’re all very connected, even when we seem to be a universe apart. After all, we’re all looking at the same stars, no matter where we’re standing.
“It is reassuring to know that folks can still be looking up together even as we keep safely apart,” Heasley said. “Head out and enjoy the skies of fall and winter. There’s a whole cosmos to discover.” —Mary Erickson
For more information about Hobbs Observatory/Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society, visit https://www.cvastro.org/hobbs-observatory/. Also, visit Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook to learn more about stargazing. To learn more about Kickapoo Valley Reserve and its programs, visit http://kvr.state.wi.us/Home.