Stunning stars are still in sight

Illustration by Blake Fernandez

A cup of hot chocolate in hand, a sky full of dazzling stars and a fall full of meteor showers makes stargazing a socially distanced activity one can enjoy to take a break from the back-to-school stress. As NAU students adjust to online classes and homework assignments in their schedules once again, the twinkling stars overhead are a beautiful break from looking at screens all day. 

Though the August meteor showers are coming to an end, there are still a few gorgeous reasons to turn one’s eyes up to the night sky.

Victoria Girgis, public programs educator at Lowell Observatory, advises watching the August sky for visibility of several planets.

“Jupiter and Saturn are very bright and easily visible with the naked eye,” Girgis said. “They are due south in the sky and look like bright stars that don't twinkle.”

In addition to Jupiter and Saturn, Mars doubles in brightness in August, according to an article on space.com called “The brightest planets in August's night sky: How to see them (and when)​.”

Girgis said Mars is also visible around midnight and appears slightly reddish. While stargazing, she said one can also see the Milky Way galaxy stretching from the southern sky up overhead. 

Edwin Roy Anderson, principal of the Department of Astronomy and Planetary Science, advises watching the skies on moonless nights and dressing for cool weather despite the heatwave. Of course, the most important part of stargazing is to find a dark spot to view the star-studded sky.

“A good location on campus like that might be Observatory Field or the South Athletic Fields,” Anderson said. “In Flagstaff, Buffalo Park is always a good place. Any place where street lights and other external building lights won't interfere.”

For a clear and secluded stargazing spot just outside of Flagstaff, Kevin Schindler, historian and author at Lowell Observatory, points to Marshall Lake and Kachina Wetlands. Both locations are within 20 minutes of Flagstaff and offer clear skies for viewing.

Whether in Buffalo Park or Kachina Wetlands, Schindler said he recommends coming prepared.

“It’s good to have a chair to sit on or a blanket to lie on,” Schindler said. “You want to get comfortable because if you just crane your neck up it will be uncomfortable after a while.”

A comfortable spot, a bag of snacks and something warm to drink are small parts of the breathtaking and calming experience of sitting under the stars. 

However, stargazing is also an activity of patience, and Girgis said waiting is just another part of the experience.

“It takes up to 20 minutes for your eyes to completely adjust to the darkness and even then, one second of looking at your phone will set you right back to square one,” Girgis said. “Let your eyes get adjusted before you give up.”

While phones don’t necessarily have a place in the stargazing field, stargazing apps can be handy for preparation. Apps like Nightshift: Stargazing and Astronomy provide stargazing forecasts and highlights in the night sky, such as active showers, moon phases and planet visibility. Other apps like Star Walk identify the constellations by holding a cell phone camera up to the sky. Girgis advises using the apps used at Lowell Observatory, Stellarium and SkySafari.

Although the Perseid and the Southern Delta Aquariids meteor showers are ending, all hope is not lost for eager stargazers. As long as Earthis spinning, there will be shows in the sky.

Even if a meteor shower is not occurring every night, some beautiful sights are guaranteed in the Flagstaff sky — whether it be a glance at Mars or a shooting star glimmering for just a moment.

As the world’s first Dark Sky Place, Flagstaff skies are protected from as much light pollution as possible. Since February 18, 1930, when Pluto was discovered at Lowell Observatory, astronomers and stargazers alike have enjoyed the gorgeous aerial scenery that Flagstaff nights have to offer.

For both novice stargazers looking for a break from the week and future astronomers studying the constellations, Flagstaff’s dark sky and open landscape make it the perfect city to watch the stars.