Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic just over a year ago, more and more people have been turning their eyes toward the sky and spending their nights gazing at the moon, planets, stars and galaxies.
Philip Groff has noticed this surge in amateur astronomy. The executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) said there has been increased interest in the online programs the not-for-profit offers and has heard retailers are finding it hard to keep telescopes in stock.
“Stargazing is a fun safe hobby during Covid and a wonderful way to better understand the universe and our place in it,” said Groff. “Fortunately, it’s only a short trip for most of us to enjoy a dark sky and to experience the vastness of the universe.”
Night sky-watching is a family-friendly activity that can be enjoyed while socially distanced from others and for relatively little money, since it can be done with a telescope, binoculars or just the naked eye. Space has also captured people’s imagination during the last year, with the successful landing of NASA’s Mars rover, Perseverance, meteor showers and even a passing comet in July of 2020 and fireball sightings.
“It’s a multi-faceted science that always has something new, from the Perseverance rover to cosmology and new theories about dark matter,” said Ian Wheelbend, the education and public outreach coordinator for Toronto’s RASC chapter.
Since astronomy is dependent on seeing the night sky, it’s best done in a place where it’s truly dark. For those living in the light-polluted Toronto area, this means driving at least 100 kilometres out of the city. If you are planning to head out, keep this in mind: with the sun setting later in the evening at this time of year, you will not be able to see much until after it gets dark, so taking the kids on a school night may not be a good idea.
Before you leave, you should check for the most recent updates on any local health restrictions in the area you plan to visit, and practice social distancing once you arrive. Don’t venture onto private property without permission, and respect the environment by following no-trace camping rules: pack out things that you pack in.
Be prepared to be outdoors. Dress as though it will be 10-degrees cooler than you expect since the temperature can drop rapidly at night. Dress in layers, wear a hat or toque and bring hand pocket warmers, a blanket, a thermos of hot tea or cocoa and snacks. While it’s not a concern now, you will need to think about mosquitos and ticks once the weather gets warmer.
Being in Canada, most of the interesting features tend to be in the southern part of the sky. Wheelbend said that on a cloudless night, planets like Jupiter or Saturn will be apparent at dusk. The moon – our nearest celestial neighbour – is most visible at sunset, while bright stars in constellations such as Orion or the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) can start to be seen about an hour after sunset.
You can lie on the hood of your car or sit in a folding chair and explore the night sky by simply looking up, but navigating the 88 constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union and other interesting features may require additional resources. The RASC publishes guides to help identify what is visible on certain days of the year and where to look for them. Its magazine, SkyNews, profiles upcoming celestial events, while weekly updates are posted online.
There is also computer programs, like Stellarium, or apps where you can point your phone or tablet up at the sky and will help identify celestial objects for you by using your camera function. However, the downside is that you would be looking through a screen and not the real thing. Instead, you can print out the Star Finder, a useful tool that’s free from the RASC website.
Having a pair of binoculars or telescope is nice but not necessary. If you do get a telescope, look for something light, portable and easy to set up. Groff said beginners should stay away from devices with electric motors and opt for a Dobsonian telescope that can be bought from area businesses such as the Ontario Telescope and Accessories website, KW Telescopes in Kitchener or Focus Scientific in Ottawa.
Both Groff and Wheelbend emphasized the importance of using a red-light flashlight that won’t interfere with your vision once your eyes adapt to the darkness. You can also make one by simply covering the lens of your tablet or smartphone with red cellophane.
“My best advice is to go out and try it,” said Groff. “The best thing to equip yourself with is information and a star chart so you know what you’re looking at.”
And, as a courtesy to others, park with your headlights facing away from the viewing area and turn your headlights off as soon as you can. That way you don’t bathe others in light, and it’s safer when you’re leaving since you can drive away without needing to back up.
Five places to view the dark sky
Woodbine Beach: Located in the east end of Toronto, Woodbine Beach offers a fully accessible viewing location that can be reached via Lake Shore Boulevard East. With a wide-open lake to the south, you can easily see the constellations-speckled horizon from the water’s edge.
Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve: Take Hwy 400 north and merge onto Hwy 11 until you reach this light-free conservation reserve about a two-hour drive north of Toronto near Gravenhurst. This is an excellent spot to combine stargazing and camping.
Lennox & Addington Dark Sky Viewing Area: A little more than a two-and-a-half-hour drive east of Toronto is one of the province’s most southernly dark sky sites. Taking Hwy 401 east before heading north on Hwy 41 when you reach Napanee. Besides having a concrete platform that’s ideal for those with a camera or telescope, there are physical distancing circles installed for safe gazing. It is open from dusk to dawn.
North Frontenac Dark Sky Preserve: Located a 40-minute drive northeast from Lennox & Addington, this parkland is reached by continuing along Hwy 41 before taking Hwy 506. Boasting some of the darkest skies in Southern Ontario, it has a few amenities, like washrooms, to make stargazing more comfortable. There is also an observation pad and plenty of parking.
Algonquin Provincial Park: Immerse yourself in the great outdoors by planning a camping trip around the time of an expected meteor shower. Drive north along Hwy 400, then take Hwy 11, exiting east at Hwy 60 in Huntsville. Within three hours you’ll be in a light pollution-free area.
No telescope, no problem
If you are just starting out as a stargazer, don’t feel you need to go out and buy a high-powered telescope. Here are a few things you can see this week using your eyes, binoculars and a basic telescope.
Naked eye: You can see the moon, planets and constellations such as Orion and Taurus. The constellation Leo, which is shaped like a lion, will be rising in the south-east. The Big Dipper will be high in the northern sky, where you can also spot Polaris, known as the North Star.
Binoculars: You can look at nebulas and star clusters, including one in the constellation of Orion where stars appear evenly spaced along a line (Orion is known as The Hunter, and this formation is called his belt.)
Basic telescope: You can focus on features on planets, like the ice caps on Mars. But, you will not be able to see the Perseverance rover.
Renée S. Suen Special to Wheels