We began studying the night sky in our astronomy class this year. We learned how to read a star map. We focused on where in the sky to look for the Big and Little Dippers at this time of year in our location, and how to use them to find the North Star. We stayed up past bedtime and headed out to the open field in the park across the street. We looked up and saw... three stars. Three.
Needless to say, city stargazing was a little underwhelming. We live about eight miles south of a very bright city and about two miles north of a very bright international airport. We also live on a well lit street with a well lit park across the street. What our lesson lacked in actual stars was made up for in a very poignant lesson on "light pollution".
The three stars we could see from the park were lone bright stars, but I had absolutely no idea which stars they were. All the stars around them were drowned out by ambient light. The Dippers were nowhere to be found either; therefore using them to find Polaris was out of the question. I was thankful to have downloaded a few stargazing apps onto my iPhone, so that I could at least identify these few visible stars for the boys: Vega, Deneb and Altair.
Michael had fun pointing my phone around the night sky, watching different graphics of the unseen stars that were supposedly there flash across the screen. However, it wasn't long before the boys had lost interest in our three stars and were off playing, giddy at the idea of being out past bedtime, in the park, in the dark. Meanwhile, I was on my back on the grass with my phone in the air, trying to gather all the information I could about the few stars we could see.
After returning to the house, we decided to try our slightly darker, albeit tree-lined, backyard as a stargazing location. There, peeking around the side of the house, was an actual group of stars, together, trying to form something. Thanks to her bright stars, Cassiopeia could be seen from our backyard. Wow! An honest-to-goodness constellation! How exciting!
In class the next day, I asked the boys what they had observed the night before? Michael started rattling off all the constellations he had "seen":
Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Polaris, the Dragon, the King...
At first, King and I were perplexed. How did we miss seeing all those constellations? Then I remembered giving Mike my phone to use.
No, Michael, I mean real stars... in the sky... that you saw with your own eyes.... not just on the phone.
Oh... uh... then, I don't know.
We ended up having a good discussion about the stars we did see and the boys sketched their observations in their science copybooks.
Thankfully, an opportunity for celestial-redemption lay just around the corner. I had planned another outing for the upcoming weekend: we would travel to a "dark-sky" location well away from the star-masking glow of the big city lights.