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A beginner's guide to stargazing in Lancaster County; what you need, where to go

A beginner's guide to stargazing in Lancaster County; what you need, where to go
Bryce Canyon Milky Way

The Milky Way Galaxy as seen from the rim of Bryce Canyon's rocky rim on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in southern Utah. Bryce Canyon National Park is a colorful geological area popular with tourists and highlighted by eroded rock spires, called hoodoos. (AP Photo/ Ron Harris)

Look up on any dark, clear night and you'll be greeted with millions of stars. 

It's perhaps the only thing that hasn't changed since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Lancaster County.

In a normal time, stargazing newbies and enthusiasts alike could watch the cosmos in the comfort of a group setting, with the Astronomy Enthusiasts of Lancaster County hosting star watches and meetings on a frequent basis.

Though the meetings have been halted, you can still express your love for the stars and the night sky. Here are tips and tricks, as well as places to visit, for getting acquainted with the cosmos.


 

How do I get started? Six tips and tricks for stargazing.

Meteor shower unsplash

A meteor shower in Brazil.

- Avoid light-polluted areas, such as downtown Lancaster city and downtown Lititz. The best view will be in a dark sky. Northern and southern areas in Lancaster County are often the darkest.

- The best time to look at stars is about 9 days before and 5 days after the new moon. The brighter the moon, the harder it is to see celestial objects.

- Become familiar with interactive star maps; websites such as Astronomy.com, Skyandtelescope.com and Earthsky.com have star maps that can show you exactly what stars and constellations are above you in the night sky.

- For meteor showers, use your star map to figure out the closest constellation to where the shower will be. Set up a lounge chair and watch the sky in that general direction.

- Use a compass to figure out your positioning.

- Most planets and some stars can be seen with the naked eye, though it’s recommended to buy binoculars or a telescope to see more specific details.

Sources: Tom Lugar, AELC; Dr. Fronefield Crawford, Franklin & Marshall College


 

Which binoculars or telescopes should I buy?

If you’re interested in stargazing and meteor shower-watching, you might choose to invest in a telescope or binoculars.

AELC Officer Tom Lugar says not to buy either pieces equipment from department stores, as they likely are not high enough quality to see all astronomical anomalies.

Here are some options for beginners at varying price points. All items are available at Telescope.com or Amazon.com.

Recommended starter binoculars:

- Orion Binocular Starter Kit with 10x50 Binoculars, Planisphere Sky Map, Red Light and Starry Night Planetarium Software. $60.

- Celestron SkyMaster 15x70 Binoculars. $90.

- Orion 15x70 Binoculars with Tripod. $100 for binoculars; $100 for tripod.

Recommended starter telescopes:

- Orion Sky Scanner 100mm (4”) F/4 Reflector. $100.

- Orion SkyQuest XT4.5.” $250.

- Orion SkyQuest XT6.” $300.

- Orion StarBlast 102mm (4”) Refractor. $280.

- Orion SkyQuest XT8.” $399.


 More stargazing tools you may need

Star Chart

An example of a star chart from Grundy Observatory at Franklin & Marshall College. This example is for Friday, July 24.

Here are some other tools, many virtual, that can assist you in your stargazing adventures.

- A compass. It will tell you which direction you’re looking at, so you won’t have to search hard to find the star constellation or planet you’re looking for. One can find a compass app on the Play Store or the App Store.

- A star chart. They tell you where to look and what phenomena you will see. There are several available online at sites like Astronomy.com, Skyandtelescope.com and EarthSky.com.

- A clear sky chart. These are available at ClearDarkSky.com. One of these color-coded charts will tell you the most optimal times for clear skies, with categories like cloud coverage, transparency and darkness.

- A flashlight with a red filter. It is the clearest way to see in the dark and not add to the light pollution.

For more information, contact the AELC at aelc.us/contact-us.

Source: Tom Lugar, AELC


 

August's astronomical events

Last Full Moon of 2019

The moon comes up over the horizon at dusk along Charlestown Road in Manor Twp. Wednesday December 11, 2019.

Permitting that there are clear, cloud-free weather conditions, these astronomical events will offer a stellar show of the cosmos.

- Aug. 3: August’s full moon — also known as the full sturgeon moon in Native American tribes — will appear at its brightest and fullest. Observers can view the craters of the moon with a telescope or binoculars.

- Aug. 12-13: The Perseids meteor shower, known as one of the most spectacular and vibrant astronomical events of the year, will be at its peak. It’s possible to see up to 110 visible meteors per hour with this shower.

- Aug. 13: Venus is at its highest point in the sky; it will be easiest to view in the morning in the eastern sky.

- Aug. 18: The skies will be at their darkest for the month as August’s new moon blocks out its luminosity. The best time to look at the stars is 9 days before the new moon and 5 days after.

Sources: Space.com, Tom Lugar, AELC


 

4 stargazing spots in the county

grundy observatory02_2.jpg

Ed Cook is shown inside the Grundy Observatory on the Baker Campus of Franklin & Marshall College with a refractive telescope from the late 1800s.

- Muddy Run Observatory, 172 Bethesda Church Road W, Holtwood.

- Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, 100 Museum Road, Stevens.

- Grundy Observatory, Franklin & Marshall College.

- Naylor Observatory, 670 Observatory Dr., Lewisberry.

- Note: Most observatories are closed for public visits because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Check a venue’s respective website for more information. Visitors can still take telescopes or binoculars to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.

Sources: Tom Lugar, AELC; Dr. Fronefield Crawford, Franklin & Marshall College


 

How to get your kids involved

Want to get the whole family involved? Consider these resources.

- The North Museum, 400 College Ave., reopened in Lancaster city with new health and safety procedures. The museum features an interactive planetarium with two programs, “The Magic Tree House: Space Mission” and “From Earth to the Universe.” More info: northmuseum.org/planetarium.

- NASA’s website offers kid-friendly activities, including making a rover using balloons or creating models of chemical compounds using gumdrops. More info: spaceplace.nasa.gov/menu/activities.

- Kids are also welcome at AELC events.


 

Wanna take a road trip? Visit Cherry Springs Park.

Cherry Springs

Matthew Hubbard, 10, from Grand Blanc, Mich., looks at Jim Podpolucha's 6 foot, f/15 homemade achromatic refractor telescope as the sun sets June 24, 2006, at the Cherry Springs State Park in Cherry Springs, Pa., during the Cherry Springs star party. The state park system designated Cherry Springs as a "dark sky" park, one of a small but growing number of parks around the country dedicated to preserving the night sky and offering stargazers a place to view the heavens with as little interference from man-made light pollution as possible. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

One of the best places to view the night sky on the East Coast is a four-hour drive from Lancaster County.

Nestled in a north-central Pennsylvania forest, Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County was ranked by lifestyle website Thrillist as one of the best places to see the Milky Way in the United States.

What makes Cherry Springs State Park special is its unobscured location and sheer darkness; the closest city is Williamsport, which is over 60 miles away.

Cherry Springs was named the first “dark sky” park in Pennsylvania in 2000 by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

It’s one of the only places in the United States where the Milky Way is so bright, it casts a shadow at night.

Amateur astronomers flock to the state park, especially during the two-week period each month where the new moon amplifies the dark skies, the New York Times reports.

Astronomers also visit the park in abundance for clear views of meteor showers and the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, says Cherry Springs’ website.

There is no lodging available at the park, but there are several cabins nearby. For more information, visit the park’s website at cherryspringsstatepark.com.