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For Sharon Springs, the real dog days of summer start right at the beginning of July and can last all the way through August, if the weather is hot enough. It’s not just because the temperature gauge is spiking up, but it’s also when our humidity levels and dew points reach “tropical” stage (Mind you, this is the scientific term. There’s nothing tropical about walking around and feeling like you are trapped in a can of condensed soup.)
The ancient Greeks and Romans called this sultry time of season “dog days” because it followed the rising of the star Sirius aka Canis Majoris aka the star that was supposed to represent a big, black hellhound. Sirius was apparently a real hell-raiser in his day and was said to be the reason behind heat waves, lethargy, bad luck, thunderstorms, fevers and even literal mad dogs.
So, what do we do during these dog days of summer? Well, it’s the same as how we spend a lot of our time— traveling, working and farming. But during the evening, when the humidity lessens up and it’s finally a little cooler outside, we like to take up one of our favorite hobbies, stargazing. We even like to take our version of Sirius with us. Luckily for us, Önder isn’t a hellhound (But she can raise hell if she’s been cooped up all day.)
Now, you don’t need anything special to get into this hobby (Just your eyeballs and a dark, cloudless night) but in our experience, adding a few tools makes our sky-watching efforts a little more fun.
A phone: Everywhere we travel (and you know we travel a lot), Josh will always pull out his phone and fire up the SkyGuide app and see what constellations are overhead (We’re not sponsored by the app, Josh just loves it that much.) Since we always have our phones with us, having a sky-watching app at the ready makes astronomy that much easier.
The Library: We know, it’s obvious, but libraries really are great for beginning stargazers. Beyond checking out a book about Astronomy 101, many libraries also have locally-generated sky maps. These guides can help you find your way around the atmosphere when you’re out in the field (Especially when you don’t have service or Wi-Fi).
Binoculars: When you think of searching for stars, the most obvious device to have seems to be a telescope, but here’s why binoculars are a better choice. They are more portable, cheaper and easier to use on a whim. Telescopes need to become acclimated to the air temperature around them to be able to perform at their best. With binoculars, you can take them out anywhere to see what’s in the night sky.
A notebook: If you really want to get into the nitty-gritty of sky watching, the best way is to keep a record of what you see, the distances between constellations (More on how to figure that out below) and your location. A journal, preferably with a protective cover, is great to have on hand.
Protection from the elements: For the northeast, summer means ticks, mosquitoes and other creepy crawlies just waiting to hitch a ride on an unsuspecting bystander. Make sure to protect yourself by wearing pants to protect your gams (especially if you plan on walking through tall grass aka a tick highway) and plenty of bug spray. When you come back in for the night, make sure to give your body a once-over to check for any unwanted guests.
So, you’ve got your tools, you have your app loaded up on your phone and you want to go star gazing. Where exactly do you start?
First, you need to make sure you are far away from sources of light pollution (This is one of the reasons Sharon Springs is so perfect for stargazing. 547 people don’t need a lot of light compared to a city.) Light pollution is the brightening of the sky because of man-made light sources (like street lights, cars, etc.). It’s estimated that 80 percent of the world’s population lives under skyglow, a component of light pollution that brightens the night sky. If you’ve ever seen a night sky with an orange-cast to it, you’re looking at skyglow. Researchers have put together a map that shows you how much light pollution is in your area, you can check that out here.
Once you’ve found an area that’s nice and dark, it’s time to start finding some stars. For us in the northern hemisphere, the easiest one to find is the Big Dipper (We like to call it the gateway constellation, once you find that one, you can hop around the stars and find other constellations easy-peasy). The Big Dipper and the Little Dipper are arranged in the sky so that when one is upright, the other is upside down. Other constellations near the Big Dipper (and can only be seen in the northern hemisphere) are Cepheus (known as the king. It kind of looks like a house) and Cassiopeia (aka the queen. This constellation looks like a spread-out W.) Our favorite constellation in the southern hemisphere is Capricornus, a constellation that looks like a goat’s head (complete with two horns) and represents a mystical creature that is half goat and half fish.
Another way to find out where constellations are is by measuring the sky. How exactly do you do that? All you need is a hand and an outstretched arm. Your fist held out at arm’s length covers about 10 degrees of the sky. The three fingers in the middle of your hand is about five degrees of distance and your pinky measures one degree of distance. You’ll probably look weird holding your arms out in front of you to measure between stars, but it’s an easy way to find constellations. Also, if you’re out in the field in the middle of the night with a notebook and binoculars, you already look a little weird. Just lean into it.
So you’re all ready to go. You have your bug spray, your binoculars, your star map and your journal. It’s time to go out into that clear, dark night and get your hobby on. But what happens if you’re all prepared but it’s too cloudy to see a thing? This is where you take out your final tool, a blanket. Spread it out, grab your loved one and enjoy the beauty of a cloudy summer night.