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Stargazing Basics

With several state-of-the-art planetariums in Dallas-Fort Worth as well as amateur astronomy clubs that host monthly star parties, you’re never too far away from a potential stargazing adventure with the family. However you and the kids can become experts in your own right without ever leaving your own backyard. (You can even stay in your pajamas.)
We sought out the advice of Ron DiIulio, or Starman as he’s known around the University of North Texas in Denton. As director of UNT’s planetarium and astronomy laboratory program, he imparted to us a few tips for making your backyard stargazing experience an astronomical one.

1. Dig out those binoculars
Thinking of getting a telescope? Not just yet. That ordinary, handheld pair of bird watching binoculars can also magnify the moon seven times. On a clear night, search for Saturn’s rings, or focus your gaze on the stars. Did you know that red stars have lower temperatures than the hotter burning blue stars?
Also, steer clear of street lamps or headlights from passing cars. Use your flashlight’s red mode rather than white light to preserve night vision for yourself and your fellow stargazers.
2. Consult a planisphere
Ancient sailors picked out the constellations from a sky full of stars to navigate the oceans. To help you connect the dots, bring a planisphere. The plastic or paper map with two rotating discs helps you determine which constellations and stars are visible based on the current day and month. Print out SkyMap’s star map of the month for a list of celestial bodies you can see with binoculars, a telescope and the naked eye.
3. Get some help with a smartphone app
We’re already using smartphones for so much more than talking these days. Now you can use them to tour the solar system and beyond. For a few dollars, try out one of these top-rated apps: StarMap, SkyView, Distant Suns, MoonPhase or SkySafari. They each work differently, but generally, you can point the phone toward the sky, even if indoors and during the day, to see stars and the constellations highlighted for you.
Do the kids know their astrological signs? Here’s the perfect opportunity to show them what they look like. Also, each constellation has a mythological tale behind the name, but you can get creative with your own versions. DiIulio says parents should encourage their children to make up stories about the constellations. Try starting with Canis Major, the big dog, or Leo, the lion.
4. Invest in a starter telescope
Relatively inexpensive telescopes are available online at target.com and bestbuy.com. If you’re ready to invest in a quality telescope for your young star enthusiasts, DiIulio as well as Sky & Telescope magazine recommend a Dobsonian telescope, which is manually operated and ideal for beginners. The Observatory Store in Dallas (theobservatoryinc.com, 972/248-1450) carries a few models by Orion. Take care that the kids cannot access the telescopes during the day. A look into the sun could be damaging.
5. Slow down
Most importantly, DiIulio says that parents should tell their children to take their time, whether using a telescope or binoculars. “Don’t stick your eye over and quickly move away, but stay and observe. Look around the eyepiece and try to remember what you see.” Every glance is a discovery.