Alaska is once again gaining daylight, but with months of dark skies still ahead, now might be the perfect time to try a new outdoor hobby: stargazing.
That, at least, is the opinion of Aaron Slonecker, planetarium manager at the Anchorage Museum and one of the night sky enthusiasts who makes up the Southcentral Alaska Astronomical Society. Thanks to our long nights Alaska has spectacular stargazing.
“The spring and fall, there’s some pretty good stargazing, but the best, obviously, is when it’s darkest, which is for us during the winter,” he said. “We have some really great stars and constellations and then deep sky objects … and we’re kind of lucky because those things are visible during the winter for us.”
The entire state is a wealth of spots to stargaze, he said, but the Valley offers some particularly good viewing spots for people who want to take on a new outdoor hobby like Hatcher Pass.
That’s because beyond simply finding clear and cloudless skies, the first step to really enjoying stargazing is to go somewhere without a lot of light pollution, far away from the lights of cities and houses and at a time when the full moon is obscuring the stars.
“What you need to do is just get away from city lights. And that can be kind of as easy as if people where it’s kind of dark in a certain direction, they should be able to see stuff if it’s a clear night,” he said.
Since winter also brings very cold temperatures, Aaron finds the best stargazers are prepared for the weather with warm gear. He also said having a red light flashlight or headlamp handy can be very useful since it can give some visibility while preserving your night vision as you head out in the dark, he said.
Thanks to the northern lights, many Alaskans step outside after dark to go aurora hunting. But that also creates a great opportunity to learn about the constellations and do some stargazing while they’re at it.
“I’ve seen lots of people really interested in the aurora, which of course they should be. It’s amazing,” he said. “Just that kind of repetition of looking at the night sky, maybe the aurora hasn’t come out yet and find yourself waiting for it … you can always check out some of the other stars and constellations and things.”
Once you get outside and start looking up, he said, you’ll be curious about what you’re seeing. One way to get oriented is to find the familiar constellation commonly known as the “big dipper.”
But even better would be to spend a little time researching what you might see so you can spot it, he said. While stargazing apps can be helpful, Slonecker also recommended Valley residents take a trip to one of the regular programs at Anchorage museum’s planetarium, virtual programs offered through the planetarium at University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) or find the Southcentral Alaska Astronomical Society through their website. Another resource, he said, is Stellarium, a free home planetarium you can use on your computer via Stellarium.org.
“For the most part, people can kind of recognize a couple constellations and things like that,” he said. “But there’s a number of different tools out there — a lot of them for free — where you can really start to learn a lot more about what’s up above us.”