Adventures of a Citizen Scientist

Posted: February 15, 2012

The stars sparkle like diamonds on clear nights in the Shenandoah Valley.  With a little astronomical background, a citizen scientist can enjoy the natural world even after dark.

My first memory of astronomical exploration is pouring over the “Star Wars Question and Answer Book about Space” as a seven-year-old and trying to grasp the mysteries of the cosmos. While visiting my grandmother’s farm in Southwestern Virginia, my father and I stared in awe at what I called “the milky part of the Milky Way.” Back home in North Carolina, a neighbor got a telescope for Christmas and we spent cold nights studying the stars. Our favorite was red Betelgeuse. My neighbor wanted to be an astronaut and I wanted to be a scientist.

As I grew older, astronomy seemed out of reach. Math and science were not my favorite subjects and once again, I felt that the universe was too vast to comprehend. Then I took a community education class on stargazing, taught by an accomplished amateur astronomer with excellent teaching skills and a powerful telescope. The night sky again seemed understandable. A highlight of the class was viewing Saturn; its ringed grandeur always takes my breath away.

These nights, light pollution has greatly reduced visibility in many areas. Still, it fills me with wonder to see the stars and contemplate the cosmos. Orion, Venus and Jupiter are especially bright these winter nights.

How To Begin

The citizen astronomer has many opportunities to explore the sky. We’ll start with the low-tech options!

My favorite book for beginning to understanding the mysteries of the cosmos is “Exploring the Night Sky:  The Equinox Astronomy Guide for Beginners” by Terence Dickinson. This award-winning book for young readers has excellent text and images that can be enjoyed by all ages.

A good introduction for telescope owners and others interested in the night sky are popular astronomical publications such as “Sky & Telescope,” “Astronomy” and Smithsonian’s “Air&Space.”

I recently enjoyed a visit to James Madison University’s John C. Wells Planetarium. Utilizing a digital projector and a massive instrument called the Chronos Star Ball, the planetarium offered two free shows, “Legends of the Night Sky:  Orion” and “Stars of the Pharaohs.” After the shows, the planetarium interns shared Star Talks about constellations and the annual path of the sun. I hope to attend one of their Public Star Gaze events in the future. Check their website for show schedules and events.

Another local astronomy facility, the Stokesville Observatory, is managed and used by The Shenandoah Valley Stargazers. The Stargazers host a  website with scientific links and club information: I especially enjoy their image gallery of space photographs taken by members.

Another good website is the NASA Image of the Day at The Internet archive hosts a fascinating compilation of NASA’s images at

I frequently check stargazing information at The University of Texas McDonald Observatory’s StarDate website

It is an accessible and up-to-date compilation of what is going on now in the night sky.

It wasn’t long ago that one needed some scientific understanding or expensive equipment to find and identify objects in the night sky. That changed for me when I downloaded the free Google Sky Map application to my smart phone. Now I can step outside and retrieve the names of astronomical objects simply by pointing at them with the telephone!

And of course, a telescope is a must-have tool. The least expensive telescopes on the market do not provide a great deal of satisfaction, but for a bit more money, citizen scientists can purchase a telescope that will allow them to start exploring the universe. My Orion starter telescope came with information on finding objects in the night sky.

So bundle up to watch the winter sky and keep watch for new astronomical educational opportunities. February is a great time to look to the stars.

Stephanie Gardner is a Virginia Master Naturalist and special collections librarian at Bridgewater College.






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