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Before we get started, the first thing to point out is that astronomers don't say they are just looking at the sky. They always say they are "observing", which is a fancy way of saying "looking". So, from now on, say you are "observing" instead of "looking". See, you feel more like an expert already, don't you?
Seriously, though, there is a big difference between just looking at anything and really seeing it. We all take the sky for granted because it's always there. Once you start really seeing the wonders that the sky has to offer, though, you will come to appreciate it more and more. You don't need any special tools to do this. Just go outside at night and look up! In this section, we will try to help you really see the sky instead of just looking at it.
Image courtesy of: Galileo Mission
The Moon is something that we are all used to seeing. It's also a very good place to start your program of becoming a skilled observer of the sky. As you no doubt already know, the Moon goes through phases on a cycle that lasts a little over twenty-eight days. If you check the Sky Maps page here at Astronomy for Kids, you can find out the dates for this month that the Moon will be in each of its four phases.
You will also notice that the Moon enters a different phase approximately every seven days. After it has gone though all of its four phases, the cycle starts over again. In time, you will be able to know pretty much what phase the Moon is in on any given day without checking any charts or tables. We are going to teach you how to do that in this section.
Getting in Tune with the Rhythm of the Moon
The Moon, along with everything else in the sky, has it's own "rhythm". This is the cycle that the Moon follows as it goes through each of the four phases. If the Moon is currently in the early part of its cycle (between the New Moon and the Full Moon), go outside tonight after it gets dark and notice where the Moon is in the sky. Try to notice where the Moon is in relation to something that doesn't move, like the corner of a house or a tree.
Tomorrow night, go outside at the very same time and notice where the Moon is. It will be about two hand-widths to the left of where it was the previous night. This is because the Moon "rises" about fifty minutes later each night. This pattern will continue. A little over twenty-eight days from today, the Moon will be in the same place in the sky as it is tonight. It would have been a lot more convenient for calendar makers if the Moon's cycle took exactly twenty-eight days. It would have been even handier if the Moon's cycle was thirty days long, but the Universe isn't terribly concerned about what is convenient for us humans.
The Difference Between "Looking" and "Seeing"
As you watched the Moon go through its cycle, you no doubt noticed that as the Moon went from New to Full, a little more of it was illuminated each evening (you did notice this, didn't you). As it went from Full to Last Quarter, as little less of it was lit, and a different side was illuminated.
This is the difference between just looking at something and really seeing it, maybe for the first time. Although the changes in the appearance of the Moon from one eveng to the next are subtle, they are there. After you watch the Moon go through several cycles, you should be able to tell how many days it is before or after any given phase just by looking at it and without checking any charts or tables. When you can do this, you are in tune with the rhythm of the Moon.
You are also well on the way to becoming an "observer" instead of a "looker". Congratulations!
Getting Into the Annual Rhythm of the Sky
After you have conquered the approximate monthly schedule of the Moon, it's time to move on to the larger annual rhythm of the Constellations. Just as the Moon moves through the sky on a regular rhythm, the constellations do as well.
For example, the constellation Orion is always visible in the evening during the Winter and in the morning during the late Summer and early Fall. Personally, I always realize that Summer is almost over when Orion is visible in the East before sunrise and I know that Spring isn't too far away when it's low in the West just after sunset. In a world where almost everything changes on a pretty regular basis, the annual rhythm of familiar constellations in their assigned places in the sky is very comforting.
After you have watched the sky for a couple of years, you will get to the point where, if it's a nice Summer evening, Scorpius and the giant red star Antares will be clearly visible in the southern sky tonight, Cygnus will soar almost directly overhead and The Big Dipper will show us the way North.
On the other hand, if it's Winter, you will know that Andromeda will be high overhead tonight while mighty Orion will rule the southern part of the sky.
The point we are trying to make is that while the Universe is still a very great mystery to all of us, there are familiar sights to see in the sky every evening. What is visible at night doesn't happen as a result of random chance, but follows a well-established pattern that will soon become very familiar to you. You can do all of this without any special tools or equipment. All it takes is a little time and getting into the habit of really seeing things and not just looking at them.
Get Out Of Town!
If you live in a city as most of us do now, you are used to seeing the sky through the air pollution haze and the false twilight that comes from the streetlights and shopping malls. Although our urban environment has lots of really nice conveniences, we pay a price in that we can't ever really see the sky. For example, I live in a pretty large city and about all I can see regularly are the bright stars of the constellations and the brighter planets. Everything else is either very faint or hidden altogether.
Pick a night when the weather is going to be nice and put some lawn chairs in the trunk and get as far away from the city and highways as you can. State parks are sometimes good for this. What you are looking for is a fairly isolated area with no towns or highways close by. Turn of the car and all of its lights, set up the lawn chairs and just sit and watch the sky. After about half an hour of letting your eyes get accustomed to the darkness, a whole new sky will seem to magically appear.
You will see that stars really are different colors. If it's the right time of year to see either Scorpius or Orion, you can see that there really are red stars. In the case of Antares, the heart of Scorpius, it will be a red as any stoplight and almost as bright. With a pair of binoculars, you will be able to see that the Orion nebula really does look like a small colored cloud in the sky. If it's summer, you will the the arc of the Milky Way, our celestial home, appearing like a giant streamer of stars sweeping across the sky. It really is worth the trip. You owe it to yourself to take it.