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Summer nights are practically invitations to go stargazing; things have cooled off from the heat of the day and the hectic schedules of the school year, and it’s OK if the kids stay up a little past their bedtime. The trick is finding a spot where your view is unobstructed by building or light pollution, and POST-protected lands are the perfect places to practice some amateur astronomy.
To help with your night sky explorations, we’ve compiled some tips on where to go and what to look for.
Why not go all the way and sleep under the stars? In collaboration with the Sempervirens Fund, POST bought Little Basin from Hewlett-Packard in 2007. The property is contiguous with Big Basin State Park, and like its neighbor, it has plenty of opportunities for camping. Take your pick from tent sites, RV sites, or cabins. Wherever you decide to stay, you can attend one of the periodic (and free) Astronomy Nights at the campground to learn about the night sky and to peer through a telescope.
Another, more adventurous camping opportunity is the Black Mountain Backpacker’s Camp at Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, which POST has helped protect with several acquisitions over the years. The hike is only 1.5 miles, but you quickly arrive in another world. The camp is in an open field, making it the perfect spot to view the Milky Way. If you don’t want to spend the night, docents lead night hikes at Monte Bello or you can get an astronomy permit for after-hours access to the preserve.
You should be able to spot the Big and Little Dippers (officially known as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor) all year round. From there, you can find Cassiopeia by tracing an imaginary line from the point where the Big Dipper’s handle meets its cup through the last star on the Little Dipper’s handle (the North Star). The line will reach the last star in the zig-zag of Queen Cassiopeia, who spends half the night hanging upside down as punishment for her vanity.
Another bright constellation is Scorpius, which is best viewed in the summer, and hangs in the south close to the horizon. Look for a relatively bright redish star, and from there two stars stretch to the left to make the scorpion’s tail. The head and two claws are in two lines of stars to the right. In the winter months, Scorpius looks like he is chasing Orion across the sky. You can use a star map or a variety of apps to find even more stars.
The moon is also an important factor in stargazing. For the best view of the stars, avoid times when the moon is full (here’s a calendar), but be sure you don’t miss the moon completely. July 31st in a blue moon, meaning the second full moon in a month. You can also look forward to a lunar eclipse on September 28th.
Every August you can expect to see meteor showers, which look like tons of shooting starts (get ready to make wishes!). They happen at the same time every year because the Earth’s orbit intersects with a comet’s orbit and the debris from the comet burns up when it reaches our atmosphere. This year, the showers peak in the early mornings of the 11th, 12th, and 13th.
What’s your favorite constellation? Do you have a trick for finding it? Let us know on twitter!
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects and cares for open space, farms and parkland in and around Silicon Valley. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 75,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties.