One of these nights, when the weather gets warm, you might feel the urge to look up.
The sky is a window. You’ll see stars -- some bright, some not-so-bright. Some so dim that you’re not sure they’re actually there. Some of them in sparkling clusters.
See those seven little ones together? That’s the Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters, named long ago when the Greeks looked up at the same burning balls of gas. Seven glowing daughters of a god, just suspended like a string of pearls from a black ceiling, quietly watching.
There is a lot to see if you look up once in a while. So if you’re going to do it, make sure your window to the heavens is clear. In cities, the lights drown out the heavenly bodies, and the heat coming off the whole mess makes turbulence in the air and distorts whatever images you can see. It’s a giant, hot, glowing distraction, and it’s going to keep you from seeing the best.
What’s an amateur astronomer to do? You have options.
Borrow some sweet equipment. Which, for the rest of the spring, you can do at the University of Minnesota’s astronomy lab on Friday nights. Anybody who drops in gets a free 15- to 20-minute presentation on a planet or another colossal astral body, and then -- if the weather’s good -- head up to the roof and do some observing.
Even in the heart of the city, you can still see some wonders through a telescope. Big, bright Jupiter and its moons. The filmy rings of Saturn. The moon, technically, if you’re not ruling out the obvious. But you’re going to want to get a little farther out for the really cosmic stuff.
Go to a state park. Nothing quite beats a state park for quiet, dark, and readily accessible. Just make sure you pick a place that stays open at night. Want to go someplace pristine? The Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in East Bethel -- basically the University of Minnesota’s field research playground -- is about as untouched as it gets. If you stick to Fish Lake Trail, you’ll avoid messing up someone’s experiment.
Want to stay overnight? Get a cheap campsite. William O’Brien State Park in Marine of St. Croix, Afton State Park in Hastings, and Lake Maria State Park in Monticello all have campsite rates ranging from $14 to $17. Sitting silently in the woods at 1 a.m. is about as free from distraction as one can be on short notice.
Go to a state park and also learn something. You can get a real astronomy lesson from the Minnesota Institute of Astrophysics all summer with Universe in the Park, a running series of presentations in state parks that lasts all summer.
Head out to the observatory. The Eagle Lake Observatory hosts public stargazing nights in Norwood Young America. They allow amateur astronomers to look at cosmic events, whether it’s a particular moon phase or the closest Mars has been since 2003. Which is coming up, by the way, on July 27 and 28.
Go somewhere really, really dark. If you’re willing to try doing the opposite of the thing you’ve probably been doing your entire life and find a place in the world that is really and truly dark, there is a website for that: Darksitefinder.com. In the darkest places of the world, the night sky is teeming. You can see the dusty ribbon of the Milky Way.
If you want to stay a little closer to home while you look lightyears into the distance, this light pollution map will show you the relatively darker places in your home state. Look for the pale blue bits in Minnesota.