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Seeing stars

Sky-gazers use apps, charts

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
With only red filtered flashlights to see by, a group enjoys a Full Moon Hike Thursday night at Camp WaNoKi near Coalville. One participant is using a smart phone app to locate stars in the sky at the joint Webster/Hamilton County Conservation Fireside Chat.

Thursday evening’s sky conditions were not the best for observing the stars, moons and visible planets above Camp WaNoKi east of Coalville during a joint Webster and Hamilton County Conservation Fireside Chat and Full Moon Hike.

Clouds moved across most of the sky and the forecast had been threatening rain all day long.

Hamilton County naturalist John Laird demonstrated that even with clouds, one can still observe, just digitally, using an app on his phone.

“I can see what’s supposed to be there,” he said holding up his phone toward the sky.

During the Fireside Chat, Laird talked about astronomy and going out to observe the sky. He’s been watching the sky since he was a child, he said.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Several different phone apps are available to show the observer what’s up there. They even locate satelites.

“You just start observing,” he said. “You can start out by locating the Big Dipper and Little Dipper and you don’t need a telescope right away. Don’t underestimate a good pair of binoculars.”

Laird was inspired to look up and see what was there by the Apollo moon landing, 50 years ago in 1969.

“That’s what made me look up in the sky,” he said.

Laird showed off several tools he has to help guide the observer besides the phone app. There are also star charts, star globes and even a globe of the moon.

“This even shows where Apollo landed,” he said.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Hamilton County Conservation Naturalist John Laird uses an application on his phone Thursday night that shows the location of stars, constellations and even satelites.

The moon was going to be a special treat for the participants.

“At 8:42 the moon is supposed to rise,” he said.

As the darkness continued to gather, Laird and Webster County Conservation naturalist Karen Hansen helped the dozen or so participants attending get set up with red filtered flashlights and glow sticks.

They would need them to get from the fire circle to the meadow above to observe the moon and stars peeking through the clouds.

The red filtration helps prevent the loss of night vision, Laird said.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Hamilton County Conservation Naturalist John Laird, right, shows off a moon globe Thursday evening during a Full Moon Hike at Camp WaNoKi.

Light pollution can be a problem for the observer. Stray artificial light from towns, farms and industrial sites gets reflected off particles in the air and creates a haze that overpowers objects in the sky.

It’s common to only be able to see the brightest stars and the moon in major urban areas.

The further away from towns, the better.

“The best observation I’ve ever experienced was in the Boundary Waters,” Laird said. “There are no lights around anywhere. The other was in western Nebraska, there are no big towns.”

In the Webster, Hamilton and other nearby counties, Laird recommended the many wildlife areas as good places to observe from.

Later, as the group reached the meadow, the clouds cooperated and the rising moon, glowing brighter as it rose higher and higher into the night sky, made for a beautiful sight.