Things to Do

A NASA Engineer Shares His Winter Stargazing Tips

Star party, anyone?

The astronomy app Stellarium helps identify stars. Photograph courtesy of Stellarium Mobile, on Android/iOS.
Winter Things to Do

About Winter Things to Do

Lace up skates, dine in an igloo, go stargazing, drink a hot cocktail. Here are lots of places and ways to delight in the season, whether you’re chilling outside or getting cozy indoors.

The sky is at its clearest in winter, an ideal time to look up at the stars. Goddard Space Flight Center engineer Glenn Bock walks us through the galactic activity.

Where should I go?

“You have more opportunities to get connected with the universe by going outside,” says Bock. He recommends parks free of trees, such as Burke Lake Park in Fairfax and Greenbelt’s Buddy Attick Lake Park, which is open until 11 PM. If there are no tall buildings around, a parking lot is also good.

What if I want to stay indoors?

You can make free stargazing reservations or attend a public event at the Montgomery College Observatory in Rockville.

What should I bring?

Bock keeps binoculars in his car, always ready for observing the night sky. Given winter’s low temperatures, bundling up is a must. “You’re going to want to wear your snow equipment, your gloves, your hat—you’re going to want to [dress like] you’re skiing,” says Bock. “Maybe lay down in a sleeping bag.”

What can I see?

Jupiter and Saturn are on view, as well as the Sagittarius constellation, a teapot shape marking the center of the Milky Way. Look for glowing stars within constellations: The “Dog Star,” Sirius, is the brightest point in the Canis Major constellation during winter, and hunter Orion’s right shoulder is lit by red Betelgeuse, pulsing before it explodes sometime in the next 100,000 years.

What should I download?

Bock recommends the Stellarium or Heavens-Above app to make sense of the planets and constellations. There are also free printable sky maps you can hold above your head. Prefer an audio aid? Check out Sky and Telescope’s monthly podcast, Sky Tour.

How can I learn more?

Bock’s advice: Find an astronomy club that’s hosting a stargazing event and can give a tour of the night sky. The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club hosts frequent public viewings at Sky Meadows State Park and C.M. Crockett Park next to Germantown Lake, both in Fauquier County. The National Capital Astronomers and Howard Astronomical League also host star parties.

This article appears in the December 2022 issue of Washingtonian.

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