Why Stargazing is Better in Winter

Sure it’s cold outside, but how else are you going to spend those long, dark nights?

By Caroline Barlott, ’03 BA, for Thought Box on February 28, 2015

Winter Night Sky

Sharon Morsink, ’97 PhD, isn’t your average stargazer. As director of the University of Alberta Astronomical Observatory she has access to some pretty awesome telescopes. But you can still sometimes find her lying on a blanket looking up at the night sky. She says anyone, anywhere, can enjoy the beauty and mystery of the stars, even with the naked eye.

We don’t usually think of stargazing in winter, but it’s a great time to check out the constellations because it gets darker earlier and the visible part of the night sky at this time of year has many bright stars. Just make sure to dress for the weather. (And don’t forget the thermos of hot chocolate.)

Twinkle Tips

1. The big-city advantage. “In some ways, learning the night sky in the big city is easier than if you’re out in the country where you can see thousands of stars, because it’s like being able to identify a couple of trees in a park as opposed to hundreds of trees in a forest,” Morsink says.

2. Give your eyes time to adjust. It takes about half an hour for the chemicals in your eyes to adjust to the dark. Wearing sunglasses in the house before you head outside can give you a head start.

3. You don’t need expensive equipment. Many constellations are visible with the naked eye or a pair of binoculars. You can buy a star-finder chart, a circular map of the night sky, at your local bookstore, or there are many good cellphone apps to help identify the stars. A flashlight covered with red cellophane gives enough light to read the charts without dimming your night vision.

4. Consider some simple gear. You can see a lot more stars with binoculars, and the planets will look like more than just points of light. Most binoculars with five times magnification would show Jupiter and the four points of light that mark its moons, for example.

5. Make connections. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has local chapters that often have telescopes they’ll lend to people, Morsink says. Many observatories also have public evenings, including the U of A Astronomical Observatory, which is open to the public on Thursday nights from September through April and for occasional sessions from May to August.

6. Expand your reach. “Through the U of A’s telescopes, people can see binary systems, which are two stars orbiting around a common centre of mass. They can see star clusters, a big ball of stars in the sky. They can see nebula, which are big clouds of gas.”

7. The country is calling. “Do try to get out of the city at some point and see the night sky when it’s totally dark,” says Morsink. “The Milky Way is a splendid thing, and you can’t really see it without darkness.”

Star Quest

Use the star charts below to check out constellations in the night sky this winter. These will work early in the evening for anyone living in a northern latitude. Morsink made these using free stargazing software from Stellarium.

Star Map North

Big Dipper, Polaris and Cassiopeia: One of the easiest constellations to find is the Big Dipper, which is always above the horizon on the Northern Hemisphere. The two stars furthest from the handle are the “pointer” stars. Follow them outward in a straight line to find Polaris, also known as the North Star. That line points to one tip of the “W” that forms Cassiopeia.


Star Map South

Orion: Facing south, look for the three belt stars of the constellation Orion, which represents a mighty huntsman in Greek mythology wearing a belt at a jaunty angle. Two stars above the belt represent his arms and two stars below represent his legs.

Orion Nebula: If you aim binoculars below the three belt stars of Orion, you'll probably be able to see a faint fuzzy blob. This is known as the Orion Nebula. It’s a large cloud of gas where stars are being formed.

Winter Triangle: To the left of Orion is a group of stars sometimes called the Winter Triangle, composed of three very bright stars: Betelgeuse, Sirius and Procyon (in a clockwise direction).

Sirius: The star Sirius is the brightest star that can be seen from Earth. If you look at it with binoculars, it appears to sparkle with different colours. “Students at the U of A have been calling this star the Disco Ball Star for many years,” says Morsink.