Wish I May, Wish I Might, See a Ton of Stars Tonight
S ummer nights sweep in clear skies that beckon stargazers of all ages. Finding a truly dark spot from which to view the cosmos is essential, and there are a couple of Chesterfield locations that fit the bill.
Because it can take 40 to 60 minutes for human eyes to fully adapt to seeing in the dark, plan starry outings accordingly. Furthermore, any exposure to bright lights instantly ruins eyes’ acclimatization to the dark, so stargazing is a great time to tuck away cell phones and turn off headlights. Streetlights, porch lights and inside lamps all contribute to lower sky visibility. If having light nearby is a must, viable options are red torches used by astronomers for night vision, lanterns with red safety light features or red LEDs, and placing red cellophane or red fingernail polish over a regular flashlight beam.
Spirit Marks the Spots
The first local place to head for seeing stars is the Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield Valley. The “unofficial” site is a gravel lot on the far south end of Goddard Avenue. Spirit’s Director of Aviation John Bales says the lot is available for night viewing and monitored by law enforcement officers.
A second Spirit-based location reflects complete Chesterfield ties and history. Bales says the Richard E. Hrabko Aircraft Viewing Park at 18270 Edison Ave. is a special spot. The area was created and dedicated in 2012 to honor Hrabko, who was Spirit’s first employee as an air traffic controller and former chief executive. Hrabko was instrumental in Chesterfield’s development and commerce, even serving as a city councilman. He died this April.
“Dick’s spirit lives on at the airport, and that he certainly would want visitors to enjoy the night sky from there,” Bales says.
To get farther away from ambient light or illumination, stargazers can head to Howell Island Conservation Area, which is mostly forest surrounded by the Missouri River and Centaur Chute. However, an associated parking lot is located off of Eatherton Road, providing a safe place from which to watch skies until 10 p.m. nightly. The parking lot is next to Fick’s Supply Service, 501 N. Eatherton Road.
For more intimate viewing, one needs only to walk outside into a backyard or deck with binoculars or a telescope.
St. Louis Astronomical Society members host “star parties” and sky orienteering events in nearby places, such as Babler State Park’s Monument Area Outreach Site in Wildwood; Queeny Park and Ferris Park in Ballwin; Manchester United Methodist Church; and Des Peres Park. Check the society’s website—SLASOnline.org—for dates and options. Additionally, Jim Small, president of the society, says the group donated 17 telescopes to St. Louis County and City libraries so the instruments can be checked out by those with valid library cards.
Awaken the Inner Explorer and Get Prepared
Astronomy is an outdoor nature hobby, and Chesterfield’s Samuel C. Sachs Branch Library at 16400 Burkhardt Place has resources for learning cosmic patterns. Astronomy guidebooks also can be secured at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 1600 Clarkson Road. It’s nice to be able to point out stars or constellations beyond Polaris, the Big Dipper or Orion!
A variety of telescopes can be ordered and picked up from the Walmart Supercenter at 100 THF Blvd.; some are offered with free shipment.
Other stargazing tips would be to buy a planisphere, which is a star chart analog computing instrument, or to download an automated app onto a smartphone or tablet. Some apps work by pointing smartphones at the sky to pinpoint constellations. Others allow for changing locations to view the night sky from other points on Earth, and in-app purchases unlock enhanced star catalogs, meteor showers and comets. Examples of such apps include Night Sky Lite, SkyView, Sky Guide, Star Rover, Google Sky and Stargazers Pro. If using these technologies on-site during evenings, remember to allow extra time for eyes to reacclimate to the dark.
The NASA app shares the latest missions plus daily images, news, features, tweets, satellite trackers and even live stream from NASA TV. It also monitors the International Space Station sighting opportunities.
Another handy, electronic tool comes from AccuWeather, which provides solunar forecasts. A bright moon is awfully pretty, but it’s not a great condition when desiring to see other items in night skies. If the moon will set early or rise late, that’s the best chance at clear views of stars.
Got young toddlers and children? Get them more excited about outer space with mini space shuttle replicas or other spacecraft toys to hold during the outing. Fill dry, inflatable kiddie pools with pillows and blankets to make comfy viewing nests.
Plan Nighttime Picnics
Relaxing and enjoying stargazing experiences is the mission. Round up whatever lawn chairs, stools, blankets, cushions and drinks desired ahead of time. If it’s a romantic evening, champagne and truffles may be in order.
Many people like to lie down for sky viewing, so as to not strain necks. A reclined front seat in an opened convertible also works. If stargazing in one’s own backyard and a trampoline is available, it makes a great foundation. Otherwise, a lined picnic rug can prevent the cold from the ground from seeping up. Sleeping bags provide both comfort and warmth. Depending on how long one stays outside, a propane heater can make the stargazing experience more enjoyable.
Be sure to keep everybody protected from mosquitoes with bug repellent.
Refreshments, such as energy bars or homemade cookies, are welcome additions. Most amateur astronomers agree trail mixes are one of the best stargazing snacks. By mixing equal parts, or dietary portions, of the following ingredients, handmade trail mixes can be customized and matched to the moods of each picnic.
- Tropical Galactic Mix: Cashews, Brazil nuts, dried mango, coconut flakes, banana chips
- Meteor Monkey Munch: Banana chips, peanuts, sea salt, almonds, dark chocolate chips, raisins, coconut flakes
- Savory Sky Seeds: Almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne pepper
- Chocolate Comet Lover: Hazelnuts, dried cranberries, chocolate-covered almonds, chocolate candy pieces, cacao nibs
- Movie Star Night: Popcorn, peanuts, chocolate candy pieces, dried cranberries
- Cajun Crater Blend: Almonds, pecans, walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sea salt, garlic powder, chili powder, ground cumin, cayenne pepper
- Planet PB&J: Peanuts, dried strawberries, peanut butter chips, shredded wheat cereal
Plunge Into Universe Fun
To get the most benefits from stargazing, spread out charts and guides, find configurations in a range of available equipment, and figure out how to identify targets before heading into the nightly wilderness.
If it seems hard to spot faint stars, one can try using averted vision by looking just to the side of what one’s trying to see. Peripheral vision is most sensitive to light and dark, making it easier to see faint objects when the rest of the sky appears gray.
Consider keeping an observation log of all constellations seen this summer so that comparisons can be made, anomalies found and records built for memories.
For times when going outdoors simply isn’t possible, the Pinot’s Palette Studio at 1641 Clarkson Road sometimes hosts paint parties with star themes. Their local artists guide guests step by step in creating shooting star masterpieces, yielding another creative way to experience starry nights.