The night sky is missing.
It hasn't fallen, exactly. But, for most of us, it most definitely has dropped out of our lives.Urban light pollution and our reluctance to go outside at night and look up have left many of us estranged from the star-spangled night sky our ancestors knew so well.
The good news is, there's still plenty to see. And there has never been a better time to get to know the beauty of the night sky again. With help from astronomy magazines, home computers, the Internet and amateur astronomers eager to share their passion, anyone can rediscover the heavens. And they are.
Baltimore's intrepid "sidewalk astronomers," Herman Heyn and Darryl Mason, still delight in the astonished reactions of passers-by in Fells Point or at Harborplace when they see Jupiter and its moons or Saturn's rings for the first time.
You never know where that can lead, Heyn said. "I'm guessing there are Ph.Ds at the Space Telescope [Science] Institute who got their start in astronomy by simply seeing Saturn or some other sky spectacular through a shaky backyard telescope."
I am the most amateur and casual of backyard stargazers. But I occasionally roust people from The Sun's newsroom and lure them onto the roof of the company garage to watch the International Space Station fly over the city at 17,500 mph.
They're amazed they can see it and amazed that its appearance is so predictable. And most seem delighted when I'm also able to point out Venus, Jupiter or Saturn amid the urban glare -- objects they'd probably seen before without realizing what they were.
It's free entertainment, and kids love it. Heyn remembers getting a homework assignment from Audrey Wicker, his science teacher eons ago at Baltimore's Garrison Junior High School.
"One day she drew the Big Dipper on the blackboard and instructed the class to find it that night," he recalled. "I found it, thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen and ... have been hooked ever since."
Tim Hickman is hooked, too. He photographs comets and aurorae and markings on Mars and Jupiter -- all from his backyard in Timonium.
"Why do I do it? ... The thrill of astronomy is sitting in your backyard looking at the glow of a faint galaxy with the utterly amazing awareness that you are looking at the light of 10 billion stars that took 15 million years to reach your eye. I experience the perspective that the Earth we live on is a tiny island in a vast universe."
It doesn't have to be difficult, or expensive, to discover the night sky. And there has never been more information or better technology at our fingertips to get us started. So here's a primer:
First: Don't buy a telescope. At least not yet. Cheap telescopes that promote their "power" or magnification will invariably disappoint, no matter what the ads say. They're feeble and shaky, and sure to douse your enthusiasm.
"The point of a telescope is to see things clearly. [And] a cheap 'scope at high power makes things too fuzzy to recognize," Hickman said. "How many kids get a cheap, poor-quality 'scope for Christmas and, after frustration trying to use it, get turned off from astronomy?"
When your time comes, there are lots of good telescopes out there, and prices and quality have never been better. There's no need to spend thousands. Expect a "first" telescope worth owning to cost about the same as a home computer: You won't get much for less than $400; but you can do very well for way under $1,000.
But get your feet wet first. For now, stick with your own eyes or perhaps a decent set of binoculars. I was transfixed by my first view of the moon's craters through a pair of 10x50 binoculars. Even the less-powerful 7x35 provides an advantage over the naked eye, and they're easier to hold steady.
You'll be amazed. Binoculars will unveil dozens of stars in the Pleiades cluster, reveal Jupiter's disk and four of its moons, and separate a double star at the bend in the Big Dipper's handle.
Second: Start reading. While you're whetting your appetite for the stars and planets, start reading about stargazing. Check the library before you spend money.
For beginners, area amateurs recommend The Stars: A New Way to See Them, by H.A. Rey ($12); The Backyard Stargazer, by Patricia Price ($20); or NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe, by Terence Dickinson ($45).
Most astronomy magazines are pitched to more experienced amateur astronomers. But there's plenty for the rest of us. And the ads -- for hardware, software, books and gadgets -- will become your candy store.
Try Sky & Telescope, Astronomy or a new magazine geared for beginners called NightSky. They're all available at libraries, newsstands, by subscription or online. Read and learn.
If you're into computers, try the basic edition of Starry Night ($50), which is among the best of many software guides to the night sky.
To discover where backyard stargazing can take a kid - even an urban kid - read Neil deGrasse Tyson's The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist ($18).
Third: Know when to look. Obviously, stargazing demands clear skies. Look for nights after rainstorms, when cold fronts push through and bring cold, clear, dry air. Autumn and winter skies around here are the clearest, but often uncomfortably cold; summers are too-often hazy, but nights under the stars are more comfortable.
Best bet: Go online and sign up for Clear Sky Alarm Clock (clearskyalarmclock.com). The site will e-mail you when your forecast looks good for stargazing and tell you how long it will stay that way.
When I was a kid, I got hooked on the World Almanac. It's hopelessly retro, but I still buy it ($13). Look in the index for Astronomy and turn to Celestial Highlights (2006).
You'll find four pages of day-by-day events in the night sky. Planets rise, set and gather. The moon guides you past planets and bright stars. Meteor showers, eclipses and slim crescent moons are all laid out like a train schedule.
The astronomy magazines ($6-$7) detail the monthly highlights, too, in print and online versions. Better yet, they offer sky maps to help you find the best events and identify the objects you stumble across.
An even better resource is Guy Ottewell's annual Astronomical Calendar. This tabloid-sized paperback ($25) is crammed with information, monthly events calendars, sky maps, diagrams and much more. If you can buy only one reference, buy this one. Search an online bookstore.
Fourth: How to find stuff. For a beginner, navigating the night sky can be a bewildering maze of azimuths and right ascensions. So telescope manufacturers have invented computerized "GOTO" drives that automatically steer their instruments toward any object you key in.
Eventually, you may want a comprehensive atlas. But for now, start with a compass, a current magazine star map and lots of patience. Or hit the bookstore and buy a "planisphere" - a cheap and handy gizmo that maps the night sky for any time of year. You'll gradually learn your way around the heavens, and the brightest stars and constellations will become as familiar as your backyard.
Another great resource is Heavens Above (heavens-above.com). This Web site is packed with easy-to-use sky maps; rise-and-set times for the sun, moon and planets; and satellite flyover predictions keyed to your location.
Fifth: What to look at. Start simple. Point your binoculars at the moon and explore its craters. It's best during crescent or partial phases when the sun casts shadows and throws the lunar terrain into high relief.
Then, rip a sky map from the centerfold of an astronomy magazine for March, take it outside and see if you can find Mars or Saturn. Both are in the evening sky this month, and they're easy to spot with the naked eye.
Try to trace an easy constellation, such as the familiar Big Dipper, now standing on its handle in the northeast; or W-shaped Cassiopeia in the northwest; or sprawling Orion high in the southwest with amber Betelgeuse on his shoulder. Find Sirius, the brightest star in the sky; or Polaris, the "North Star" that guided sailors for centuries.
If you're up just before dawn this month, look for bright Venus in the southeastern sky and Jupiter in the southwest.
Then go to the Heavens Above Web site, follow the instructions and sign on for your location. Then click on "ISS," for International Space Station. The link brings up flyover predictions.
They're all in the early evening or just before sunrise. That's when the observer is in darkness, but the station, orbiting 220 miles high, is in direct sunlight. We see the reflected light.
Go outside a few minutes before the station's appearance, turn toward the predicted direction and watch for a steady white "star" moving briskly across the sky, consuming a gazillion tax dollars while few of us pay any attention. Sounds tame, but it truly is a thrill.
Or see if you can witness an "Iridium flare." These are brilliant flashes of sunlight reflected off the mirrorlike antennas of Iridium satellites - part of a global satellite-telephone system. The flares seem to appear out of nowhere, and then fade just as quickly. You can learn where and when to look on Heavens Above.
I once persuaded my wife to come outside in her nightgown to watch one with me. She loved it. I'm almost sure of it.
There's only so much you can teach yourself. But experienced amateurs love to teach beginners, and they'll help you choose what to buy if you decide you're ready to invest in a real telescope.
So contact one of the local amateur groups and join them for one of their "star parties."
"Observe with an experienced person for the first few sessions; you will learn from them," said Don R. Surles of the Delmarva Stargazers club, which meets on the Eastern Shore.
Have a look through members' telescopes. Ask them about what they're seeing, how they got started and mistakes they made.
When you're ready, join. It's good company, and some clubs have loaner telescopes you can borrow before you buy your own.
And when you're ready to take the plunge, Surles said, "buy the most aperture [that is, the telescope with the widest primary lens or mirror] you can afford." Observing with small apertures is like squinting -- everything's dim and blurry. The bigger the aperture, the more light you scoop up, and the more detail you see.
Also, he said, "used is OK. Simple is better than complex. ... Motor drives, computers, fancy gizmos do not improve the image."
Places to get started: