With southwest Iowa now in its seventh full day of the winter season, we can expect an onset of colder nighttime temperatures and stargazers are urged to dress warm when going outside for observing the heavens.
With the sun setting shortly after 5 p.m. each evening, it is nice to be able to start observing the sky at an earlier time than when Daylight Saving Time is upon us but with the earlier sunsets come the earlier colder temperatures.
A while back, I was speaking to a civics group about stargazing and how important it is to “suit” up before going out into the cold.
It really takes a minimal amount of effort to insulate yourself against the cold night air, but it requires a moderate amount of knowledge about cold weather to ensure your evening under the brilliant winter skies is a fairly comfortable one.
Most of us are aware that dead air space is a great insulator and that principle is also used when dressing for the cold by applying the “layering” principle.
People who are required by their job to work outdoors during the coldest weather are familiar with how to dress in layers. The nice thing about it is that if you get too warm you can remove one of the layers, get too cold you can put it back on.
For star parties I host during the winter, I made up a guide for the participants on how to dress before they get out and get over-chilled.
Having experienced some very, very cold temperatures over my many years of stargazing activities, I feel the most important thing to tell people are how to protect themselves against heat loss.
Heat will always flow toward a colder environment and unless some form of insulation is used, the body’s heat is slowly but surely siphoned off. And, too, whether you have hair or none at all doesn’t make much difference in heat loss through the top of the head.
It’s perhaps a little known fact that at a temperature of 5 degrees Fahrenheit, 75 percent of all the heat generated by the body’s metabolism is lost through the top of the head. I can remember to this day my Mom cautioning me “Bobby, if your toes are cold, put on a hat”.
Is it really worth all the preparation just to observe the heavens in winter?
Look at it this way: You recline on the couch or in your favorite easy chair, remote control in hand, muttering to yourself, “if only it was warmer outside I’d get my telescope (or binoculars) out.”
But then consider whether the reassuring sound of the furnace coming on will make up for the mental beating you give yourself because you let another gloriously clear night waste away.
If you do work up the courage to go out, look in the mid-high southeastern sky for a collection of stars known as the Pleiades.
The Pleiades represent the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione and it seems things got a little out-of-hand when a boisterous giant named Orion who was courting the girls frightened them so much they begged the god Zeus to protect them. Having sympathy for the young ladies Zeus turned the sisters into doves and placed them in the sky.
In addition to looking for the Pleiades, if you look slightly to the lower right of the grouping to see if you can spot that boisterous giant, Orion.
He is now “lying” slightly on his right side as he continues his pursuit of the young ladies. Little does he know he will never catch up to them.