class notes: top five

Five tips for appreciating the night sky

Charles Fulco, BA ’90, Education Committee Chair of the American Astronomical Society’s 2017 Total Solar Eclipse Task Force

Illustration: John Jay Cabuay

Interview by Sally Jarzab

Charles Fulco has had some intriguing titles to go with his lifelong interest in astronomy: planetarium director, NASA solar system ambassador, dark sky advocate. Now, as part of the American Astronomical Society’s 2017 Total Solar Eclipse Task Force, he’s traveling the country to spread information and excitement about the celestial event that on Aug. 21 will briefly turn day into night in 14 U.S. states. Another one, due in 2024, will have UB right on its centerline, and Fulco couldn’t be more thrilled. 

Total solar eclipses offer an opportunity to interact with our universe in a way that is both indescribable and unforgettable, says Fulco. “It’s the most incredible sight—you can’t even imagine it until you’ve seen it—the sun’s corona surrounding the black disc of the moon, and stars appearing in the daytime sky. The wow factor is huge.” 

There’s no need to wait for an eclipse, however, to look up into the wild black yonder and expand your mind. In fact, as Fulco sees it, we should all be doing this now, before it’s too late. “When you lose the night sky,” he warns, “you lose the universe.” He wishes everyone would cultivate regard for the vast reaches above us, which are obscured as much by unawareness as by light pollution. We asked for his advice on getting started.

1. Find the darkest dark you can
Light is public enemy No. 1 when it comes to night-sky viewing. To escape it, head to a remote park or other location, preferably up high. Then let your eyes adjust to the darkness by avoiding artificial illumination of any kind—unfiltered flashlights and cellphones included.

2. Learn the fundamentals
As a science educator, I’m often surprised at how much even adults don’t know about Earth and what lies beyond. Refamiliarize yourself with some of the basic facts about the moon, planets, meteors, comets, stars and galaxies—all of which can be visible to sky gazers using just their own eyes or binoculars.

3. Get creative 
Keep a written journal of your observations, take a shot at astronomical photography or explore things within our galaxy as they exist in literature. In anticipation of this August’s event, I recommend James Fenimore Cooper’s autobiographical vignette, “The Eclipse,” with all his glorious imagery describing a total eclipse over his hometown in 1806.

4. Expand your horizons 
I go all over the world to put myself within the path of total eclipses, most recently to Argentina, but there are plenty of places closer to home to see astronomical wonders—including more than 30 certified International Dark Sky Parks across the United States. Work one into your next vacation. 

5. Go digital 
Obviously, the best way to connect with the night sky is live and in person, but it’s not the only way. You can go to stellarium.org anytime to download a great planetarium program right on your desktop or check out the Astronomy Picture of the Day. And be sure to check out GreatAmericanEclipse.com and my Facebook page Totality2017 for everything you need to know about this summer’s rare treat.