March 25, 2020

Social-Distance Stargazing

With Earth Hour just around the corner on March 28th, we plan to join millions around the globe in switching off our lights in support of our planet promptly at 8:30 p.m. And, with social distancing our new norm, we're looking forward to witnessing the phenomenon of the universe right in our very own backyard. We chatted with Dr. Martin Connors, astronomer and professor from the Faculty of Science at Athabasca University, to get his top tips for stargazing on March 28th! —Vita Daily

athabasca university

Hi Dr. Connors! Please tell us a bit about yourself and Athabasca University to start.

I am a professor at Athabasca University, having worked my way up since 1988, doing distance education. Athabasca University HQ is in a small town in northern Alberta, even though it has tens of thousands of students across Canada and the world. This makes it an excellent place to do astronomy with a remote controlled telescope, and to study auroras with one of the world’s foremost aurora observatories.

Why does Earth Hour (March 28th at 8:30 p.m.) mark a perfect opportunity to stargaze?

This year is special since stargazing is a fun, hopeful activity. If it is clear, and we often get nice spring days, there is a special collection of beautiful objects in the sky, with Venus and the moon. This is also the last good chance to see the bright winter stars, also very beautiful, since later in the season the sun appears to move in front of them, so they cannot be seen. So, we may have an opportunity to see winter stars with spring-like temperatures. To add to it, for Western Canada, the International Space Station will fly near the moon and Venus.

In this time of social distancing, what are your top tips for observing the universe from home? Is a telescope needed?

Unfortunately, this ideal activity for school groups, etc., cannot be done by them this year. But a family on their lawn or balcony is no problem. Dress warmly and have some hot chocolate. A telescope is NOT needed to get a great view. With binoculars, a better view of the moon can be had. With a telescope, Venus would be able to be seen to be half lit up, while the moon will be a thin crescent. But Venus is really bright and good to look at just with the eyes.

What can we expect to see on the evening of March 28th? Anything special or in particular to look for

The best thing to have is a good southwestern horizon. Depending on social distancing rules in place, it is best if you have this from your own home or apartment. The moon and Venus will be very obvious when facing this way and once it is dark enough, the brightest star, Sirius, will be left of them and about five times their distance apart away from the moon. The famous Belt of Orion is about halfway between the moon and Sirius. Above it is the famous red star Betelgeuse. Between and above the moon and Venus is the Seven Sisters star group also known as the Pleiades or Subaru (Japanese name the car is named for).

Your favourite online resources for the home stargazer? doesn’t have a bad star map, but the best by far is to download from and get to know this program. For the more advanced online user, has star maps as well as satellite predictions including ISS.

Final, personal question: the most exciting thing you've ever spotted in the sky?!

Well this dates me I guess, but it would a fuel dump from Apollo 12 when it was on the way to the moon! This was not expected, so I noticed it myself. This was a true link to the greatest adventure in my youth, since I never did make it to Cape Canaveral to see a launch. The fuel dump looked like a comet, not really very bright, but changed quickly. I have also seen some pretty amazing auroras in the dark skies of Athabasca.

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