Updated: Nov 20, 2020
No matter where you are now, where you call home is under the same set of stars. I have been feeling down about not being able to see my family for the holidays but I still do my tours and although it is an exceptionally safe activity I still feel like I would be exposing my elderly extended family to unnecessary risk. However, I had the thought, on the phone with my grandma, that she could look out in her backyard and see the same things I am seeing. Knowing that although we aren't under the same roof these holidays, we are under the same sky. Though we are not close in terrestrial terms, we are right next to each other in cosmic terms.
So I wanted to make this guide for others so we can share the cosmic perspective this holiday season. If you are sharing thanksgiving dinner over a video chat, you can still feel closer by sharing the sky with each other.
I've made a list of 10 things to check out with your remote family ordered from easiest to hardest. Just send this list to your relatives, start with number one and keep going until it's too difficult/not fun.
1) Compare the weather. It’s amazing how much weather can change even just across town, especially in Colorado. It’s been raining and windy in Boulder but calm and clear in Aurora (only 20 miles away!) where my mom lives.
2) Compare time zones. Just ask what time it is and see how different the sky might look. For example: California (PST) is one hour behind Colorado (MST). Meaning my family in California will be seeing the sky how it looked to me (in Colorado) one hour ago and my family in Arkansas (CST) will be seeing the sky I will be seeing in one hour. So if it’s just after sunset (5:30p MST) in Colorado I can stargaze with my family in Arkansas where it’s well after sunset (6:30p CST) but I can’t stargaze with my family in California where the sun will still be out (4:30p PST)
3) Compare light pollution. If one household is rural when the other is in an urban setting you can still stargaze as most of the things we will be looking at are very bright, however it is interesting to see if you can notice the difference. Honestly the moon will be big and bright just after sunset on both Thanksgiving day and Christmas day so no matter where you are you will have to deal with the natural light pollution of the moon.
country vs. city, light pollution
4) The Moon! Just after sunset on thanksgiving day (~5:30p Nov 26th 2020) the Moon will be over the eastern horizon and fairly full. This will be the easiest thing that you can all look out at! Have everyone show or tell how high the moon is above the eastern horizon. This will give you a good idea of how offset everyone’s time zones are. If everyone is in generally the same area you won’t notice much difference however, if you are on opposite sides of the country you will notice a huge difference. Observing at the same moment someone in New York City will be seeing the moon just rising above the horizon at 3:30(EST) (the moon will be bright enough to see even with the sun still out) where Denver CO will see it about halfway up the eastern horizon at 5:30(MST) and someone in Seattle WA will see it nearly over head at 6:30(PST)
5) Mars! Just above the moon will be a bright red dot. This is the planet Mars. Now is the best time to see Mars for the next three years so if you can get a pair of binoculars it will be a rare sight.
6) Saturn and Jupiter! In the south west sky just after sunset will be one bright dot (Jupiter) and one dimmer yet still fairly bright dot (Saturn) this might be tricky to see together as they are low on the horizon and will be setting at around 7:30 so if someone in California (PST) they will be missing it at 7:30(PST) where someone in the central US (CST) will be in the best time in the evening to see them at 5:30(CST)
Pro tip: if you are having difficulty finding your directions remember that the moon should be in the more or less eastern sky so facing the moon to your right will be south to your left will be north and behind you is west.
7) The Big Dipper. This will show you how far north/south you are from each other. If you are in the north half of the US (in or more north than Denver CO/Salt Lake City UT/Springfield IL/Philadelphia PA/further north, aka more than 40 degrees north) you will see the Big Dipper very easily low on your northern horizon however if you are in the south SoCal/Texas/Florida/Etc. You will probably not be able to see the big dipper at all, and anyone in Alaska/Canada will see it very easily high in their northern sky
8) The North Star. This will be difficult for most people to find so have patience with your relatives. The North Star is fairly easy to locate using the Big Dipper with the two stars at the end of the vessel of the dipper pointing right at it (see picture below). Of course this only works in the northern US/Canada where the Big Dipper is visible. In the South you can use the “M” of Cassiopeia which is high in north sky and the middle bump of the “M” points downward towards the North Star (see pic below). However you might just have more luck using a star map app on your smartphone “star tracker lite” (simple) or “sky safari” (little less simple) are my faves currently but download whatever the top few free ones are currently and see what you like best.
If you are able to find the North star, hold your hand out at a full arms length and see how many fingers you can fit between the north star and the horizon. This is a rough measurement of latitude and will be very different depending how far north/south you are. Someone in New Orleans LA will see the North Star just 30 degrees above their northern horizon (about three fists length’s stacked on top of each other), in Denver CO it’s 40 degrees above the horizon (4 fists stacked on top of each other) and in Seattle WA it’s about 50 degrees (5 fists)
9) Using this 'handy' measurement system of hand symbols take a measurement of how high the moon is where you are vs your relatives (you can also simply use your shadow if it’s dark enough that the only thing casting your shadow is the moon). Once you are done with dinner check again where the moon is. If you first looked at 5:30 (MST)/4:30(PST) after dinner at 6:30(MST)/7:30(PST) the people in the west coast (PST) should have the same measurement for the height of the moon as someone in Colorado(MST) did prior to dinner.
10) the Seven Sisters. If you have very dark skis you can see the seven sisters low on the eastern horizon below the Moon. you can see who has the best night sky by who can see them best in NYC you probably won’t see them at all but in rural farm land they will pop right out as a small grouping of stars tightly packed together.