Starstruck: Four tips for exploring the night sky in Minnesota

The annual Perseid meteor shower
A Perseid meteor streaks across the sky above desert pine trees on Aug. 13, 2015. Suresh Sreenivasan, who leads the beginner's program for Minnesota Astronomical Society, shares advice on how to get started with stargazing.
Ethan Miller | Getty Images 2015

Updated: July 5, 11:55 a.m. | Posted: July 3, 3:36 p.m.

As a kid in Chicago, Suresh Sreenivasan was playing basketball one evening when he noticed two pinpoints of light in the sky. At first "I though nothing of it," says Sreenivasan. "I thought they were airplanes." But as twilight turned to darkness, the lights had barely moved.

Curious, Sreenivasan rushed home and grabbed a phone book — "this was before the internet," he said — and began dialing local TV station weather departments to ask about what he'd seen. It took a few calls before Sreenivasan got his answer. The lights were Jupiter and Venus, two planets floating millions of miles from where he stood on a Chicago basketball court. Sreenivasan was smitten.

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"I was so flabbergasted that you could just look up and see them," said Sreenivasan. "That was it. That was my moment." Sreenivasan's enthusiasm for the night sky hasn't waned since. He's now the proud owner of 24 telescopes. But he says all that hardware isn't necessary to start enjoying astronomy.

Sreenivasan heads the beginners interest group for the Minnesota Astronomical Society. The club convenes amateur astronomers from across the state, hosting discussions each month and telescope observations every two weeks. These events are free and open to the public.

Sreenivasan periodically leads observations specifically for beginners to learn the basics of stargazing and telescope use. He says the wonder of faraway stars and planets naturally appeals to kids, and membership in the Minnesota Astronomical Society has skyrocketed in recent years, especially among families.

Sreenivasan shared some tips for first-time stargazers.

1) Get under a dark sky

The milky way above Voyageurs.
The Milky Way galaxy is visible from just outside Voyageurs National Park in Crane Lake on Aug. 8, 2016.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Escaping the glow of city lights might require some travel for metro residents. But Sreenivasan says it's worth it. He suggests finding a field or other open area to sample the abundant stars in Minnesota's night sky, starting with well-known formations like Orion's Belt and the Big Dipper.

Be sure to check the weather first — clouds are a deal breaker — and dress appropriately for any cold or wind. "Just get out and enjoy the sky," says Sreenivasan.

2) Read up

Sreenivasan recommends following some amateur astronomy blogs, including EarthSky and Duluth-based Astro Bob. He also highlights magazines that you can read online or find at a library, including Sky & Telescope and Astronomy Magazine.

3) Join a club

At 550 members and counting, Minnesota Astronomical Society is a great place to start learning and observing with others, said Sreenivasan. He also recommends catching a show on the domed screen of a planetarium, which mimics the night sky.

The Bell Museum Planetarium in St. Paul and the Alworth Planetarium in Duluth host shows year-round. The Como Planetarium in St. Paul also has public screenings each Tuesday during the school year.

4) Test some telescopes

The Minnesota Astronomical Society has a telescope loaner program, according to Sreenivasan. Members can borrow a telescope for a few weeks to learn and practice on. For anyone considering investing in a telescope of their own, Sreenivasan notes that the price of entry-level telescopes has dropped in the last decade.

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Editor's note: (July 5, 2019): A previous version of this story included a reference to a planetarium not in Minnesota, the reference has been removed.