If you were a runaway slave before the Civil War headed north to freedom, how would you get there?
Follow the gourd. That’s how.
The fugitive slaves called the Big Dipper “the drinking gourd” and knew that it’s end star pointed to Polaris, the north star. The slaves sang “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” a coded song that gave directions on the escape route from Alabama and Mississippi. Traveling at night, the fugitives could always find the way north by using the Big Dipper to locate the north star.
Hopefully, no one is hunting you. And if you want to find the Big Dipper, Polaris, or any other celestial body, you don’t have to know the words to coded songs. Just put an astronomy app on your Android phone and then use the phone to stargaze away.
One of the best is Google Sky Map, free on Android.
With this wonderful software, long a standard for general astronomy apps, you hold your phone toward the sky and look through the viewfinder. The apps label every celestial body you can see – and some you can’t. No more confusing the Big with the Little Dipper. No more confusing anything.
Sky Map uses the built-in compass, GPS, and clock of Android-powered smartphones to display an annotated Sky Map of the area it is facing. The map will adjust as the user moves the phone. If a phone doesn’t have a compass, the app will work only in manual mode.
Sky Map even works in day time. Stars do not have to be visible for the app to label the section of sky you’re viewing with the names of the celestial bodies populating it.
A new feature on Sky Map directs you to that great movie theater in the sky: meteor showers. There’s nothing quite like a meteor shower, when the skies rain shooting stars, for beauty as well as scientific wonder. Especially for kids.
Sky Map’s “settings” lets you layer your viewing by checking and unchecking stars, constellations, and other elements on the list. To find the section of the sky most likely to host a meteor shower, you uncheck everything and point your phone skyward. When a shower is predicted, graphics will point you to the area where meteors are most likely to appear.
Not included in Sky Map is any information on moon phase – an important consideration for stargazing since the more brightly lit the night sky the more difficult it is to see celestial bodies. A meteor-specific app, Meteor Shower Calendar, fills this information gap. It gives you the moon’s phases as well as a schedule of the year’s meteor showers.
Fall is an especially good time for stargazing, especially with children. The night sky is more clearly visible than in summer. And it’s not so cold that the kids will scoot right back inside before you can say “Big Dipper” — or sing “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”