By Dennis Mammana

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park |  Patrick Lienin/ shutterstock.com
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | Patrick Lienin/ shutterstock.com

Stand for any length of time under a star-filled sky and you will soon find yourself contemplating the great unanswered questions. How big is our universe? Where do we fit in? Are we alone, or are there others out there looking back?

Such a profound experience is not just the realm of astronomers in mountaintop observatories; it’s available to everyone. All we need to do is go outside at night and look up!

Unfortunately, most of us live in or near a city where light pollution diminishes the splendor of the cosmos, but only a short drive will produce stunning celestial vistas. In the San Diego County mountains, there are Mount Laguna and Palomar Mountain, where skies are crisp and clear. In the desert you can enjoy Borrego Springs, California’s only International Dark Sky Community, surrounded by the thousand-square-mile Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, itself an International Dark Sky Park.

From these dark-sky sites, you’ll discover that the brilliant stars of winter and spring sparkle like diamonds against a dark celestial canvas. Look first for the brightest of all constellations—Orion (the hunter) high in the southeastern sky—accompanied by others like Gemini (the twins), Taurus (the bull), Canis Major (the great hunting dog), and even the Red Planet Mars high overhead. Begin your cosmic exploration online by visiting skymaps.com/downloads.html and printing a current map of the heavens or download and use one of the popular free planetarium apps for smartphones and tablets.

While you’re out enjoying the stars and constellations, don’t be surprised if a meteor (falling or shooting star) tears across the sky, or you spot a slowly drifting Earth-orbiting satellite, such as the International Space Station or the Hubble Telescope. You can predict or identify such satellite passes online at heavens-above.com.

Wherever you go, however, be sure to dress for winter. A reclining chair and perhaps a thermos of hot chocolate will enhance your enjoyment of the heavens, and if you have binoculars and perhaps a telescope, be sure to bring them. Aim them toward celestial wonders such as the Pleiades (seven sisters) star cluster high overhead, as well as the Great Orion Nebula—one of our galaxy’s most prolific star birthing regions—the smudge just below the hunter’s three “belt” stars. And don’t miss checking out the Great Andromeda Galaxy, midway up in the west, a near-twin of our own Milky Way Galaxy and so distant that its light has been traveling across space since before humans walked the face of the Earth.

This remarkable universe lies just above our heads every night. For an experience like no other, take some time this winter or spring to leave behind your worldly cares and lose yourself among the stars.

Mount Laguna | Kevin Key/ shutterstock.com
Mount Laguna | Kevin Key/ shutterstock.com

Dennis Mammana is a syndicated columnist who, since 1992, has shared the wonder of the cosmos through his weekly digital column on astronomy, Stargazers. Dennis also leads popular Borrego Night Sky Tours at borregonightskytours.com. To learn more about Dennis, visit dennismammana.com.