The roof opens for public view at the Custer Observatory...

The roof opens for public view at the Custer Observatory in Southold. Credit: Glenn Wester

Who hasn’t peered up into the midnight sky and been astounded by the beauty and immensity of it all? From ancient mariners to Galileo, modern-day astronauts and astrophysicists to ordinary folks, people have always been fascinated by that big, dark canvas above.

“Perhaps it’s the combination of vastness, beauty and intimacy that catches our eyes — and imaginations,” says Sue Rose, 63, a retired air traffic controller from East Meadow who is president of the Amateur Observers’ Society of New York. “There’s so much to discover for stargazers, yet the basics are simple. All you need to get started is a clear night and a little curiosity.”

HAPPENING NOW

From moon phases and meteor showers to eclipses and passing satellites, “there’s always something interesting to view overhead,” Rose says.

No doubt. Check out Long Island’s nighttime horizon this month and you’ll be able to see several constellations. The Leonid meteor shower, although winding down, is still in play. The Geminid meteor shower, during which stargazers can sometimes view more than 100 shooting stars an hour, starts Dec. 4 and peaks mid-month. Moon phases, of course, progress on a daily basis, and the whole night sky changes from season to season as the Earth continues through its orbit around the sun. You can even see the International Space Station slice across the sky if you time things right (4:12 a.m. and again at 5:44 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 24, if you look to the east).

AN INEXPENSIVE HOBBY

Your own eyes are good enough to see more than you think, and binoculars may actually be preferable to a high-powered personal telescope for those just starting out.

“Many would-be stargazers make the mistake of buying a telescope too soon,” Rose notes. “The time for that purchase is after you’ve gained enough experience to know what you really want to view.”

Consider shooting stars as seen during a meteor shower, for example — a telescope is too limited in its focus to catch a streak speeding across the horizon. She suggests beginners merely lie on their backs and use peripheral vision to take in as much sky as possible.

As you grow more familiar with the night sky, you’ll want to see more details. That calls for a simple step up to binoculars, which will give you a good look at planets, star clusters, comets and nebulas. You can even see the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn.

Eventually, you’ll progress to a telescope, Rose says, but keep in mind that today’s binoculars are stronger than anything Galileo ever used to see planets, moons and stars. “The real point isn’t to focus in on minute aspects of particular targets,” she stresses. “It’s to see beauty in the universe that surrounds us while learning something new every time out.”

GIVE IT A TRY

Now is the perfect time because the late fall and winter atmosphere is relatively dry compared to summer. With less moisture in the air, there’s less haze. That makes for better viewing.

Start by picking up a current star chart (free at skymaps.com), planisphere (adjustable to locate stars on any date) or smartphone star chart app (Stellarium is just one example), then head for a beach or other place with as little ambient light as possible.

Try to identify a few basic constellations — Orion is easy to spot this month.WHERE TO GO

Join an astronomy club or go to an organized stargazing event to shorten the learning curve, suggests Donald Lubowich, a professor who coordinates Hofstra University’s astronomy outreach programs. Several regularly offer free or inexpensive events:

Vanderbilt Planetarium in Centerport

INFO 631-854-5538, vanderbiltmuseum.org

Offers several planetarium shows, plus year-round viewing of the night sky (weather permitting) at 9 p.m. Fridays — free with ticket to planetarium show ($3 otherwise).

Custer Institute in Southold

INFO 631-765-2626, custerobservatory.org

Offers free stargazing every clear Saturday night throughout the year.

Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center at Jones Beach State Park

INFO 516-780-3295

Open to the public for stargazing once a month except during December, and on Thursdays in July and August. $4 fee.

Hofstra University’s Stars on Sunday

INFO hofstra.edu

The public observing program is offered the first Sunday of the month October to December and February to April. Reservations suggested.

CLUBS AND ORGANIZATIONS

The Amateur Observers’ Society of New York

INFO aosny.org

The group has an observatory at Custer Institute in Southold, and at the Jones Beach Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center.

The Astronomical Society of Long Island

INFO https://www.facebook.com/Astronomical-Society-of-Long-Island-696451193755981

Meets at the Vanderbilt Planetarium for public observing on Wednesday nights, weather permitting.