Hanging with the Stars: UW’s Astronomy Bucket List


The night sky holds many secrets. The immense vastness of the universe often offers more questions than it does answers, but there is something undeniably beautiful about the mysteries of the cosmos that both intrigues and frightens us. 

The University of Waterloo is home to its own observatory atop the physics building. The Gustav Bakos Observatory, named after the first UW astronomer who conducted research here in the 1960s, allows anyone to engage with astronomy in a unique environment through free monthly tours.
Cam Morgan, a physics and astronomy PhD student, explained a number of phenomena that anyone can observe in the near or far future for aspiring astronomers. “The astronomy bucket list [items] are just ideas for anyone to add to their own list,” Morgan said. “Astronomy is more about sharing these experiences with people and the overall sense of wonderment about our universe.” 

The bucket list begins with a solar eclipse. A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between Earth and the sun, thereby obscuring Earth’s view of the sun, totally or partially. The only safe way to look directly at the uneclipsed, partially eclipsed, or annularly eclipsed sun is through special-purpose solar filters, such as “eclipse glasses.” If this interests you, gather your glasses and mark your calendars — the next solar eclipse will take place on April 8, 2024. 

The next bucket list item is a lunar eclipse. A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon moves into Earth’s shadow, and this can occur only when the sun, Earth and the moon are closely aligned. The last total lunar eclipse occurred on Nov. 8.

Meteor showers and comets are two other bucket list items. A meteor shower is a celestial event in which a number of meteors are observed in one area of the sky. This year, the Leonids Meteor Shower will light up the night sky from Nov. 17–18, an event that only occurs once every 33 years. Comets are a bit more rare, such as Comet NEOWISE, which recently passed us in mid-July 2020, yet only circles Earth every 6,000 years. Halley’s Comet, on the other hand, is the only known short-period comet regularly visible to the naked eye, and the only naked-eye comet that can appear twice in a human lifetime. 

For sky phenomena that are a bit more accessible viewing-wise, Morgan explained that the easiest planets to spot in the sky are Jupiter and Saturn, appearing as bright dots on the left and right, respectively, beside the moon. On a clear night and with a bit of squinting, you can see both planets looking southeast. If you can find the moon, you can find Jupiter and Saturn, which we viewed through the telescope on the tour. 

Constellations, clumps of stars that form a familiar shape, are also easy to spot in the sky on a clear night. Some of us may know the famous ones, such as the Big Dipper and its spoon-like shape, but constellations have symbolized a number of important myths for different people. For example, the Big Dipper is known to some Indigenous peoples as a weasel, summarised in the Legend of the Fisher, a creation story showing how ancient peoples viewed the constellations as animals that brought them gifts of nature. 

The Canadian Space Agency’s website includes a number of tips and tricks to ensure a quality stargazing experience — there are plenty coming up in the month of November. For more space-viewing fun from the comfort of your own home, Morgan recommends Stellarium, a desktop app that allows you to view the planets and stars in 3D. 

For more information about the Gustav Bakos Observatory, and the free tours offered on campus, you may email observatory_updates-join@lists.uwaterloo.ca.