Enjoying the night sky is simple and straightforward, anybody can take part and no expert knowledge or equipment is needed. To help you make the most of your stargazing, here are ten tips to starting and developing your interest in astronomy.
Choose Your Instrument
The old saying “the right tool for the job” applies to stargazing, too. Your eyes are excellent instruments for astronomy as you can see a huge amount of the sky and detect moving objects like shooting stars. To see even more stars, consider a good pair of binoculars. These are good value for money and are easy to use. Serious astronomers may like to invest in a telescope. These instruments gather much more light than your eyes, so allow you to see faint objects such as galaxies and nebulae more easily.
Start with a small, easy to use size – Don’t buy a huge pair of binoculars to start with unless you mount them on a tripod, they’ll shake and make your view of the heavens shaky. What you want is a pair of 7X50 binoculars which are optimum for new astronomers. You can see a lot, and you can hold them steadily enough that jitters don’t spoil your view of the sky. If 7X50s are too big for you – or if you want binoculars for a child, try 7X35s.
First, view the moon with the binoculars – when you start to stargaze, you’ll want to watch the phase of the moon carefully. If you want to see deep-sky objects inside our Milky Way galaxy – or outside the galaxy – you’ll want to avoid the moon. But the moon itself is a perfect target for beginning astronomers, armed with binoculars. The best time to observe the moon is in twilight. Then the glare of the moon is not so great, and you’ll see more detail.
Move on to viewing planets with binoculars – Keep in mind planets move around, apart from the fixed stars. They are wanderers. Binoculars will enhance your view of a planet near the moon.
Finding Planets with Your Binoculars
These are both inner planets. They orbit the sun closer than Earth’s orbit. And for that reason, both Mercury and Venus show phases as seen from Earth at certain times in their orbit – a few days before or after the planet passes between the sun and Earth. At such times, turn your binoculars on Mercury or Venus. Good optical quality helps here, but you should be able to see them in a crescent phase. Tip: Venus is so bright that its glare will overwhelm the view. Try looking in twilight instead of true darkness.
Mars – the Red Planet – really does look red, and using binoculars will intensify the color of this object (or of any colored star). Mars also moves rapidly in front of the stars, and it’s fun to aim your binoculars in its direction when it’s passing near another bright star or planet.
Jupiter is a great binocular target, even for beginners. If you are sure to hold your binoculars steadily as you peer at this bright planet, you should see four bright points of light near it. These are the Galilean Satellites – four moons gleaned through one of the first telescopes ever made, by the Italian astronomer Galileo. Note how their relative positions change from night to night as each moon moves around Jupiter in its own orbit.
Although a small telescope is needed to see Saturn’s rings, you can use your binoculars to see Saturn’s beautiful golden color. Experienced observers sometimes glimpse Saturn’s largest moon Titan with binoculars. Also, good-quality high-powered binoculars – mounted on a tripod – will show you that Saturn is not round. The rings give it an elliptical shape.
Uranus and Neptune
Some planets are squarely binocular and telescope targets. If you’re armed with a finder chart, two of them, Uranus and Neptune, are easy to spot in binoculars. Uranus might even look greenish, thanks to methane in the planet’s atmosphere. Once a year, Uranus is barely bright enough to glimpse with the unaided eye . . . use binoculars to find it first. Distant Neptune will always look like a star, even though it has an atmosphere practically identical to Uranus.
Use your binoculars to explore inside our Milky Way – Binoculars can introduce you to many members of our home galaxy. A good place to start is with star clusters that are close to Earth. They cover a larger area of the sky than other, more distant clusters usually glimpsed through a telescope.
Beginning each autumn and into the spring, look for a tiny dipper-like cluster of stars called the Pleiades. The cluster – sometimes also called the Seven Sisters – is noticeable for being small yet distinctively dipper-like. While most people say they see only six stars here with the unaided eye, binoculars reveal many more stars, plus a dainty chain of stars extending off to one side. The Pleiades star cluster is looks big and distinctive because it’s relatively close – about 400 light years from Earth. This dipper-shaped cluster is a true cluster of stars in space. Its members were born around the same time and are still bound by gravity. These stars are very young, on the order of 20 million years old, in contrast to the roughly five billion years for our sun.
Stars in a cluster all formed from the same gas cloud. You can also see what the Pleiades might have like in a primordial state, by shifting your gaze to the prominent constellation Orion the Hunter. Look for Orion’s sword stars, just below his prominent belt stars. If the night is crisp and clear, and you’re away from urban streetlight glare, unaided eyes will show that the sword isn’t entirely composed of stars. Binoculars show a steady patch of glowing gas where, right at this moment, a star cluster is being born. It’s called the Orion Nebula. A summertime counterpart is the Lagoon Nebula, in Sagittarius the Archer.
With star factories like the Orion Nebula, we aren’t really seeing the young stars themselves. They are buried deep within the nebula, bathing the gas cloud with ultraviolet radiation and making it glow. In a few tens of thousands of years, stellar winds from these young, energetic stars will blow away their gaseous cocoons to reveal a newly minted star cluster.
Scan along the Milky Way to see still more sights that hint at our home galaxy’s complexity. First, there’s the Milky Way glow itself; just a casual glance through binoculars will reveal that it is still more stars we can’t resolve with our eyes . . . hundreds of thousands of them. Periodically, while scanning, you might sweep past what appears to be blob-like, black voids in the stellar sheen. These are dark, non-glowing pockets of gas and dust that we see silhouetted against the stellar backdrop. This is the stuff of future star and solar systems, just waiting around to coalesce into new suns.
The ideal location for stargazing is far away from town and city lights as this will give better views of the night sky. However, beginners may actually find it easier to get into the hobby using light-polluted skies, as the dimmer stars are drowned out making the brighter constellations even easier to see. So if you live in a city, do not be put off! Always remember to stay safe. If you go to a remote location try to visit it during the daytime and always let others know your plans.
Understanding light pollution. There are two ways that light pollution interferes with our ability to study the sky. The first is simply that unshielded lights send their light in all directions, including straight up. This sets the sky aglow, in much the same way that the sun sets the sky aglow during the day. Now, the sky does not glow as brightly at night as it does during the day, but the increase in sky glow caused by cities is enough to make it difficult to see dim objects in the sky. When we try to take a picture of a very dim object, sometimes the glow from the sky is too bright to ever see the object clearly. You can help reduce this problem by making sure that lights around your street are shielded so that most of the light is pointed downwards. This is where you want the light anyway, and by shielding the light you will both reduce light pollution and reduce the wattage of bulb required for the same amount of ground lighting, thus saving energy as well!
The second way city lights interfere with astronomy is much more insidious. Often, astronomers want to take the spectra of an object, splitting the light from the telescope into its component colors. When you take a spectrum of fluorescing objects like galaxies, you see that the spectrum is not smooth, but made up of a number of lines. Each line is a unique indicator of the presence of a certain chemical. By studying the strengths of these lines, astronomers can deduce the chemical composition and temperatures of the objects they observe. By noting the redshift of the lines (how far to the red side of the spectrum they are shifted), astronomers can determine how fast the object is moving. Spectroscopy is probably the most valuable tool in the astronomers’ toolbox. Unfortunately, city lights play havoc with spectrographs.
Stargazing does not necessarily require a lot of equipment, but a few items are highly recommended. At the top of the list is warm clothing as it can get bitterly cold at night. A reclining chair will allow you to lie back and stay comfortable. Flashlights covered in red plastic, or painted with red nail varnish will help you see while keeping your eyes adjusted to the dark. A hot drink and some snacks are advised, as are sky maps, a fully charged mobile phone, and an accurate watch.
Only a small amount of research will let you maximize your stargazing time. Learn what is visible and when. As well as the obvious stars and planets, consider finding out when man-made objects pass overhead, such as the International Space Station. Learn about navigation using the moon and stars. Checking the weather forecast will also save you a lot of frustration if cloudy weather is imminent.
Become a Story Teller
The constellations come laden with myths and legends that have been told for many hundreds of years. Knowing these tales will allow you to tell stories with the stars, become familiar with patterns in the sky, and make you a hit around the camp fire.
The secret of astronomy is persistence. If it is cloudy one night, try again the next. Keep observing and build on your experiences. The night sky changes over the year, so there are always new things to look at.
Get Involved with Other People
There is a lot to be said for enjoying the peace and tranquillity of the night while observing on your own, but stargazing can be a social activity. If you would like to take things further, consider joining an amateur astronomy society. Then you will be able to learn from others and share your new hobby.
Keep a Log Book
Jotting down all of the things you see and notice in a journal will help you to learn and make the most of your observing sessions. In no time at all you will be star hopping from the great nebula in Orion to the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus.
Remember that star gazing is fun and simple. Avoid getting caught up in technical aspects if that does not interest you. It is incredibly satisfying to just go outside on a starry night and look up!