A clear night sky filled with stars is a wonderful sight. Looking up to the heavens can make us feel warm and fuzzy, even if it’s freezing cold outside.
But stargazing isn’t something that is reserved for astronomers with big fancy telescopes. Stargazing for beginners is something you can do from home with only a warm jacket, an idea of where to look and plenty of time to sit back and enjoy the view.
If you have a pair of binoculars, great, but don’t worry, these tips will help you go star spotting with nothing but the naked eye.
So, fancy heading outside to see what the night sky has to offer? These stargazing tips from our friends at BBC Sky at Night Magazine will help you get the most of your night under the stars.
Dress for the occasion
Before you even look at the sky, take a look at yourself in the mirror. Are you dressed properly? You’re going to be outside for at least an hour, hopefully longer, and it can get cold even on summer nights.
So dress appropriately, with a warm jacket, thick socks, and gloves, scarf and a hat. Basically, you want to look like one of the rosy-cheeked children playing happily in the winter snow from a vintage Ladybird book.
Prepare your site
Find a spot in your garden where you can see as much of the night sky as possible, away from other houses, tall buildings, and trees. If you don’t have a garden, you can also stargaze from a balcony or front step, or through a skylight.
If you’re going to be outside for a while, take a chair – a reclining chair will allow you to look upwards without straining your neck. Turn off all your outdoor lights and, if you can, get your neighbours to do the same.
If you don’t have somewhere to stargaze, or if there’s a lot of light pollution, then you might need to find another site (lockdown restrictions permitting!). Head to a dark spot in the countryside, or just walk around the corner to your local park or playing field.
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Adjust your eyes
Once you’re comfy, let your eyes adjust to the darkness. Astronomers call this process ‘dark adaptation’, and it takes about half an hour.
Don’t browse on your phone while you wait (its bright screen will ruin your night vision). If you need some light, use a red light torch, or a red bicycle light if you don’t have one.
See the stars
Once your eyes have adjusted, you won’t believe how many more stars you can see. You might be able to notice subtle differences in the stars’ colours, which depend on their temperature: the hottest stars are more of a bluish colour, while cooler stars have a yellow, orange or red tint.
Look for patterns
The stars can be joined up to form patterns. You might recognise one straight away: the saucepan-shaped Plough, which is visible all year round. The Plough is an ‘asterism’ – a star pattern that’s not one of the official constellations. It forms part of the constellation Ursa Major (the Great Bear).
Another asterism to look out for in June is the Summer Triangle.
Very few of the 88 constellations look like the person, animal or object they represent, so you’ll need to use some imagination!
If you return to your observing site in another season, you’ll notice that the constellations you can see has changed. This is because the Earth is in a different position in space as it orbits the Sun, and it’s why it takes a year to properly get to know the sky, not just one night.
Spot a planet
If you see a bright ‘star’ that isn’t twinkling, it’s almost certainly a planet.
Why do stars twinkle, and planets don’t? A star is so far away that its pinprick of light arrives in a very narrow beam, which is easily distorted as it passes through our atmosphere (we see this as twinkling).
Planets are much closer, and their light (reflected from the Sun) comes to us in a thicker beam, which isn’t so easily distorted. There are five planets that can be seen with the naked eye: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. For tips on how to spot them, visit BBC Sky at Night Magazine.
Spot a meteor
As you’re gazing skywards, you might be lucky enough to see a meteor dash across the sky: a shooting star!
These are tiny grains of space dust burning up in the atmosphere. Larger, brighter meteors, called fireballs, can survive their trip through the atmosphere and drop meteorites on the ground.
Your best chance of seeing a shooting star is during a meteor shower, when the Earth passes through the dusty trail left by a comet. One of the best annual showers is the Perseids, which peaks this year around 11-13 August.
Marvel at the Moon
Go outside on a cloudless night and reacquaint yourself with our closest celestial neighbour. Impact craters appear as bright patches on the Moon’s surface, while the dark regions, known as lunar maria, are vast plains of solidified lava.
The Moon’s features cast more impressive shadows, and are hence easier to pick out, when they’re close to the ‘terminator’ – the dividing line between the Moon’s dark and illuminated portions. So a crescent or a gibbous moon can be just as interesting as a full moon, especially when seen through binoculars.
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Download an app
Stargazing apps can be a great way to familiarise yourself with the positions of the stars and planets. You’ll need to make sure you turn your screen brightness right down to keep your night vision, or turn on the app’s red screen filter if it has one. Some good, free-to-download apps include Stellarium Mobile Free, SkyView Lite and Star Walk 2 Free.