Summer nights are the perfect time to take in the wonder of the night sky. From 2020’s NEOWISE Comet to the annual Perseid meteor shower in August, there is so much to see in this ever-changing vista and you don’t need expensive equipment to get started.
This short article will give you a quick beginner’s guide to stargazing – perfect for families who need a little more outdoor time (and less screen time). To learn more, check out the stargazing groups in your area, most have social media pages and are best source on what you can see in your particular night sky. Some really fun apps can also be downloaded that will help you orient yourself and identify the constellations (and even satellites you’re seeing). We’ve listed our favorites at the end of this article.
Six Top Tips for Stargazing
- Set the stage for fun. No one will enjoy this experience if you’re cold, hungry, or thirsty! Plan ahead and stock up on snacks (our ideas here), pack a cooler of beverages, throw in comfy chairs and blankets, and maybe even a pillow or two. Don’t forget bug spray and be prepared with some games or songs to entertain kids while you wait for the stars to peek out.
- Get away from light pollution and choose a cloudless night. Bright city lights en masse (especially LED lights) will wash out the night sky. While you can still see the biggest constellations and brightest stars from the city, you will be amazed by how much more shows up when you get away from urban light pollution. If possible, get away from the city and look for an open area such as a country road without a lot of trees or wide-open water so you can take in the whole vista of the sky. If you can’t get away from the city, go up so you’re above the lights and buildings that will obstruct your view. Once you’re set up, give your eyes about 30 minutes to adjust to the darkness (this includes not looking at your phone!). For light, use a flashlight with a red lens.
- Grab a star chart. Search online, through an app, or at your local library for a star chart for your area and your time of year. These localized charts also will tell you when to look for bigger events such as eclipses, planet alignments, comets, or meteor showers and what time is best for viewing. Use this as your reference point as you learn what to look for. Start by finding your “anchor” star, an easily identified star or grouping (constellation). From there, expand your view to other stars or constellations connected or near your anchor – sometimes called Star Hopping by many astronomers. Once you can find the well-known constellations, you can then hop from them to more challenging-to-find stars.
Stargazing Trivia: The North Star (aka Polaris) stays fixed in the sky because it is positioned directly above the North Pole. All other star positions change by nearly one-degree every 24 hours but their relative position to each other does not change. So, during one month, the entire starscape will shift by about 30-degrees. In a full year, it will change by 360-degrees so stars appear in the same spot on generally the same day each year.
- Binoculars are nice to have, a telescope is not essential. For beginners, you can see a lot just with the naked eye and most binoculars are powerful enough to see all the highlights of the night sky. Compared to telescopes, binoculars also give you a wider field of view which is helpful for beginners. Take some time practicing with binoculars during daylight and then on your first night out, start with the moon or the biggest star you can see. Then work your way around the sky starting from that anchor.
- Be patient and consistent. It takes time to learn what you’re seeing and if you make a date with the night sky each week, you’ll start to notice the movement of the stars and planets. Stargaze from the same place each outing and start a sky journal and record what you see from week to week.
- Learn how to measure the sky. Astronomical distances are measured in degrees using angles of arc (one degree is 1/360th of the circle). You can find stargazing tools to measure this more accurately but your outstretched arm and hand are fairly accurate. Your pinky finger covers about 1-degree, three fingers are about 5-degrees, and a closed fist is about 10-degrees (across the top of your knuckles). Just hold them up to the star for reference and consult the chart for which direction to go.
Fun Stargazing Apps
Google Sky: view the sky through the Hubble Space Telescope, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the Digitized Sky Survey. A great learning tool.
International Space Station (ISS) app: Input your location and you’ll get notices on when to look for it on its journey
Sky Safari: Identify the night sky just by holding your phone up.