Stargazing Basics

Stargazing isn’t a hobby limited to people with a degree in astrophysics and a $5k telescope in their backyard “observatory”. It’s the perfect hobby for anyone who’s ever looked up at the night sky and wondered “What’s that?”. All you need to do to begin your adventure in stargazing is to lie back, look up.

“I can barely find the Big Dipper in the sky!”

If you’re a beginner, put away the telescope and look up at the sky with your naked eye. There are many things to be seen with the unaided eye—start by locating a few constellations, and soon you’ll be pointing out planets, galaxies and star clusters!

Start with one constellation to look for. Use a star map or a planisphere to help you locate it. You can find a star map here for each season, but also consider purchasing a planisphere. A monthly sky map gives you an idea of what constellations to find in the sky each month or season, but you can set a planisphere (I use this one: The Night Sky 40°-50° (Large) Star Finder) to the exact time and date when you are looking at the sky. This will give you an exact idea of where to look for your constellation.

Here are a few constellations that make great “first” constellations to locate with your planisphere:

Summer:  Cygnus, Scorpius, Lyra

Fall:  Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Pegasus

Winter:  Orion, Gemini, Taurus

Spring:  Leo, Virgo, Bootes

Once you’ve located your constellation, try to find the ones around it. This will help you learn to navigate a star map or planisphere. Check out a beginning stargazing book such as Patterns in the Sky: An Introduction to Stargazing (Night Sky Astronomy for Everybody) from your local library. With practice, you’ll be able to spot a few constellations each season.

Find out what planets are out tonight. They are usually brighter than the stars around them, so they are fairly easy to locate if you know where to look.  Check out the What’s Up in the Night Sky Page to find out!

“I can locate a few constellations and would like to start using a telescope.”

Before you go out and spend hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on a telescope, start with a nice pair of binoculars or a very basic Galileoscope style telescope. Navigating your way throughout the sky with binoculars or a simple telescope will help you to master the skills necessary before making a larger investment.

Look at the moon. The moon is the easiest object to find in the sky with binoculars or a simple telescope. Peering at the moon will also help with locating objects through the lens and with your focusing skills. Also, if you’ve never looked at the details of the moon through a lens, it will take your breath away. You could spend years exploring the craters and mountains of the moon using some of the many reference books or on-line interactive lunar maps.

Find Jupiter or Saturn. Chances are that you’ll be able to spot a few of the Galilean moons of Jupiter or the rings of Saturn. If you are able to view Jupiter over several nights, you’ll discover the four largest moons orbiting the large planet, just as Galileo did hundreds of years ago. You may have seen pictures of Saturn’s rings, but there is nothing like viewing the original.

Discover the wonder of Deep Sky objects. Once you’ve observed a planet or two, look for a few DSOs (Deep Sky objects). There’s nothing like seeing a close-up of the Andromeda galaxy, or the beauty of the Orion Nebula. The following list will give you a few to search for each season.

Summer: Globular cluster M13 in Hercules, Lagoon Nebula (M8) and Trifid Nebula (M20) in Sagittarius, Ptolemy Cluster (M7) in Scorpius

Fall: Andromeda Galaxy in Andromeda, Globular cluster M15 in Pegasus

Winter: the Orion Nebula (M42) in the Orion constellation, the Pleides star cluster (M45) in the Taurus constellation

Spring:Beehive Cluster (M44) in the Cancer constellation, The Owl Nebula (M97) in Ursa Major

(Try  BinoSky for a description of how various DSOs should look through binoculars.)

Try again. And again. And again!It can take months to identify even a handful of the 88 constellations in the night sky, and locating and focusing in on deep sky objects takes time and practice. Don’t give up! There is no substitute for experience.

Join your local Astronomy Club. Attend some sky observation sessions and ask questions. Astronomers love sharing their knowledge and their equipment.

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