Brian Cox might spring to mind when you think of stargazing. But it’s also a pastime enjoyed by thousands of adults globally, partly thanks to its soothing ability to make humans feel more grounded and, ultimately, connected. Research in the European Journal of Ecopsychology found that stargazing encourages “feelings of personal growth, positive emotions and a variety of transcendent thoughts and experiences”, and, if the near million Instagram posts using the hashtag #stargazing are anything to go by, people have just about figured that out.
No, don’t worry, you don’t need to splash out on a telescope, but getting your head around star gazing 101 will definitely help. That’s why we spoke to Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE of BBC Four’s The Sky At Night to offer you her best top tips on stargazing for beginners.
Ready to learn your meteor from your meteorite and your reflector from your refractor? She’ll chat you through stargazing for beginners, plus cover tips for those in urban areas who might have to contend with light pollution or not being able to get out into a garden.
Oh, and if you needed more convincing, 2020’s shaping up to be pretty big for celestial occurrences. Highlights include five eclipses, two meteor showers and later in the year, a rare conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, where they’ll be so close, they’ll look like a bright double planet. The last time this happened was 2000.
Ready? Set? Stargaze. Maggie's tips are here to help you get going...
Stargazing: everything you need to know
The lovely thing about stargazing is that anyone can do it. You don’t need equipment—all you need is a clear patch of sky.
When you stargaze, you’re following an age old tradition. Look back at human kind: we've always wondered what’s out there, and over the years discovered more and more to answer this question. It’s nice to see the sky with the knowledge we now have, and take it all in.
During difficult times, the sky can help put things into perspective.
1.Don’t be intimidated
As I said, stargazing is for absolutely everyone, from small tots to grannies and grandads. All you need is a set of eyes to be able to look up with. You can use all sorts of equipment, like telescopes and binoculars, but they’re not essential. It’s as simple as just looking up.
2. Get to know the stars you’re gazing at
One of the most common constellations people see during the winter months here in the UK, in the Northern Hemisphere, is Orion. Orion has four stars at the corners, three stars going across to form Orion’s Belt and another three stars which form Orion’s Sword.
If you realise that you’ve actually spotted something well known and think, “Ah! I’ve heard of that”, you’ll likely be encouraged to keep gazing. It opens up a whole world, a whole universe, literally, of wonder. It’s very encouraging.
3. Download the right apps
There are loads of free apps to help you discover the stars you’re gazing at. Your phone's GPS knows where you are and enables an understanding of your orientation. That way, if you see anything in the sky, any stars or bright objects, you can point the phone towards it and it will inform you of what it is.
Of course, you don’t need to have an app—you can just appreciate the wonders that are out there with your own two eyes. But if you’re someone who likes to know what they’re looking at — I sometimes wonder, is that Mars or another planet? And what is that? – it really helps you nail down what you’re actually observing.
It’s as simple as downloading an app from the iTunes store. The one I have on my phone at the moment is called Star Walk 2, which is free. Or, you can do it how we’ve done in the past, using star packs or planet-spheres to work things out.
4. Go back to basics
Remember all that primary school astronomy homework you did? It’s time to tap into your planetary knowledge, as you can see all seven other planets in the solar system from the Earth. This is because all eight planets orbit the sun. At the moment, the planet Venus is very bright in the sky. Soon after the sun is set, there’s something that looks, quite literally, like a diamond in the sky.
People can see the planets and appreciate them with the naked eye, but if you want to take it further and explore more, you can use kit like binoculars or even a telescope. With this equipment, you can observe in far more detail. For example, did you know that Venus actually goes through phases, like the moon? There are many, including the full Venus, half Venus, crescent Venus and more. It looks brighter or dimmer in the sky depending on how much of it is illuminated.
5. Make the most of clear nights
The only challenge for astronomy is cloud. Cloudy nights are the ultimate enemy, so make sure to make the most of clear skies for the best stargazing.
6. Yes, you can stargaze from your flat window
If you have a clear night, no matter where you are, you can just look out of the window. You might not see the whole sky, but you’ll still get a good view.
As the night goes on, you’ll see the earth rotating as the stars track across the night sky. If you look through your window at the beginning of the night and then compare it to before bed; you’ll notice a difference. It’s like a moving image, right before your eyes. From an open or closed window, you can see an awful lot.
7. Try to avoid street lights
Yes, you might be restricted in what view you have, if you’re in a flat or you’ve only got a couple of windows. But none of this matters; as long you’re away from streetlights, if you can be, you should be able to get a good view. It’s harder in big cities, but it does mean you’ll see more.
This is because light pollution directly washes out starlight in the night sky, making your view less clear.
8. Make sure you’re adapted to the dark
It's good to prepare your eyes for staring into the deep, dark sky for lengthy periods. If you look up for a while at a dark scene, your pupils will dilate. The bigger your pupils are, the more you can see. It takes about 20 minutes to get fully dark-adapted, but bear with it. It’ll make for a better experience overall.
9. Turn off the lights indoors
Try and keep away from as many lights as possible. If you’re trying to see the stars from your garden and you’ve got lots of light blaring out from inside, especially if the window is closed and you’re seeing reflections off the windows, it’ll be hard. Be sure to turn off your indoor lights.
10. Get creative
Even if you have a static view, keep looking as the hours go past and the stars will track across the sky, meaning you’ll see more and more of them as the evening goes on. I’d recommend looking out for constellations and making your own patterns, sort of like dot to dots, in the sky.
There’s another fun game to play called star hopping. If you see something quite familiar in the sky, like the Plough or Orion, head online to NightSky and you can star hop from one famous constellations to another. That way, you discover other constellations you perhaps didn’t know about.
11. Don’t worry about pollution
Stargazing’s main enemies are light pollution, so bright lights and cloudy skies are the ultimate enemy. We can’t do much about those, other than turn lights off or reposition ourselves away from lights. Pollution in cities isn’t that bad, really; what it does is scatter the lighter bits, but won’t have too much of an impact.
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