1. Gather the right equipment.
Chances are, a telescope is the first tool that comes to mind when you think about stargazing. But since there can be a steep learning curve when it comes to this high-tech tool, beginners often have better luck with an ordinary pair of binoculars. Binoculars will allow you to see details on the moon, nebula, binary stars, and even neighboring galaxies – plus, they’re easier to store and transport.
Another handy tool to have come nighttime is a red flashlight, especially if you’re planning to be somewhere that’s very dark. White and blue light, like the light found in your phone, can disrupt your night vision, whereas red light won’t affect it. For a DIY option, try covering your phone or flashlight with red cellophane.
Finally, you’ll want to download some stargazing apps (or, if you’re feeling old school, purchase a star chart) in order to learn all about the night sky. A few of the most popular apps include Star Walk 2, Night Sky, Sky Map, and Sky Safari. With these tools, you can track down just about anything in the sky and get information on what it is.
2. Choose your setting wisely.
You can stargaze almost anywhere – even your own backyard – but your location will determine how well you’re able to view the night sky. City dwellers, for example, will be handicapped by light pollution, with street lamps being some of the worst offenders. In this case, try to find somewhere high up, like the top of a tall building, to stargaze. You’re aiming for an unobstructed view.
If you have a car and are able to get somewhere genuinely dark, like a forest clearing, this is an ideal spot for stargazing. Allow 15 to 20 minutes for your eyes to properly adjust to the darkness, and then be amazed with how much you’re able to see with your naked eye.
Don’t forget to check the weather forecast before venturing out. Nothing will ruin your celestial observations more quickly than the appearance of clouds!
3. Learn what to look for.
The night sky is constantly changing, from night to night as well as season to season. Here are just a few of the objects you can observe during your stargazing session:
- Stars – On a clear night, you can see a couple thousand individual stars with your naked eye. Most of the stars you see are bigger and brighter than the sun.
- Constellations – Orion and Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) are some of the most well-known constellations, but Leo, Cassiopeia, and Hydra are also relatively easy to spot.
- Shooting stars – While its name is misleading, a shooting star – which is actually just cosmic dust entering Earth’s atmosphere – makes for an awe-inspiring sight.
- Planets – Did you know that Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are all visible with the naked eye? Just look for the “stars” that aren’t twinkling (which means what you’re really looking at is a planet).
- The moon – Don’t overlook our closest neighbor! In fact, keeping track of the moon’s lunar cycle will help you become a better stargazer. Generally, you’ll have the most success when the moon is in a gibbous or crescent phase.
- The Milky Way – To view the Milky Way galaxy, finding a dark spot for gazing is key. For those who live in the northern hemisphere, summer is the best time of year to see the Milky Way, when it’s higher in the sky.
- The International Space Station – As the third-brightest object in the sky, the ISS isn’t difficult to spot. In fact, NASA has a website that tracks the ISS and will notify you when there’s a sighting in your area.
- Celestial events – From lunar eclipses and new moons to meteor showers, these special sightings are worth noting on your calendar. (Hint: The nights around a new moon are the perfect time to go stargazing!)