Table of Contents
- 1 Use a Star Chart or App
- 2 Where to Stargaze
- 3 Enjoy a Clear Night from Your Garden
- 4 Use Resources to Gain More Knowledge
- 5 Invest in Binoculars
- 6 Join an Astronomy Club
- 7 What You’ll See
- 8 Choosing a Telescope
- 9 Great Resources to Use
- 10 Summary of Beginner, Backyard Astronomy
Getting outside and looking up at the stars is one of the most underrated hobbies there is. It costs nothing, can be enjoyed from the comfort of your own backyard and will leave you in absolute awe of the universe. To get started all you need is a dark sky and some patience. If you want to enjoy amateur astronomy, use this guide to begin exploring the universe no matter where in the world you are.
Use a Star Chart or App
It is up to you if you want to invest in binoculars or telescopes, while these are great for seeing more detail there is no reason you can’t start stargazing unaided. With no aid, you’ll still be able to see stars, planets and more. Something we do recommend is having a star chart on hand to help you identify the stars, planets and constellations you are looking at. Make sure the star chart is for your hemisphere and corresponds with the time of year too. This is a mistake many first-time stargazers make, they use a chart that’s old or best suited to another location and then struggle to find constellations, causing frustration and disappointment.
You may be looking for a more tech-savvy solution to a star chart, in which case consider downloading an app. There are tons of great stargazing apps available that can help with your cosmic exploration. Some apps even work using GPS so when you point your phone up at the sky it tells you exactly what you are looking at and you can watch as the constellations appear on your screen. These apps are a great aid when you are trying to locate a certain star, planet or constellation for the first time.
Where to Stargaze
Now you have a star chart or an app on hand, you can get out into the garden and look up. It is always best to observe the night sky from a dark location, avoiding artificial lights such as street lamps. If it is possible for you to find a spot away from light pollution this is ideal but if not, don’t worry, you’ll still be able to stargaze. It’s also best to pick nights when the moon is not full and bright, aim for around New Moon or Last Quarter to get the best view of the stars. When you find your spot and get comfortable, give your eyes time to adjust to the change in light, this will take between 10 and 20 minutes.
Enjoy a Clear Night from Your Garden
Take some time to look at what the unaided eye can see, look at the moon and familiarize yourself with the night sky. Ignite that curiosity because the reality is you don’t have to splash out on a telescope to enjoy astronomy. Let’s build up to that, so when you do invest in the equipment you’ll know how to use it and you’ll know what you’re looking for. You should be able to see some of the brighter stars and a couple of constellations too (use your star chart or app to help with this).
Use Resources to Gain More Knowledge
After a few nights of enjoying the stars, something very exciting happens… You will be able to start identifying a few of the constellations and planets without the aid of an app or star chart. The best thing about astronomy is that there is always more to learn. There is a huge selection of books about basic astronomy available in local libraries or in book stores, there are even magazines and podcasts that may take your fancy. These resources can help you gain more knowledge on what you can see, the changes in stars throughout the night and throughout the year and so much more.
Invest in Binoculars
Now you’ve begun to enjoy the night sky, you may be thinking about buying a telescope. Many budding astronomers buy telescopes before they even look up into the sky and then those telescopes end up collecting dust in backrooms and attics. If you’re considering upping your stargazing game with a telescope, why not try binoculars first? Binoculars tend to be more affordable and are easier to use thanks to their wide field of view. A pair of binoculars will be able to help you see more without spending a small fortune and are a more natural next step for backyard astronomers. Binoculars can help you to see the craters on the moon and they’ll allow you to see fascinating finer details of the night sky such as star clusters and Jupiter’s moons. Books and magazines are a great way to find out where to look and what to look for, while also giving you some details on exactly what it is you are looking at. While learning to see these fascinating details through binoculars, you’ll be learning the skills needed to use a telescope with confidence.
Join an Astronomy Club
Share your interest with others, there are countless astronomy clubs that have meetings and “star parties” (nighttime observing sessions). These are a great way to not only make friends with people who have a similar interest but also learn some new tips, tricks and skills. You can use this as an opportunity to try out some other equipment such as telescopes or top-end binoculars and learn the advantages and disadvantages of using them. If you can’t find a local club, your local college may have an astronomy department that hosts public events or viewing nights.
Backyard astronomy is an enjoyable, calming hobby that can be experienced at your own pace. The more you look at the night sky, the more you will see, so get out there and keep learning.
What You’ll See
Some of the easiest items to spot include:
These are a group of stars that form patterns in the night sky, these patterns or images have been imagined by humans as a way to more easily identify which stars are which. These recognizable images present a method of remembering the stars you can see and help a stargazer to gauge where to look to find different things in the sky. There are 88 official constellations and no one star belongs to more than one constellation.
· The Solar System
We are able to observe multiple planets without using a telescope. For much of the year you can see Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, although not on a single night and rarely in close proximity to each other. Jupiter and Saturn are the easiest to see as they are brighter; Jupiter glows white while Saturn is a smaller, yellow-ish white. Mercury often twinkles in a bright yellow colour, Venus is large and silver and Mars is a reddish colour. You will find it much easier to spot planets when you are observing the sky away from any light pollution. Books, magazines and the web can tell you which planets are visible on each night. Under certain conditions, Uranus can also be spotted with the naked eye. With a good pair of binoculars, you may be able to see Neptune too.
· Meteor Showers
Seeing shooting stars is an amazing experience and they can be seen on any night of the year. However, every now and then there are meteor showers that are worth being outside to enjoy. Some of the most well-known meteor showers are Perseids that occurs in August, Orionids that can be seen between October and November and Geminids in December (to name just a few). Meteor-gazing is usually better after midnight and each meteor shower has a ‘peak night’ when the most meteor activity can be observed.
Choosing a Telescope
If you have followed this guide and are continuing to enjoy the night sky, you may be keen to get more serious with astronomy by picking up a telescope. A telescope will allow you to see and enjoy even more, but there are different types of telescopes available so here’s a short summary of what’s available.
· Newtonian Reflector
A reflector telescope uses mirrors to focus light. These telescopes tend to be lightweight and affordable. A reflector telescope is a good choice for observing faint objects that are deep in the sky for example nebulae and galaxies. Generally speaking, this is the best choice for someone relatively new to astronomy.
Excellent colour correction
Low cost all rounder
Observing deep-sky objects
Open to dust and dirt
A refractor telescope is long and narrow, using lenses to focus on the image. These telescopes allow you to see a sharp image and a large amount of detail but the downside is the cost as these do not come cheap. They are ideal for planetary observing and observing brighter objects as oppose to being good for spotting objects in the deep-sky.
Pinpointing star images
Easy to use
This type of telescope contains both reflector and refractor factors. They are slightly more expensive than reflectors but cost considerably less than refractors and make a great telescope for astrophotography.
Compact and portable
Sealed from dust
Minor false colour
Choosing a good mount is just as important as choosing a good telescope. The mount keeps the telescope steady while also allowing a wide range of movement so you can easily track and look at different areas of the sky.
- Altazimuth mount – A simple, light and easy to use mount that moves up and down in and left and right but does not allow you to track objects.
- Equatorial mount – moves in celestial north-south and in east-west axis allowing tracking of celestial objects.
Great Resources to Use
There are countless sources of information available, here are some of the best for general information and support during your astronomy journey.
When it comes to anything related to space, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is a huge name with a big reputation and lots of knowledge to share.
If you’ve got a query about astronomy, check out this page from Cornell University. Their question and answer archive holds a wealth of information from “what do I need to become an astronomer?” to the colours and distances of the planets.
If you’ve come across an astronomy term you’ve never heard before, this glossary may be of use as it details some of the most frequently used words and phrases.
This site has lots of buying guides, astrophotography tips, astronomy facts and more for budding astronomers to enjoy.
This site offers a free monthly sky map that will help you identify stars, planets and constellations as well as bright comets.
Summary of Beginner, Backyard Astronomy
Enjoying the delights of the sky on a dark night costs nothing. You can start learning today using free resources and apps to help you identify what you are looking at. You can see a large amount unaided and there is always more to learn, more to see and more to experience. This is a hobby that will just keep on giving. We hope this guide gives you the confidence and information needed to start your stargazing journey.