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 your child wants to learn the basics of astronomy, use this guide to begin exploring the universe no matter where in the world you are.
What You’ll See In The Sky
Some of the easiest items to spot include:
These are groups of stars that form patterns in the night sky. These recognizable images present a method of remembering the stars, and provide the stargazer helpful guides as to where to find neighboring objects in the sky. Seafarers have used them for navigational purposes since ancient times.
Constellations have since been redefined as regions of sky, with official boundaries – much as counties within a state. This has resulted in some confusion as to constellation membership, as during the process of drawing boundaries, some stars found themselves in different constellations.
A good star map can help you find the constellations (discussed later on).
- The Solar System
The most visible satellite visible to even the naked eye while in the city: The Moon! A vast desert of well-catalogued features, it is almost always visible except during the New Moon periods.
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 rarely in close proximity to each other. Jupiter and Saturn are the easiest to see as they are brightest of the planets visible from Earth.
Jupiter glows white, while Saturn is a smaller, yellowish white. Mercury often twinkles in a bright yellow colour as well. Venus is large and silver, and Mars is a reddish colour. 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.
You will find it much easier to spot planets the farther away you are from light sources, though you can still stargaze in city limits. Books, magazines, and the Web can tell you which planets are visible on each night.
Also Read: Which planets are visible at night (2019) guide – For those who are ambitious, this guide goes into a lot of detail. If you’re looking for something for beginner friendly, check out this guide on space.com
- Meteor Showers
Seeing shooting stars is an amazing experience and they can be seen on any night of the year – if you’re patient, and more than a little lucky. However, every now and then, there are meteor showers that are worth being outside to enjoy.
Some of the most well-known meteor showers include the Perseids 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.
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. Don’t worry if you don’t know all the names of the phases just yet, it takes time and experience to learn these, below you will find a tool which can help you, no matter where you are located.
Tool: Moon Phases – This resource is very handy, simply put in your location and it will give you a Lunar calendar with moon phases to expect.
When you find your spot and get comfortable, give your eyes time to adjust to the change in light, which will take between 10 to 20 minutes.
Enjoy a Clear Night from Your Garden
Take some time to observe what the unaided eye can see: Look at the moon and familiarize yourself with the night sky. Ignite that curiosity, because the reality is that you do not have to buy an expensive telescope to enjoy astronomy. Let’s build up to that, so that 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 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 other heavenly bodies.
Something we do recommend is having a star chart on hand to help you identify the stars, planets, and constellations you are viewing. Make sure the star chart is for your hemisphere and corresponds with the right time of year.
This is a mistake many first-time stargazers make: They use a chart that’s old or best suited to another location, then struggle to find constellations, leading to frustration and disappointment.
You may be looking for a more tech-savvy alternative to the conventional star chart, in which case you should consider downloading an app. There are tons of great stargazing apps available that can help with your cosmic exploration. Some of them 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. Books and magazines are another great way to find out where to look and what to look for, while also giving you details on what it is you are looking at.
Sky Maps – This site offers a free monthly sky map that will help you identify stars, planets, and constellations, as well as bright comets.
Investing in Binoculars
Now that you have begun enjoying the night sky, you may be thinking about buying a telescope. Many budding astronomers buy telescopes before they even look up into the sky, then those telescopes end up collecting dust in backrooms and attics. If you are considering upping your stargazing game with a telescope, why not try binoculars first?
A good set of binoculars will be more affordable, easier to carry, and easier to use thanks to their wide field of view. A pair of binoculars will help you see more without spending a small fortune, and are a more natural next step for backyard astronomers. Binoculars will allow you to see the craters on the moon, and they will allow you to see the fascinating, finer details of the night sky, such as star clusters and Jupiter’s moons.
While learning to see these fascinating details through binoculars, you will also be learning the skills needed to use a telescope with confidence so that, once you decide to make that step, you will be getting your money’s worth – and less likely to let it collect dust.
Possibly the most important feature to consider in a telescope is the aperture: The wider, the better, as wider apertures work better in low-light conditions. The list of resources below provides more information on these, and other, topics.
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 about 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.
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
- Mirror misalignment
A refractor telescope is long and narrow, using lenses to focus on the image. These telescopes allow you to see sharp images and lots of detail, but the downside is the cost (as these do not come cheap). They are ideal for planetary observation and brighter objects, as opposed to objects in the deep-sky.
- Pinpointing star images
- Easy to use
- Maintenance free
- High cost
- Deep-sky observation
Catadioptric telescopes contain both reflector and refractor factors. They are slightly more expensive than reflectors but considerably less than refractors, and make a great telescope for astrophotography.
- Compact and portable
- Sealed from dust
- Central obstruction
- Minor false colour
Choosing a good mount is just as important as choosing the right telescope. The mount keeps the telescope steady while allowing for a wide range of movement so you can easily track objects 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 you to track celestial objects.
Telescope.com provides information on binoculars, as well as telescopes.
Use Resources to Gain More Knowledge
After a few nights of enjoying the stars, something very exciting happens: You start being able to identify constellations and planets without the aid of an app or star chart!
But, the best thing about astronomy is that there is always more to learn.
There is a wide selection of books about basic astronomy available in local libraries and bookstores, in addition to magazines and podcasts that can take your new hobby to all new heights. These resources can help you gain more knowledge on what you can see and when, the changes in stars throughout the night and throughout the year, and so much more.
Join an Astronomy Club
Share your interest with others! There are countless astronomy clubs that have meetings and “star parties” (night-time observing sessions) you can join for free. These are a great way to not only make friends with people who have a similar interest but also learn new tips, tricks, and skills. You can use this as an opportunity to try out 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 or public library may have an Astronomy department or group which hosts public events and viewing nights.
There are countless sites and resources dedicated to Astronomy and related fields that we didn’t have the space to include. Here are some of the best for general information.
NASA – When it comes to anything related to space, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a wealth of knowledge to share.
Cornell University – 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.
Glossary of Terms – If you’ve come across an astronomy term you’ve never heard before, this glossary may be of use.
Astronomy for Beginners – This site has loads of buying guides, astrophotography tips, astronomy facts, and more for budding astronomers to enjoy.
Enjoying the delights of the sky on a dark night costs nothing. You can start learning today using the free resources and apps provided to help you identify what you are looking at. You can see many of them without an aid, and there is always more to learn, more to see, and more to experience. Astronomy is a hobby that will keep on giving.
Backyard astronomy is an enjoyable, relaxing hobby that can be experienced at your own pace. The more you look at the night sky, the more it reveals, so get out there and keep learning!