A Beginner’s Guide to Star Gazing

Many of us have gone outside and wondered about the night sky but how can you get the best out of that experience? You don’t need a lot of equipment to enjoy the night sky. This post will give you some tips to get started with star gazing.

The night sky including the milky way. Image: Paul Smith

Before you step outside one of the first things you need to do is prepare your wardrobe. You won’t stay outside very long and your observing session will be no fun if you are cold. Try to bulk up on the layers. Rather than one heavy coat wear multiple thin layers. The layers trap air which acts as an insulator. In addition to this a heavy pair of trousers are essential. Again try to use layers, you could try a pair of pyjama bottoms or leggings under trousers to keep in some extra heat. Fingers, toes and other extremities get cold very quickly so gloves, hats and scarves are all important. For you feet, if you have boots they are great for keeping your feet warm and you should wear two pairs of socks.

Now that you are outside and you are nice and warm, you’re all set to enjoy the view. After a few minutes though you will notice that your neck will get sore from looking up. If the ground is dry, you could put down some cardboard or a mat and lie down on it. If you have one, a sun lounger makes a really comfortable viewing spot. Outdoor bean bags also work as do hammocks.

As you lie back and start to enjoy the view you will find that your eyes become more sensitive in the dark. This is known as dark adaption. Your eye is made up of two types of light sensor. One type is called cones and the other are rods. The cones are used in daylight but the rods are much more sensitive in the dark. It takes about 20 mins for the change to complete fully and the problem is that if you are exposed to light during that period you go back to square one and have to start the dark adaption process again. For this reason it is important to avoid lights while observing. Try to ensure people in the house know not to turn on the outside lights. You will need to see a little, for reading star charts etc. For this use a red light. A red light will affect your dark adaption much less than a white one. There are many ways to do this. You could get a rear bicycle light, buy a purpose build red light or put red plastic over a torch.

Speaking of darkness, the darker your observing location is the better. If you live in or close to a town or city your view will be majorly impacted by light pollution. Light pollution is the glare of unwanted lights brightening the sky. You can avoid this by travelling to a rural location to look at the sky. If that’s not possible, try to position yourself so that any streetlights are not in view

Light pollution Image: Paul Smith

Once you are comfortable and warm and dark adapted, the next question is what can you look at? There are a number of mobile apps, such as Stellarium that show you a view of the night sky and the constellations. (Note that phone screens will ruin dark adaption too but some apps come with a “night mode” which turns everything red). You can also print out star charts from websites like heavens-above.com or look in astronomy books or magazines for star charts. To use a star char hold it so that the direction you are facing is at the bottom. Find a constellation you are familiar with. The Plough is a great one for us in Ireland. It never sets and can easily be spotted to use as a reference point. From here you can use a technique called star hopping to find other constellations. Using the Plough, you can start by following an imaginary line created by the two stars at the end of the bowl. This will take you to Polaris, the north star.

Stat chart for 22:00 14/01/2021 Image: heavens-above.com

If you are in a dark sky and your eyes are well adapted, you may be able to see the Andromeda galaxy and the Orion nebula with your eyes. You can also see the planets. At the moment Mars is high in the south west evening sky. From time to time you may see meteors (shooting stars) streaking across the sky. These are tiny pieces of dust left from comets and asteroids that burn up in the atmosphere. Also visible is our own galaxy ,the milky way. Best in spring and autumn, it looks like a misty band of stars across the sky.

Finally to make you observing session even better, why not bring along some refreshments? Snacks and hot drinks can give you a boost when you get a little cold or tired. The night sky is a wonderful sight. Next time the sky is clear why not get out and enjoy it?!

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