Stargazing for Beginners – What to see in the dark sky?

Stargazing for Beginners – What to see in the dark sky?

What is stargazing?

Humanity has always had a fascination with the night sky, as is shown by countless astronomical cave paintings all over the world, ancient astronomy, and much more. We have depended on the stars for centuries to do seemingly obvious things like date and timekeeping, navigation, and the measurement of distances.

While the stars are still there today, their practical use has dwindled with the introduction of modern technology and their brightness has become outshone by the cities that we live in. These changes relegated the art of stargazing to the confines of a hobby and wilderness survival skills. In this article, we will discuss the basics of stargazing for beginners and give you some tips on how to start yourself, what can you see on beautiful night skies.

A dark figure with a telescope with starry night above

Astronomy for beginners: what exactly can you see at the dark sky?

Constellations

The most important thing to consider is where and when to look at the sky. In cities, there is a lot of light pollution so you will not see more than a few bright stars, the Moon and some planets. This is why most people know the Big Dipper and maybe some other constellations like Orion and Cassiopeia, as these are typically visible even in the city.

The night sky outside of the city is much more densely packed, and you will go from seeing a few dozen stars to thousands. Most constellations have a Greek story behind them. You can find them online, but they are also very nicely summarized in Ganeri’s ‘Star Stories’. This is also a great way to introduce children into the hobby, as these stories bring a lot of life to the night sky. For example, Orion and Scorpio are never above the horizon at the same time in the Northern hemisphere, because they are enemies.

Satellites

If you look carefully enough, you might even see some satellites moving amongst the stars, usually in the East-West direction. These basically look like stars, but move at seemingly incredible speeds, sometimes crossing the entire sky in a few minutes. They are relatively common, and you should see a few flying over each hour. You can even spot the ISS by eye if it flies over your head if you check Transit Finder. Other sites like Heavens-above.com also offer a treasure trove of information about what is up where and when.

Shooting stars

Most people believe that a shooting star is a rare sight, which is only true if you do not know when to look for them. Shooting stars are small pieces of space debris that fall onto the Earth. Most do not make it to the ground, as they burn up in the atmosphere. The meteors that you can see during meteor showers are usually debris left behind by comets when they crossed the Earth’s orbit. During these showers you can see dozens and sometimes hundreds of shooting stars, depending on the time of day and your location.

Most of them are named after the constellation from which they seemingly originate. So look towards that constellation to have the biggest chance of seeing one. The higher the constellation is in the sky, the better your chances of seeing a shooting star. You can also listen to these meteors on so called ‘meteor radios’, where you will hear a ‘ping’ each time one falls between you and the radio source.

A dark figure is pointing at a shooting star on the night sky

Northern Lights

The Northern Lights also known as Aurora Borealis is another rare sight that many dreams of seeing. Unfortunately, they are not always easy to spot. You have to be at the right place at the right time.

This phenomenon is caused by solar particles that get deflected by our magnetic field towards the Poles. The stronger the solar storm that hits us, the lower the particles hit the atmosphere latitude-wise. This means that you will see the Northern Lights quite regularly if you live near the arctic circle (or the Antarctic circle) and increasingly more rarely the closer you get to the Equator.

Green vibrant lines on the dark sky above a snowy pine forest

The best place to see them is within the “auroral zone”, which is the area approx. 1,550-mile (2,500 kilometers) radius of the North Pole, and during winter when it is dark. The activity of the Sun also factors in, which goes up and down on an 11-year cycle. 2021-2022 is currently a bit of a low point.

  • Northern Scandinavia
  • Iceland
  • Greenland
  • Northern Canada
  • Alaska
  • Northern Siberia

Best places to see the stars at night

Can you see stars from home?

Start by trying to identify these constellations, and maybe see if you can spot any planets. These are generally a bit bigger and do not twinkle. Stargazing apps will allow you to point your phone at the sky and see the name of stars, planets, and constellations.

Once you have a feeling for the night sky above your home, go out to a darker place. Try any Dark Sky Parks in the US, or maybe go on a camping trip or join a nearby stargazing tour.

Basically, the further away you are from the city, the better the sky will get. You will see more stars, more contrast between them and the night sky as well as more colors. Note that your eyes need to get used to the dark for a while to see everything, make sure not to spoil your night vision by looking at your phone or other light sources.

A tent in the dark with stars above

Where is the darkest sky?

The best night sky can be found at high altitudes, mountains that reach above the clouds offer phenomenal views of the night sky. This is also why professional astronomers build their telescopes on mountain tops like on the Canary Islands, Hawaii, and Chile. If you are traveling near any of these places, try to get a night tour as these have the best skies in the world.

You will also notice that the night sky is different at varying latitudes. Stars will move differently and constellations will flip upside down when you are in the Southern hemisphere. Perhaps the strangest change of all is our Moon, which changes its orientation with latitude. On the Northern hemisphere, it stands upright and the phases move one way, but on the southern hemisphere, this will go the opposite way. On the equator, the Moon will lie on its side, with the phases going up and down.

The movement of the stars draw lines on the night sky above the mountains

What to expect on a stargazing tour?

An organized tour can also be a great way to get to more remote places without risking the drive yourself while getting a knowledgeable guide at the same time. Typically such tours are available in most touristy areas that have dark skies. Think of natural parks and small retreats, as well as most places near the arctic.

The length and intensity of these tours vary wildly, as well as the level that one should have in order to get the most out of them. For example, it is often possible to do laid-back aurora tours where you are bought to a place and hope that they show up, while others drive around at night until they find an aurora, sometimes taking 4-5 hours and hundreds of kilometers.

It is important that you book a tour that you are comfortable with, as well as the people you take. A child may not be capable of staying up all night in the cold, so maybe shorter tours are better in that case. The best way to find out is to call the company and ask for the options and describe your wishes. Depending on your budget, you can usually find something that works.

Woman with a telescope is watching the night sky behind a fence

Do you need binoculars to stargaze?

Once you know your way around the sky and can easily identify the constellations then the next step would be to get a pair of binoculars. These will allow you to see a lot more stars and other details in the sky. You will see some great craters on the Moon, you can spot the moons of Jupiter and maybe even the rings of Saturn. Some stars will be binary doubles or even clusters with hundreds of stars.

However, keep in mind that the larger the magnification, the harder it will be to navigate. This is why it is very useful to be able to recognize parts of the constellations and move from star to star across the sky. (This method is called “star-hopping”.) There is a lot to see in this way.

I am yet to come across a town that did not have an astronomy club or association. These are usually very driven and knowledgeable people with access to good observing equipment. I always suggest joining one of these clubs before buying expensive equipment yourself, as these clubs give you the chance to try many different kinds of observing with telescopes. By eye, astrophotography, transit measurements, etc.

A dark figure with a flashlight in front of a purple pink sky with stars
A man is holding a nintendo to a telescope

Alex Pietrow

M.Sc. in Astrophysics

He is currently a doctoral candidate at Stockholm University in Sweden, where he pursuing a Ph.D. in Astronomy, focusing on Solar Physics. His job takes him on regular trips to the Canary Islands, where he observes with the Swedish 1-m Solar Telescope. He also has an interest in the history of astronomy and old technology. Some may know him for a viral article a while ago where he photographed Jupiter and its moons with a Nintendo Game Boy camera.

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