Stargazing: A Beginner’s Guide

The night sky is one of the most beautiful marvels the universe has to offer. However, many of us don’t get to experience its beauty due to the fact that, as an advanced society, our cities generate a lot of light pollution.

The most prominent constellations, such as Orion or the Big Dipper, can be seen practically anywhere in the world. The stars that comprise these constellations are very bright and so they’re largely unaffected by light pollution. Here’s what the sky might look like in relatively densely populated areas:

 

orion-at-summer-dawn
Orion at Summer Dawn Image Credit: Martin J. Powell

In cities like London, Paris or New York, the night sky will be practically devoid of stars. These cities contain some of the largest populations in the world, and with large populations come very high levels of light pollution.

Don’t worry though, this gives you a chance to familiarise yourself with the most prominent features of the night sky. You can see the brightest constellations, planets, meteors, some satellites and, if you’re lucky, comets! If you want to learn how to navigate the night sky by using major constellations as markers, here’s a short guide on what to look for:

Sky Navigation Guide

Most of the brightest celestial objects are in fact our neighbouring planets. The list below shows some of the brightest objects in the night sky. The lower the apparent magnitude (am), the brighter the object as seen from Earth.

  1. The Moon (VERY BRIGHT!) am −12.9
  2. International Space Station (satellite) am -5.9
  3. Venus (planet) am -4.3
  4. Jupiter (planet) am -2.2
  5. Mercury (planet) am -1.6
  6. Sirius (star) am -1.4
  7. Mars (planet) am -1.2

These objects are great points of interest for a beginner astronomer. You can spend hours trying to identify objects in the sky for the first time. It allows you to closely study the appearances and behaviours of these objects and learn from your mistakes. But… if you’re impatient, and want to take it to the next level, I don’t blame you. You’ll undoubtedly prefer to see the sky in all its majesty. Something akin to this I assume:

flagstaff.jpg
A Protected Night Sky Over Flagstaff Image Credit: Dan & Cindy Duriscoe, FDSC, Lowell Observatory & USNO

Well… to experience sights like this one, you will need to go to places with minimal light pollution. Don’t know what light pollution is and how to find places where there isn’t any? Don’t worry about it! I’ve got just the tool for you:

Light Pollution Map

Uncoloured places will give you the most spectacular views so I recommend taking all the time you need to make the journey, rather than settling for the lightly polluted areas. Before you get all excited and decide to go, let me stop you for just a sec. You can push the boundary of what you can see even further by getting the appropriate equipment! Celestron.com offers brilliant telescopes and binoculars for a variety of prices, which will greatly increase the amount of objects you can see. Like the Helix Nebula for example:

IDL TIFF file
The Helix Nebula Image Credit: NASA, NOAO, ESA, the Hubble Helix Nebula Team, M. Meixner (STScI) & T.A. Rector (NRAO)

 

For help with chasing the right equipment for you, here’s a video introduction that will guide you through the process:

 

This blogpost was composed as a response to a question asked by a twitter user:

See something wrong with this article? Be sure to let me know via the comment section, or via email: theastrophysicist@hotmail.com

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