Stargazing is for everybody. It’s for people who like seeing themselves as part of a bigger picture … people with a sense of wonder … people who just like being outside at night. Maybe that’s you. If so, here are some tips to help you get started.
1. Look up. Most of us go through life looking straight ahead. But you’ve got to look up to see stars. Standing outside at a bus stop? Look at the sky. In your car? Look out the window. Going outside before sunup to grab the paper? Gaze toward the sunrise horizon. You get the idea. Notice bright objects. Notice patterns among the stars. Just start looking up and noticing.
2. Watch the moon. Earth’s companion moon is visible from city streets, suburban decks and wide-open rural pastures. The moon connects you to everybody on the planet, because, generally speaking, we all see the moon at the same phase. The moon’s orbit around Earth is regular and predictable. So the moon waxes and wanes in our sky in a way that’s about as satisfyingly regular and predictable as anything on Earth can be. At first, be sure to watch the moon at the same time each night. What do you notice? Is it getting fatter or thinner in phase? Is it moving with respect to nearby bright stars? If you’re curious about the moon, read our article on understanding moon phases.
3. Watch the sun. Don’t look directly at it, of course. But do notice the point on the horizon where the sun rises or sets as seen from your kitchen window, or balcony, or yard. Does that rising or setting point change as the seasons pass? Does the path of the sun from east to west during the day change? The sun rises due east and sets due west at every equinox. If you identify east and west, you’ll have a jump on our next activity. By the way, try this great custom sunrise/sunset calendar. Don’t forget to check the moon phase box!
4. Use a chart. The internet is great, but a computer is an unwieldy companion on stargazing adventures. What you want is a printed chart. You can try the easy-to-use charts at EarthSky Tonight. Each night’s chart presents something interesting to spot in the night sky. Notice the printer-friendly version button below each chart. These charts are geared toward beginners. Using them over the course of just a few weeks will quickly raise your stargazing I.Q.
5. Don’t buy a telescope yet. Remember that pair of binoculars you stuck way at the top of your closet? Point them at the moon and bright objects in the night sky. Point them at noticeable patterns. If you’re in a location far from city lights, check out any hazy patches in the night sky. They are actual star clusters, or clouds of gas and dust where new stars are forming. If it’s summer, and you’re in a dark place, look for the starlit band of the Milky Way, and scan along it with your binoculars. You don’t need to know what you’re seeing to enjoy the view.
6. Notice patterns among the stars. Here’s how most stargazers learn constellations. They find a noticeable pattern, and then they notice another pattern nearby. They build outward, going from stars and patterns they know to new ones. Notice triangles, curves and straight lines of stars. Some of these noticeable patterns are the same ones our ancestors noticed while sitting around a campfire telling stories. Some of their stories ended up being passed down to us. Make up your own stories! Skylore is a form of folklore. It belongs to us: the folk.
7. Find a dark-sky site. Try a state park or a national park. You won’t be sorry. Check also for an astronomy club in your area. Experienced members are good sources of advice, and some groups loan out telescopes. Many societies also have libraries stocked with specialized books and atlases often not found in public libraries. Astronomy is also a good hobby to enjoy with a friend or family member. The delight of discovery is often infectious.
8. Link up with astro-friends. If you live in a college town, keep an eye out for astronomy community enrichment courses. Local schools, museums, and planetariums might also host public programs.
9. Take the telescope plunge carefully. Have you been watching the night sky for half a year at least? Can you recognize some major constellations? Have you identified a planet or two? The time to buy a telescope is when you’ve given yourself time to acclimate to the sky around you and all its nuances. Before that, if you want more optical power, buy binoculars. Once you’re ready to take the plunge, try this article from skytonight.com.
10. Be faithful to the sky. One of the great things about becoming a stargazer is that you make a lifelong friend: the sky itself. It’s a friend that lives right next door. And like any friend, the sky changes in subtle ways from day to day and year to year. So, once you start watching it, be patient. You can’t learn everything about your friend at once. Be persistent. Watch the sky a lot and watch regularly. You’ll learn by looking! And you’ll make a connection with nature that’ll last your whole life long.