The First Timer’s Guide to Stargazing

Devils Tower Milky Way” by David Kingham is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

With Spring just around the corner, Renee and I are regularly checking the forecast and going out stargazing as much as possible. Spring time is one of my favorite times of year for star gazing: the sky still gets dark relatively early, winter constellations are visible but so are spring constellations if you stay out late enough, and the weather is warming up, making it easier to enjoy spending long stretches of time outside. Although stargazing is easy and fun without any previous experience, there are a few things I wish I had known when I was just starting out.

M31, the Andromeda galaxy, can be seen by the unaided eye. The view above is what it looks like through some binoculars. I took this photo in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.

You don’t need fancy equipment

I think the biggest misconception about stargazing is that you need a fancy telescope to be able to go out and look at the night sky. Telescopes are awesome, but you really don’t need one when you are starting out.

What you do need is a good book. I like NightWatch but I’m sure there are other great beginner books. The key is to find one that will teach you the constellations so that you will become comfortable navigating the night sky. Learning to find the major constellations and stars is the first step to successfully finding deep space objects later on. I do not recommend using a sky chart or star finder phone app — these apps ruin your night vision, take away from the fun of finding nighttime objects yourself, and honestly I have never had one that was accurate enough to work well. Just find yourself a good book and read it before you go out for the night — trying to navigate an unfamiliar book in the dark is not easy.

In addition to a book, you’ll want a red gelled flashlight. You can buy lights with red leds, but personally I use a small flashlight with some red Christmas cellophane taped over the business end. If you have a headlamp, use that — it’s definitely nice to keep your hands freed up.

Binoculars are great for stargazing — if you have a pair, bring them with you! They don’t need to be fancy; it’s amazing how much more you can see in the night sky with even a low quality pair of binoculars. The picture of M31 above is the kind of thing you can see with binoculars. Even though I own a great telescope I still use a pair of binoculars just as much.

If you have a telescope AND you know how to use it — bring it along. Otherwise, don’t even both bringing it. Until you are comfortable finding constellations and some of the naked eye objects, it will be too difficult to use a telescope and you will just get frustrated by not being able to use it. Save yourself that frustration and leave it at home until you get some practice without it first.

The Milky Way over western New York state. I took this photo on a camping trip.

Dress appropriately

Stargazing is an extremely motionless activity. You do a lot of standing and sitting and that’s about it. Since you aren’t moving your body much, it is essential that you dress warmly. You will need to dress warm enough to be able to sustain standing motionless in the outside air for hours at a time.

I like to bring way more clothes than I think I need. Having an extra fleece or jacket in the car is the difference between being able to stay out for hours and having to pack up and leave shortly after you have arrived. Layers here are key — they add lots of heat by trapping air close to your body and they are also easy to take off or add on if you need to regulate how you feel.

Also don’t forget gloves, hand warmers, and wool socks. The extremities of your body will get cold fast so don’t neglect them.

Bring snacks

It’s easy to spend long stretches of time outside stargazing especially when the weather is favorable. Add an event like a meteor shower or lunar eclipse and you might be outside for hours. Instead of having to cut your stargazing session short because of hunger, or having to stop at a fast food restaurant on your way home (because nothing else will be open that late) bring some snacks with you. Additionally, if the weather is still cool, bring a thermos of hot cocoa — nothing makes it more enjoyable to be outside in the cold than a delicious hot beverage.

Star trails over Zion National Park, Utah. Some of the darkest sky in the United States.

Find dark sky

Picking a place to stargaze can be as easy as stepping out into your backyard. Depending on where you live though, it might be beneficial to go someplace that has less light pollution. Light pollution makes seeing deep sky objects, and even some constellations, difficult to impossible.

I like using the Dark Sky Finder website. Look for areas that are colored orange, yellow, and green — these are locations that are perfect for viewing stars. Stargazing can be done in red areas as well, but I would highly recommend avoiding any white spots on the map — you just won’t be able to see enough to make it worth it. And don’t worry about going out of your way to get to a green, purple, or black area your first time few times out — it’ll actually be more difficult! I remember the first time I went stargazing in Utah in a spot that appears black on that map: the number of stars in the night sky in a really dark area is breathtaking. However, due to the amount of stars you can see in those dark areas, it’s much more difficult to find certain objects — I’ve even had difficulty finding the big dipper in really dark areas!

Good locations to search for are places like parks that have large open clearings. If you can find a park with a big prairie, a big hill, a lake, or even a large parking lot in the middle of a green zone, you have found a perfect stargazing spot.

Watch for a clear forecast

Most of us our probably get our weather from the local tv news station or online weather app. Although this type of weather report is good for getting a rough idea of temperatures and precipitation, it is incomplete for what we need for stargazing. Since we will be trying to look at the night sky, the two forecasts we really care about are cloud coverage and darkness.

Fortunately, the Clear Dark Sky website provides an excellent astronomical forecast. Simply go to the site and find a location nearby to where you plan to go stargazing. Once you specify a location, you’ll be presented with a forecast that looks like this:

Looks like tonight is going to get good around 1am. Sunday night looks like it might be promising too. Information on how to read this chart is located underneath the chart at Clear Dark Sky.

Although this forecasts provide a lot of information, there are two main things we want to look at. The first is the line that says “Cloud Cover”. Darker blue squares are better here — we want as few clouds in the sky as possible on the night we go out. As a rule of thumb, I’ll go out anytime it’s 40% or less cloud coverage as long as I don’t have to travel far. If I’m going to my favorite observing spot an hour away, the majority of the forecast needs to be 20% cloud cover or better — there’s nothing as disappointing as planning a night of stargazing only to arrive at your location and finding out that you can’t see any stars.

The second forecast important to us is Darkness. Darkness measures how “light” it is outside at our location due to the moon or setting/rising sun. Obviously if we are trying to see faint night time objects, it’s better for complete darkness, so I always try to go stargazing during a time when the forecast is dark blue. This doesn’t mean we can’t go star gazing on a night when there is almost a full moon — we just need to go out when the moon still hasn’t risen so the sky is dark (or plan to observe the moon!).

The remaining forecasts of transparency, seeing, humidity, etc… are useful when going out stargazing with a telescope. Feel free to familiarize yourself with these additional forecasts but be aware that they will only affect your stargazing night out if you are bringing a telescope (which you shouldn’t the first few times you go out).

Look for other nighttime objects

You have your star constellation book, dressed appropriately for the weather, brought some snacks, checked the forecast, and found a location that is dark enough for stargazing — that means time to go right? While you are definitely prepared, there are a few more things that you could do to increase your chances of having an awesome night out.

First, check Heavens Above for any flyovers happening in the area you will be stargazing at. This website tracks when satellites and the international space station will be flying overhead. You can check what’s going to be overhead the night you go out stargazing and hopefully be able to see something cool. Depending on the orientation of the satellite and the sun on the opposite side of the earth some of these objects can get really bright — I once saw the space station and it looked about the size of an outstretched thumb in the night sky and it was as bright as the moon; pretty awesome.

Before going out I also like to check this week’s Sky at a Glance. This is a weekly article that notes any cool things going on in the night sky this week. It’s a great resource to check so you don’t miss out on seeing some planets or meteor showers.

Also, look for local astronomy clubs putting on star parties for the public. Often times astronomy clubs hold public events that allow people to come use their equipment to stargaze as well as to help teach astronomy. These events tend to be free and there is no better way of learning about the night sky. You can learn a lot from books and videos online, but nothing is better than having someone knowledgeable point out actual objects in the sky for you or line up their telescope on some distant nebula that would be hard to find on your own. Additionally, once you are ready to buy a telescope, these clubs’ members are great resources for getting advice about what type of equipment to buy — and often times at the star party you can try out someone else’s equipment before you buy your own.

Now that you have all the information you need, get out tonight and enjoy the night sky (just check the cloud forecast first)!

NOTE: Links to products in this post go through my Amazon affiliate account so if you use my links to buy something, a small percentage of that sale will go towards funding my book buying habit.

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