CLOSE

13 Tips for Stargazing From Astronomers

Whether you live in a city or the countryside, at some point you’ve probably stopped to marvel at the night sky. But how do you know what you’re looking at? If you want to get a bit more intimate with the skies, here are 13 tips from astronomers for taking your stargazing to the next level.

1. Get up high.

If you live in a city where light pollution clouds your view, get as high up as you can so buildings don’t obstruct your view. “You want as much of a view of the sky as possible,” says Jackie Faherty, a research associate in the American Museum of Natural History’s department of astrophysics. Also try to get away from streetlights. “One streetlight will knock out your dark adaptation for 20 minutes,” says William Paterson University astronomer Jason KendallAlso, “the new LED streetlights are really bad for stargazing,” Kendall warns. “Run from them.”

2. Invest in a red flashlight.

If you need some kind of light so you don't fumble in the darkness (or fall off a roof), get a flashlight with a red filter. “Red light does not have the same effect on eyes as does blue or white light,” says Kendall. You can create your own red flashlight by covering your cell phone with red cellophane or paper. 

3. Don’t buy a telescope (yet).

Newbie stargazers are often tempted to stock up on high-tech tools. Don't. “It’s a very common mistake,” says Jose Manuel Zorrilla Matilla, a Ph.D. astronomy student at Columbia University. “But people get frustrated because it’s tough to use, and the things they’re seeing don’t resemble anything yet.” He says it’s best to get to know the night sky first, identify a few anchor objects like planets or constellations that help you navigate the sky, and then buy a telescope.

4. Start with binoculars instead.

They’re a good middle ground between the naked eye and the massive magnification of a telescope, and you’ll be surprised by much detail they can provide. Use your binoculars to get a close-up of the moon and its craters. They don’t have to be expensive, either. “Cheap binoculars from Target are just fine,” says Kendall.

5. Know when to look.

If you can brave the cold, the sky is at its best on crisp, clear winter nights when there’s no humidity in the air. Summer evenings tend to produce haze and blur the view. Generally, the best time for stargazing is when the moon is in a crescent or gibbous phase—or when it’s not present in the sky at all. “When the moon is full, there’s so much light that it washes out everything else,” says Zorrilla Matilla. Also, the waxing or waning phases are when the moon’s shadows best reveal its spectacular texture in great detail through binoculars or a telescope. The moon sometimes gets overlooked, but it is a great object for city dwellers who might not be able to see the more distant stars and planets through light pollution.

6. Get a star chart…

It's the best way to learn the skies. That's what Faherty did, before there were stargazing apps for computers or smart phones. “You don’t necessarily need those anymore, but I still recommend them because I love them," Faherty says. "They’re old school, and they teach you a bit more. You can download and print them.”

7. … And a few good apps.

But Faherty isn't against using apps. She teaches with Stellarium. “It’s excellent,” she says. “It lets you see the positions of the planets, set your location, move the horizon.” It also has a red night mode, to keep your phone's white light from interfering with your eyes' ability to adjust to the dark.

Faherty also polled her colleagues at the American Museum of Natural History for their favorite apps. Here’s what they recommend: 

Starwalk lets you point at the sky and see what’s up there in real time based on your location. See something interesting? Tap on it to get more information. It’s free to begin with, but you can pay to upgrade to more features. 

Google Sky Map is basically Google Maps, but for space. Its data is pulled from a wide range of sources, including the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the Hubble Space Telescope, and NASA's Chandra satellite.

Exoplanet is a bit more advanced and “does a little bit of science for you,” Faherty says. This interactive catalog of all known exoplanets (planets orbiting stars beyond our solar system) is free to download and updated every time a new exoplanet is discovered.

8.  Look for the International Space Station.

“It’s not always going to cross your sky, but when it does happen, it’s really fun,” says Faherty. NASA has a website dedicated to tracking the ISS. It tells you when the next sighting is in your area, where in the sky it will be and for how long. If you want something a bit more immediate, you can watch it move around the world in real-time here. At the time of writing, the ISS is moving at a speed of 17,139 mph.

9. Follow astronomers on Twitter.

“I think Twitter is an excellent forum for getting astronomy information,” Faherty says. “I always tweet events that are happening and are visible. There are a lot of astronomers on Twitter, so following them is a good idea.” Here’s Faherty on Twitter, and a few helpful lists.

10. Find your local amateur astronomer’s club.

A good way to learn the skies is with other people. You likely have an amateur astronomer’s club in your area. They will probably have three things: telescopes, experts who can tell you how to use them, and access to a local observatory.

11. Admire the Milky Way.

The arms of our own galaxy are one of Faherty’s and Kendall’s favorite things to look at. The galaxy is high in the sky in the summer, low in the winter, and stunning all year round. “When people see it, they don’t understand what they’re looking at,” Faherty says. “It looks like a cloud that runs across the sky. We’re looking through the plane of it where it’s thick, and thousands and thousands of light-years of distant stars. Man, it’s gorgeous.”

Kendall says the best way to view the Milky Way is from a dark spot with no streetlights for at least 20 miles. “Look straight up at 11 p.m. on summer nights,” he says.

12. Learn to differentiate between planets and stars.

If a bright light in the sky sparkles, it’s a star. If it doesn't and appears stationary, it’s a planet. If an object is much brighter than those around it, there's a good chance it's a planet, says Faherty.

Also, if you can spot two planets (or the moon and a planet) and trace a line in the sky between the two, you’ve identified part of the ecliptic plane. This is the path the sun appears to take when rising and setting. If you continue to trace this line across the sky, you’ll probably run into several of the planets, as they follow this same path.

13. Use your eyes—and imagination.

There are so many high-tech tools to help us navigate the skies, but astronomers still recommend foregoing them every once in a while and just gazing up with the naked, unaided eye. This is how our ancestors saw the sky, and over thousands of years, it’s barely changed. Try to spot the characters in the sky, such as Orion the hunter or Scorpius, Faherty’s favorite. “I think it’s the most gorgeous constellation,” she says. “It really does look like a scorpion.” With enough practice, eventually you’ll know the characters in the sky by heart.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
arrow
Space
Look Up! The Lyrid Meteor Shower Arrives Saturday Night
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, but this weekend, look up and you might see several of them. Between 11:59 p.m. on April 21 and dawn on Sunday, April 22, the Lyrid meteor shower will peak over the Northern Hemisphere. Make some time for the celestial show and you'll see a shooting star streaking across the night sky every few minutes. Here is everything you need to know.

WHAT IS THE LYRID METEOR SHOWER?

Every 415.5 years, the comet Thatcher circles the Sun in a highly eccentric orbit shaped almost like a cat's eye. At its farthest from the Sun, it's billions of miles from Pluto; at its nearest, it swings between the Earth and Mars. (The last time it was near the Earth was in 1861, and it won't be that close again until 2280.) That's quite a journey, and more pressingly, quite a variation in temperature. The closer it gets to the Sun, the more debris it sheds. That debris is what you're seeing when you see a meteor shower: dust-sized particles slamming into the Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. In a competition between the two, the Earth is going to win, and "shooting stars" are the result of energy released as the particles are vaporized.

The comet was spotted on April 4, 1861 by A.E. Thatcher, an amateur skywatcher in New York City, earning him kudos from the noted astronomer Sir John Herschel. Clues to the comet's discovery are in its astronomical designation, C/1861 G1. The "C" means it's a long-period comet with an orbit of more than 200 years; "G" stands for the first half of April, and the "1" indicates it was the first comet discovered in that timeframe.

Sightings of the Lyrid meteor shower—named after Lyra, the constellation it appears to originate from—are much older; the first record dates to 7th-century BCE China.

HOW CAN I SEE IT?

Saturday night marks a first quarter Moon (visually half the Moon), which by midnight will have set below the horizon, so it won't wash out the night sky. That's great news—you can expect to see 20 meteors per hour. You're going to need to get away from local light pollution and find truly dark skies, and to completely avoid smartphones, flashlights, car headlights, or dome lights. The goal is to let your eyes adjust totally to the darkness: Find your viewing area, lay out your blanket, lay down, look up, and wait. In an hour, you'll be able to see the night sky with great—and if you've never done this before, surprising—clarity. Don't touch the smartphone or you'll undo all your hard ocular work.

Where is the nearest dark sky to where you live? You can find out on the Dark Site Finder map. And because the shower peaks on a Saturday night, your local astronomy club is very likely going to have an event to celebrate the Lyrids. Looking for a local club? Sky & Telescope has you covered.

WHAT ELSE IS GOING ON UP THERE?

You don't need a telescope to see a meteor shower, but if you bring one, aim it south to find Jupiter. It's the bright, unblinking spot in the sky. With a telescope, you should be able to make out its stripes. Those five stars surrounding it are the constellation Libra. You'll notice also four tiny points of light nearby. Those are the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. When Galileo discovered those moons in 1610, he was able to prove the Copernican model of heliocentricity: that the Earth goes around the Sun.

THERE'S BAD WEATHER HERE! WHAT DO I DO?

First: Don't panic. The shower peaks on the early morning of the 22nd. But it doesn't end that day. You can try again on the 23rd and 24th, though the numbers of meteors will likely diminish. The Lyrids will be back next year, and the year after, and so on. But if you are eager for another show, on May 6, the Eta Aquariids will be at their strongest. The night sky always delivers.

arrow
Space
New NASA Satellite Called TESS Could Discover Thousands of New Planets

Since NASA’s Kepler spacecraft launched in 2009, the space agency has found and confirmed a whopping 2343 new planets. Of those, 30 are considered to be situated in a “habitable zone,” an area in which a planet’s surface could theoretically contain water.

A new satellite, set to launch today, is expected to find thousands more planets outside of our solar system, known as exoplanets. TESS, short for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is NASA’s latest effort to plumb the depths and darkness of outer space in search of other Earth-like planets—including those that could potentially support life.

TESS is slated to complete a two-year survey of the “solar neighborhood,” a general region which comprises more than 200,000 of the brightest nearby stars. To find these outlier planets, NASA scientists will be keeping an eye out for temporary changes in brightness, which indicate that a planet is blocking its host star.

According to Martin Still, the program scientist working on the TESS mission, the launch comes “with certainty” that TESS will find many nearby exoplanets. "We expect to find a whole range of planet sizes, between planets the size of Mercury or even the Moon—our Moon—to planets the same size as Jupiter and everything in between,” Still said in a NASA interview.

While the Kepler mission was considered a major success, NASA noted that most of the planets it recorded are those that orbit faint, faraway stars, making it difficult to conduct follow-up observations. The stars that TESS plans to survey will be 30 to 100 times brighter than those observed by its predecessor. This allows for newly detected planets and their atmospheres to be characterized more easily.

“Before Kepler launched, we didn't know for sure if Earth-sized planets existed,” Elisa V. Quintana, a NASA astrophysicist, told Reddit. “Kepler was a statistical survey that looked at a small patch of sky for four years and taught us that Earths are everywhere. TESS is building on Kepler in the sense that TESS wants to find more small planets but ones that orbit nearby, bright stars. These types of planets that are close to us are much more easy to study, and we can measure their masses from telescopes here on Earth.”

The most common categories of exoplanets are Earth- and Super Earth–sized masses—the latter of which are larger than Earth but smaller than Uranus and Neptune.

TESS is scheduled to launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 6:32pm EDT today.

For more information about TESS, check out this video from NASA.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios