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.

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NASA Has a Plan to Stop the Next Asteroid That Threatens Life on Earth
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An asteroid colliding catastrophically with Earth within your lifetime is unlikely, but not out of the question. According to NASA, objects large enough to threaten civilization hit the planet once every few million years or so. Fortunately, NASA has a plan for dealing with the next big one when it does arrive, Forbes reports.

According to the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan [PDF] released by the White House on June 21, there are a few ways to handle an asteroid. The first is using a gravity tractor to pull it from its collision course. It may sound like something out of science fiction, but a gravity tractor would simply be a large spacecraft flying beside the asteroid and using its gravitational pull to nudge it one way or the other.

Another option would be to fly the spacecraft straight into the asteroid: The impact would hopefully be enough to alter the object's speed and trajectory. And if the asteroid is too massive to be stopped by a spacecraft, the final option is to go nuclear. A vehicle carrying a nuclear device would be launched at the space rock with the goal of either sending it in a different direction or breaking it up into smaller pieces.

Around 2021, NASA will test its plan to deflect an asteroid using a spacecraft, but even the most foolproof defense strategy will be worthless if we don’t see the asteroid coming. For that reason, the U.S. government will also be working on improving Near-Earth Object (NEO) detection, the technology NASA uses to track asteroids. About 1500 NEOs are already detected each year, and thankfully, most of them go completely unnoticed by the public.

[h/t Forbes]

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15 Facts About the Summer Solstice
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It's the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, so soak up some of those direct sunrays (safely, of course) and celebrate the start of summer with these solstice facts.

1. THIS YEAR IT'S JUNE 21.

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The summer solstice always occurs between June 20 and June 22, but because the calendar doesn't exactly reflect the Earth's rotation, the precise time shifts slightly each year. For 2018, the sun will reach its greatest height in the sky for the Northern Hemisphere on June 21 at 6:07 a.m. Eastern Time.

2. THE SUN WILL BE DIRECTLY OVERHEAD AT THE TROPIC OF CANCER.

A vintage mapped globe showing the Tropic of Cancer
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While the entire Northern Hemisphere will see its longest day of the year on the summer solstice, the sun is only directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer (23 degrees 27 minutes north latitude).

3. THE NAME COMES FROM THE FACT THAT THE SUN APPEARS TO STAND STILL.

Stonehenge at sunrise.
CARL DE SOUZA, AFP/Getty Images

The term "solstice" is derived from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), because the sun's relative position in the sky at noon does not appear to change much during the solstice and its surrounding days. The rest of the year, the Earth's tilt on its axis—roughly 23.5 degrees—causes the sun's path in the sky to rise and fall from one day to the next.

4. THE WORLD'S BIGGEST BONFIRE WAS PART OF A SOLSTICE CELEBRATION.

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Celebrations have been held in conjunction with the solstice in cultures around the world for hundreds of years. Among these is Sankthans, or "Midsummer," which is celebrated on June 24 in Scandinavian countries. In 2016, the people of Ålesund, Norway, set a world record for the tallest bonfire with their 155.5-foot celebratory bonfire.

5. THE HOT WEATHER FOLLOWS THE SUN BY A FEW WEEKS.

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You may wonder why, if the solstice is the longest day of the year—and thus gets the most sunlight—the temperature usually doesn't reach its annual peak until a month or two later. It's because water, which makes up most of the Earth's surface, has a high specific heat, meaning it takes a while to both heat up and cool down. Because of this, the Earth's temperature takes about six weeks to catch up to the sun.

6. THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE GATHER AT STONEHENGE TO CELEBRATE.

Rollo Maughfling, the Archdruid of Glastonbury and Stonehenge, conducts a Solstice celebration service for revelers as they wait for the midsummer sunrise at Stonehenge on June 21, 2012, near Salisbury, England.
Rollo Maughfling, the Archdruid of Glastonbury and Stonehenge, conducts a Solstice celebration service for revelers as they wait for the midsummer sunrise at Stonehenge on June 21, 2012, near Salisbury, England.
Matt Cardy, Getty Images

People have long believed that Stonehenge was the site of ancient druid solstice celebrations because of the way the sun lines up with the stones on the winter and summer solstices. While there's no proven connection between Celtic solstice celebrations and Stonehenge, these days, thousands of modern pagans gather at the landmark to watch the sunrise on the solstice.

7. PAGANS CELEBRATE THE SOLSTICE WITH SYMBOLS OF FIRE AND WATER.

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In Paganism and Wicca, Midsummer is celebrated with a festival known as Litha. In ancient Europe, the festival involved rolling giant wheels lit on fire into bodies of water to symbolize the balance between fire and water.

8. IN ANCIENT EGYPT, THE SOLSTICE HERALDED THE NEW YEAR.

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In Ancient Egypt, the summer solstice preceded the appearance of the Sirius star, which the Egyptians believed was responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile that they relied upon for agriculture. Because of this, the Egyptian calendar was set so that the start of the year coincided with the appearance of Sirius, just after the solstice.

9. THE ANCIENT CHINESE HONORED THE YIN ON THE SOLSTICE.

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In ancient China, the summer solstice was the yin to the winter solstice's yang—literally. Throughout the year, the Chinese believed, the powers of yin and yang waxed and waned in reverse proportion to each other. At the summer solstice, the influence of yang was at its height, but the celebration centered on the impending switch to yin. At the winter solstice, the opposite switch was honored.

10. IN ALASKA, THE SOLSTICE IS CELEBRATED WITH A MIDNIGHT BASEBALL GAME.

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Each year on the summer solstice, the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks celebrate their status as the most northerly baseball team on the planet with a game that starts at 10:00 p.m. and stretches well into the following morning—without the need for artificial light—known as the Midnight Sun Game. The tradition originated in 1906 and was taken over by the Goldpanners in their first year of existence, 1960.

11. THE EARTH IS ACTUALLY AT ITS FARTHEST FROM THE SUN DURING THE SOLSTICE.

The Earth tilted on its axis.
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You might think that because the solstice occurs in summer that it means the Earth is closest to the sun in its elliptical revolution. However, the Earth is actually closest to the sun when the Northern Hemisphere experiences winter and is farthest away during the summer solstice. The warmth of summer comes exclusively from the tilt of the Earth's axis, and not from how close it is to the sun at any given time. 

12. IRONICALLY, THE SOLSTICE MARKS A DARK TIME IN SCIENCE HISTORY.

Galileo working on a book.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Legend has it that it was on the summer solstice in 1633 that Galileo was forced to recant his declaration that the Earth revolves around the Sun; even with doing so, he still spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

13. AN ALTERNATIVE CALENDAR HAD AN EXTRA MONTH NAMED AFTER THE SOLSTICE.

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In 1902, a British railway system employee named Moses B. Cotsworth attempted to institute a new calendar system that would standardize the months into even four-week segments. To do so, he needed to add an extra month to the year. The additional month was inserted between June and July and named Sol because the summer solstice would always fall during this time. Despite Cotsworth's traveling campaign to promote his new calendar, it failed to catch on.

14. IN ANCIENT GREECE, THE SOLSTICE FESTIVAL MARKED A TIME OF SOCIAL EQUALITY.

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The Greek festival of Kronia, which honored Cronus, the god of agriculture, coincided with the solstice. The festival was distinguished from other annual feasts and celebrations in that slaves and freemen participated in the festivities as equals.

15. ANCIENT ROME HONORED THE GODDESS VESTA ON THE SOLSTICE.

Roman statue of a vestal virgin
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In Rome, midsummer coincided with the festival of Vestalia, which honored Vesta, the Roman goddess who guarded virginity and was considered the patron of the domestic sphere. On the first day of this festival, married women were allowed to enter the temple of the Vestal virgins, from which they were barred the rest of the year.

A version of this list originally ran in 2015.

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