Dark-sky destinations have become increasingly popular in the past year or two, astrotourism is on the rise, and even though the nights don’t seem to be getting any darker during lockdown, the hours at home have inspired a return to nature-related hobbies of all stripes. (Birdwatching, anyone?) If your curiosity has been piqued by the stargazing trend, it’s easy to get started from home. Here’s everything you need to know to dip a toe in astral waters.
1. Get used to looking up
It may be counterintuitive for city dwellers who’ve spent years internalizing the message that craning your neck toward the heavens makes you seem like a gawking tourist, but truly, the first step to becoming a stargazer is the easiest: start looking up and observing as much as you can.
“Go outside at night, and just look up and start getting to know what's up there,” Amateur Astronomers Association of New York president Irene Pease tells Lonely Planet. “Get a feel for how the night sky moves as the earth rotates – how it moves through the night, how it moves from season to season, see the planets and the moon shifting positions.”
There’s no magic formula – any time of night and any time of year is fine, you just want to be out there whenever the weather is clear. “The more you look, the more you’ll see,” American Astronomical Society press officer Rick Fienberg says. “The more often you go outside and observe, the faster you’ll become familiar with the night sky and the more satisfying the experience will be, as you’ll come to recognize certain bright stars as ‘old friends’ who instantly help you get oriented when you first step outside each night.”
2. Don’t forget the map
Speaking of orientation: You probably wouldn’t set off on a road trip without having a map on hand, and you won’t to get far stargazing without one either. There are a number of tools that can help you make sense of what you’re seeing, but Fienberg and Pease both recommend a planisphere – an adjustable star wheel that shows what's going to be up in the night sky at a given date and time – to provide a frame of reference.
“One of the first things a new stargazer learns is that we see different parts of the sky from different latitudes on earth,” Fienberg says. “Planispheres are available for different latitudes, both north and south. Get the one designed for the latitude closest to you (for example, 30°N for the southern US, 40°N for mid-northern latitudes, and 50°N for Canada) so that the map on the planisphere will best match the sky from your location.”
There are also all-sky star charts, websites, guidebooks for beginners, and apps that identify what you’re seeing when you point your phone at the sky, all of which can enhance your stargazing experience (more on all that in a sec). “The point is to have something to guide your viewing so you’ll be able to learn some constellations, identify some bright stars and planets by name, figure out why things move differently depending on which direction you’re looking, and so on,” Fienberg says.
3. Do your homework
Ultimately, you’ll have the best results if you combine hands-on observation with reading and research. For beginners, Pease is partial to Skymaps.com. “They make a map every month showing the brightest things in the night sky – the brightest stars, the outlines of the constellations, and if there’s going to be any planets out, where those will be just after sunset,” she says.
Sky & Telescope, where Fienberg served as editor-in-chief from 2001-2008, has an evening all-sky chart as its centerfold and its website is a good resource for newbies; the magazine’s editors even host a podcast that offers a guided tour of the month’s celestial highlights. Astronomy is another monthly magazine with useful info for beginners.
App and software-wise, Pease and Fienberg both recommend Stellarium. “You set your location and the date and time, and it shows you the sky as it appears right now,” Fienberg says. There’s also SkySafari and SkyView, which have inexpensive and free versions, respectively, that can help you identify thousands of points of interest, from stars, planets, and moons to nebulae, galaxies, comets, and asteroids.
4. Pick a good target
Much as landmarks point you in the right direction down here on earth, there are objects in the sky that, once you know where to look, can lead to more discoveries – and there’s one that’s incredibly simple to spot, even with the naked eye. “The moon is the easiest thing to find in the night sky and the easiest thing to aim at with binoculars or a telescope,” Fienberg says. Its visibility can shift depending on what phase it’s in, but “it’ll show you some surface detail even in ordinary binoculars,” he says.
It can also shine a light on its neighbors. “It's a great big sky and some things are brighter than others, but the moon's one of the brightest things, [and] using it as a marker can be really handy,” Pease says. “Maybe you're trying to find some faint constellation, so you wait for the night when the moon is going to be in that constellation, then you find the moon. That constellation is going to be kind of washed out because the moon is there, and it's really bright, but now you know where it is relative to other things in the sky.”
You’ll need a sky chart or an app to find them, but the planets are another good option for beginners. “They’re bright – in some cases brighter than any star,” Fienberg says, and you'll be able to see them in some detail through binoculars. The better-known constellations – the Big Dipper, Orion, Sagittarius, and Scorpius – are fun to find on their own, and they can also be useful for locating other things when they’re in season.
5. Put on the red light
You may notice a reddish tinge in photographs taken of astronomical outings, and there’s good reason for that: to read star wheels or sky charts, it’s best to use a red flashlight as opposed to a white one “so as not to dazzle your eyes and make it hard to see the stars,” Fienberg says.
“It can take 20 to 30 minutes to get fully dark-adapted,” Pease says. “You want your pupils to dilate as much as possible, [and] red light won't cause your pupils to close up again nearly as much as a white light would.” And ix-nay on the phone – even those dark light settings are still pretty bright, especially if you’re stargazing in a dim spot. Instead, spring for a stargazer’s flashlight (you can find them for as little as $10 online), or do as Fienberg suggests and tape a bit of red cellophane over a regular flashlight.
6. Forget the telescope – for now
Here’s the good news: you don’t need to run out and buy fancy equipment with all the bells and whistles to have a good viewing experience, especially when you’re just starting out. “People ask me what I recommend for a first telescope, and I always say binoculars,” Pease says, noting that the old-school optical instrument pushes you to learn your way around the sky, and there's no complicated setup involved.
“Even Galileo's telescope wasn't really more powerful than really good binoculars today,” she says. “You can see some of what we call the deep sky objects – a couple of galaxies, plenty of star clusters, and some nebulae – just through binoculars, so they’re really good to start with.”
Fienberg also suggests binoculars as the best option for beginners. “They give a right-side-up image (most telescopes give an upside-down or mirror-reversed image), they’re easy to aim because they show a reasonably large field of view (telescopes show a tiny field of view), they’re more comfortable to look through because you use both eyes rather than only one, and you may well already have binoculars lying around the house, in which case you don’t have to buy anything,” he says.
Eventually, though, you’ll probably want a telescope, so just know that when the time comes, you don’t necessarily need the biggest, most complex thing on the market. “Even with your first telescope, aiming it is going to be challenging at first, so you still want something that's really, really simple to set up,” Pease says – because if it’s too troublesome to use, it’ll be more likely to sit around collecting dust.
Much of your decision will also depend on your skill level, and on your budget. “Do you recognize most of the constellations, and can you use star charts to aim a telescope at an object that is otherwise invisible? If not, you may want a ‘Go To’ telescope, one that has a built-in computer and motors that enable it to point to objects automatically,” Fienberg says. “But beware: most Go To telescopes require a bit of sky sense on the part of their owners to get them set up and oriented before they can point at objects accurately. A new generation of ‘smart scopes’ requires little more than the flip of a switch thanks to built-in GPS, magnetometers, and accelerometers, but all that technology comes at a price.”
Instead of buying something sight-unseen, Fienberg recommends looking up your local astronomy club, and, when in-person events are back in session, hitting up a star party to test out the gear. “These are great opportunities to check out what's available and learn about how it works, how much it costs, and where to buy,” he says.
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