Astronomy blog

Stargazing for Beginners: Planning Your First Night Out

By travel
3/28/2012, 12:37:33 AM

If your stargazing experience is limited to looking up at the sky while you happen to be outdoors, you're missing out on some of the most spectacular beauty that nature provides. Once you decide to “make a night of it”, or even just a few hours, it is worth doing a few things in preparation to get the most out of your first stargazing adventure. Here are some tips to do just that:

1) Decide where you will be going to do your stargazing. In my previous blog post, Finding Dark Skies, I discussed how you can find a good location for stargazing near you. It will help you to find a place where you will be able to minimize light pollution's effects on your stargazing experience.

2) Watch the weather forecasts. If clouds are going to be covering most of the sky, it is likely that your time spent watching the stars will be disappointing. In addition to the general weather forecast, I often look at AccuWeather's local hourly forecast (which can be find by putting in your location here to see what the expected cloud cover will be. It will give you an idea of whether you are likely to have clear skies or not. I generally avoid planning any stargazing unless the cloud cover is below 30 percent.

3) Don't buy a telescope. Don't even borrow one for your first trip. It will be a waste of your time trying to learn how to use it, and you'll be missing the many things that you can see using just your eyes and possibly a pair of binoculars.

4) Bring a few things that will make your experience enjoyable:

* A blanket, yoga mat, backpacker's mat, or a reclining deck chair is essential, so that you can comfortably lay down or recline while looking up at the sky. You will get tired of craning your neck after only a few minutes if you try to stargaze while standing.

* Layered clothing and/or a blanket that is appropriate for temperatures at least 10 degrees cooler than are forecast. Laying on the cool ground can often make you feel much cooler than if you are standing.

* A pair of binoculars is not essential, but I do recommend them. Even a cheap pair of binoculars, that you can buy at a local discount retail store for around $10, will make a whole lot more detail visible to you, and will multiply the number of stars you can see. They are especially useful when looking at the Moon or Jupiter, if it is visible. You may even be able to see a couple of Jupiter's moons through a pair of inexpensive binoculars.

* Download and print a copy of the latest monthly “The Evening Sky Map” here. It is a two-page guide that will help you to locate some constellations and planets. Get familiar with a few of them and where they will be in the sky before you go stargazing, so that you can avoid using a flashlight as much as possible. Every time you turn on a flashlight, you will lose your dark-adjusted vision for several minutes. If you bring a flashlight, cover the lens with red cellophane or a red filter. Red light will allow you enough light to walk around safely in the dark, but will minimize the effect on your night-adjusted vision.

* If a majority of the moon will be visible (between the first and last quarter moon), printing out a map of the moon will be an interesting addition to your night if you bring binoculars. There are plenty of moon maps available online and I suggest the following site where you can print moon maps showing the names of various features.

5) Don't focus only on trying to identify the things that you see. Spend more of your time just watching the sky and enjoying the view. If you watch for a while, you'll see plenty of shooting stars, and maybe a few satellites.

If you follow these tips for your first stargazing experience, I think that you will get the most out of it, and will be planning your next night out before you finish your first one. Happy stargazing!

- Guest Blogger and Amateur Stargazer, Paul Adomshick

An Example of a Sky Map


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