Having the ability to see beyond planet Earth is truly one of life’s most incredible moments, especially when you are able to share that experience with family members and friends. We have put together a step-by-step beginner’s guide to teach you how to see stars at night and become a backyard stargazer.
Step 1: Pick a Stargazing Date
Whether you are planning a one-time trip or hoping to make stargazing a regular scheduled family activity, finding the the appropriate date can mean the difference between an enjoyable evening-filled viewing or a miserable fruitless search.
What season is best to see stars at night?
In short, winter is the best season to see stars at night in the Northern hemisphere . There are three main reasons why stargazing in the winter has its advantages over other seasons.
Second the atmospheric conditions clear up visibility into the sky. This happens because the winter months have a reduced amount of humidity in the sky, and that enables for minimal optical distortion and better visibility into space.
Lastly, winter has the longest period of dark hours between sunset and sunrise. Stargazers can take advantage of the duration for longer star viewing hours.
With that being said, that does not at all mean you should not stargaze in the summer. Months in the summer have their own benefits, the elements for one, as we dive more in the next section.
Preparing for the weather
Consider the weather forecast for wherever you plan to see stars at night. If you are in a mild climate then this may not be that big of a concern for you; however, if you are in colder or rainier climates, you will need to bring an extra layer of protection against mother nature.
Preparing for the weather includes making sure you are wearing proper shoes, correct number of layers, and packing food or snacks based on how long you and your party plan to be outside.
Stargazing typically requires at least a few hours of your time and the majority of that time will be spent outside. For younger children or the elderly, summer months may be ideal to make the event less daunting.
For those in more secluded towns or cities, you may be able to stargaze right from your home. Areas without light pollution and objects blocking your view of the sky are prime candidates for stargazing. For a number of people, they have that luxury right at home.
Finding your “Dark Sky”
A “dark sky” is important for anyone interested in seeing stars at night. As a result, star seekers must keep in mind factors that introduce light into the sky:
Factor 1: The phase of the moon — The brightness and size of the moon depends on the moon’s current phase, which is determined by the position of the sun relative to the moon.
Light from the sun reflects off of the moon at different angles, and those angles impact the ability to see the moon and other “candies” in the sky.
When the moon is at its fullest, seeing anything else in the sky may not be possible without other equipment. On the other hand, a full-sized moon may make for an interesting experience viewing the moon itself.
Darker moons help reduce light in the sky and provide better visibility to other sky artifacts such as stars and planets.
Consult a moon phase calendar to predict what the moon will look like on your stargazing night.
Factor 2: Twilight from the sun — The term twilight is the light from the sun, after the sun has set below the visible horizon.
Twilight is the brightest when a sun has just set and will get progressively darker until dusk. Between dusk and dawn, twilight will be minimal. Thus resulting in a “dark sky.”
Time of the year matters the most when considering twilight since the winter months in the Northern hemisphere have most hours of darkness. There are the least number of dark hours in the summer.
Step 2: Finding the Best Location to See Stars
Next you will need to find area without much light. This is know as “dark sky.” Ambient light can dramatically impair your ability to see the sky clearly. The pollution of light has become a growing problem due to ever-evolving cities. Whether you are using a telescope, binoculars, or just your eyes, a “dark sky” will increase your visibility of the night’s sky.
Tips on finding “dark sky locations” near you:
- Look online for locations. There are a number of resources online that have listings of places closest to you. The International Dark Sky Association has compiled a list of over 100 dark sky locations in their interactive map.
- Consult local astronomy clubs, schools, and universities for the best “dark sky locations.” These organizations have recommendations on spots that they have used for gatherings.
- Avoid densely populated areas such as city centers. Typically these areas have the most lighting for streets and other commercial purposes.
- Higher elevated areas such as mountains allow you to keep distance from the light pollution. The majority of light will now be below you, so that it does not impact the sky above.
Step 3: Pick Up Sky-Viewing Gear
Being properly equipped will certainly improve your view of the stars at night; however, no equipment is actually required. Consider your budget for the evening and how much detail you would like to see. Below we have compiled a list of different items that can help your stargazing.
Selecting your optics
There are three primary ways to view your stars. Stargazers can use (1) their eyes, (2) binoculars, or (3) telescopes. Here are the pros and cons of each method.
1. Using what your mother gave you
The easiest and quickest option is to go without any optical equipment at all. Of course you may not get the full experience compared to those with more expensive equipment, but beginner stargazers who are looking to spend a scientific or even romantic evening can do so without spending a dime.
No equipment to carry around between locations
Difficult to see details in the sky
Potentially harmful depending on the visibility of the sun or solar eclipses
Unable to take photographs of the sky
At first, it may seem strange to use a pair of binoculars to stare at the sky, but actually binoculars can work great for seeing stars. Binoculars typically are used for seeing far distances, bird watching, or getting a view of sporting events and concerts.
But there are actually binoculars specifically designed for the purposes of seeing stars and other sky artifacts. Binoculars are a good middle ground for intermediate or frequent stargazers that do not want to go through the hassle of buying and carrying an entire stand-up telescope.
You can see up to 20 to 50 times more stars and other sky activity compared to an unaided eye
Binoculars are lightweight relative to telescopes
More portable and more mobile as a result of their weight
Generally cheaper options are available compared to telescopes
Some can use tripod adapters for stabilization
Some binoculars are waterproof
Allows for dual eye viewing of the sky instead of a telescope that uses just one eye
Stabilization of binoculars is more difficult than a telescope
Magnification is not as powerful as a telescope
There are associated costs with binoculars and stargazing binoculars can be expensive
Without a tripod, it can be difficult to share your view with others
Unable to take photographs of the sky
The views from a telescope will have the most amount of stars and other sky “candies”
The details you can see through a telescope are on a completely different level compared to the other options
Once you are locked in on a view, you can share that experience with others and show them the same view
Ability to take astro-photographs of the sky
Stable viewing means that you are able to see very clearly on certain celestial artifacts
Equipment can vary in costs, but generally telescopes are the most expensive option
Due to the amount of glass and optics, telescopes are fairly heavy
Equipment will require some level of maintenance costs and effort
Equipment may not always be waterproof
Bringing a red flashlight
Red light is useful for stargazing because a red light will allow your eyes to remain adapted to the darkness. When you see bright white, yellow, or blue lights, your iris will shrink in size to accommodate the rush of light in to your eyes. Red light can help your eyes maintain an enlarged iris. In an attempt to let in as much light as possible, your iris open to allow more light, which in turn adapts your eyes to darkness.
If you plan on frequently viewing the night’s sky, then the investment for a flashlight under $10 would be a great investment. You do not need to go out and purchase a dedicated red flashlight. Our recommendation is to find a standard flashlight and use cheap red cellophane that you can find at the local crafts store. You can find this material online as well.
Other gear to consider
Outside of viewing equipment, the following items may help make the night viewing a more pleasant experience:
- Observation Seating (chairs, blanket, etc.)
- Insect Repellant
- Optic cleaning equipment
- Speakers, headphones, and music
- Waterproof bags
- Tents and temporary shelter
- Toiletries for when nature calls
- Extra layers – tops, bottoms, socks
- Charges for cell phones and other equipment
- Extra batteries for electronics
Step 4: Get to Know Your Sky
Now that you have your gear and are ready to go, we recommend that a bit of pre-reading can make your experience that much more informative. In addition to the spectacular views that you can see with stargazing, the opportunity to learn about space and astronomy should also really excite you.
In order to see and learn the most from your trip, there are several resources that we recommend to check out before you go off on your night sky adventure.
- Google Sky: You might be familiar with Google maps, but are you familiar with Google Sky? It’s essentially a map of the sky that’s provided to you free from Google.
- Sky Chart: An interactive sky chart is another way to see what’s in the sky on a given evening. You can print out a sky chart to have a physical copy of what you can potentially see.
- Mobile Applications: If you want to bring the information with you, check out SkyView, NightSky, and StarWalk 2 (with a Kid version).
With these tools in hand, pick and choose what you want to see! Using these resources can help you find and spot exactly what you are looking for. If you see something that you do not recognize, these helpful items can also help determine what you are seeing!
Step 5: Make a Plan and Go See Stars!
The final step is to do some final preparation and get going. We have compiled a stargazing checklist to make sure that you have prepared and thought of everything that you may need.
- Pick a time for “dark sky” that works for you
- Select a “dark sky location”
- Check the weather for your location
- Pack appropriate clothing
- Bring food, snacks, and beverages
- Pack your viewing gear
- Pack viewing accessories such as a flashlight
- Bring protection in case of weather elements
- Determine what you want to see from the night’s sky chart
- Bring a printable Sky Chart or download mobile applications
For beginner’s planning can help ensure that time is best spent focusing on the sky, and less about logistics. A bit of preparation can also give you the best viewing chances at deep sky objects and stars.
If you were able to follow this How-To Guide, then you should be all set. Happy Stargazing!