10 Steps to Rewarding Stargazing

Fri Oct 4, 9:31 AM ET

By Joe Rao, SPACE.com

Astronomy is the oldest of the sciences, and so amateur astronomy may very well be the oldest of the scientific hobbies. Human fascination with the heavens is timeless, having an incommunicable appeal. Stargazing is intellectual as well as aesthetic. It combines the thrill of exploring new realms of knowledge with the delight of appreciating new spheres of beauty.

All this in mind, we present this 10-step guide to help you maximize your skywatching efforts. It is geared to help beginners but offers useful tips for seasoned stargazers, too.

Since stargazing is, in many ways, subjective, Iíve also asked other assiduous amateurs to provide their own thoughts and opinions on what makes watching the sky so enjoyable for them. Several responses came from members of the Amateur Observersí Society of New York ( AOS) and the Astronomical Society of Long Island ( ASLI).

To the question, "Why stargaze?" the responses of many echoed that of Margo Centabar of West Islip, NY: "Stargazing has always been a source of therapy for me. When my children were little and I finally got them all to bed I would go outside for an hour or so with my plainisphere, binoculars and my $20 cardboard telescope on a wooden mount. All the tiredness and tension of the day would drop off like leaves from a tree."

At the end of this article, we have also included a small sampling of books to consult on various aspects of stargazing with the naked eye, binoculars and telescopes. But first, 10 Steps to Rewarding Stargazing:

Step 1

Find a Suitable Observing Site

Even if you live in an urban area, try to find a location that offers you as wide a view of the sky as possible, free from obstructions such as tall buildings.

Of course there is still the problem of light pollution from excessive or misdirected outdoor lighting. Sadly, in many large metropolitan areas, it is becoming increasingly difficult to trace out even a simple star pattern like the Big Dipper. So city dwellers might improve a night's efforts traveling to a darker location. You might only have to travel 15 or 20 minutes ... or perhaps as much as an hour or two.

If you live in a suburban or rural location, you'll still want to find as dark a spot as possible, away from bright lights. Even turning off the back porch light can help. Using a building to block someone else's bright lights can be effective, too.

If youíre interested in how you can take steps to reduce extra nighttime lighting in your own town and backyard, you might consider joining the International Dark Sky Association ( IDA).

Founded in 1988, IDA gathers and disseminates light-pollution information and solutions. Indeed, it has played a pivotal role in turning the tide in the war against light pollution.

Step 2

Dress Warmly

Check the local weather forecast for the expected overnight low temperature, then bundle up more than you might think is necessary.

Even in summertime, nights can get surprisingly chilly, so at least have a sweater or light jacket close at hand. In winter especially, protect your head with a woolen pullover cap.

And remember that, for the most part, stargazing is a sedentary activity.

Step 3

Get to Your Observing Site Early

If possible, try to get to your site before it gets dark.

"I especially enjoy being all set up well before the Sun disappears," says Harvey Miller of East Meadow, New York. "Itís like coming to the theatre, before a play or movie begins, taking your seat and controlling the rush in great anticipation for the expected script."

Just about any clear night provides an invitation to go outside and see whatís up. Some nights, however, will offer up a special attraction: a meteor shower; a beautiful conjunction between the Moon and a bright star or planet; or even an eclipse of the Moon. [Our Spacewatch section provides weekly features on these and other events, plus a monthly Calendar]

Prepare a checklist of the objects you might want to look at. And to this end, how I wish personal computers existed when I was getting started in astronomy over 35 years ago!

A planetarium program such as Starry Night can prove invaluable, displaying on monitors any number of sky objects that you might want to look at for any hour of the night, as well as providing you the ability to generate and print your own custom sky chart.

Step 4

Plan and Pack for Comfort

If youíre going to be outside for any length of time, the worst thing you can do is stand and continuously crane your neck upwards. By the next morning, thereís a fair chance youíll have a stiff neck or achy shoulders.

"Iíve found that an adjustable observing chair (such as a long lounge chair) can add hours of pain-free enjoyment," says Mike McCormick of Deer Park, New York.

At the very least, bring along a small folding chair. If you plan to pack equipment (such as binoculars, telescopes, sky charts) consider also a small folding card table.

If the weather is warm, bugs and mosquitoes are likely to be out, so youíll need insect repellant. Lastly, you might like to bring some music to listen to while youíre out under the stars. "I always like to bring some instrumental music to help enhance the atmosphere," says Charlie Rullmann of Islip Terrace, NY.

Step 5

Start Simple: Your Eyes Only


In his classic autobiography "Starlight Nights," Leslie Peltier once noted: "Learning the stars is a pure delight and there are many pleasant ways to do it. No true stargazer will fail to become familiar with the constellations and fortunate is he whose introduction to the skies comes to him through natureís eyes alone and not through any telescope. So few of those who use the eyepiece first ever get to really know the stars."

Peltier's point: If youíre just getting started in astronomy, the best thing to do is to first spend some time under the stars with just your eyes and get acquainted with the brighter stars and constellations.

The best way to do this is to purchase a good sky guide and star chart. Just as you might consult a travel book when sightseeing in an unfamiliar city, a good book on stargazing or a simple finder chart will go a long way to help you familiarize yourself with the night sky. When consulting a sky chart be sure to use a dim red light or a red-filtered flashlight; that way your eyes stay dark-adapted (white light will shrink the pupils of your eyes). Use red cellophane or red plastic across the front of the flashlight lens.

Frank Schiralli of Northport, NY suggests subscribing to one of the popular astronomy magazines (such as Astronomy or Sky & Telescope) so you are alerted to interesting astronomical events. And you can visit SPACE.com each Friday, when notable upcoming events are highlighted.

With no optical aids, you can enjoy a wide variety of objects such as the Moon and the five naked-eye planets, not to mention occasional meteor showers and the passage of artificial satellites and even, if you're lucky, the colorful aurora.

Naked-eye astronomy is also especially rewarding if youíre observing with children, who no doubt will pepper you with questions about the various stars and constellations.

Step 6

Get Binoculars

I wish I had a nickel for every time somebody said to me theyíve just gotten interested in astronomy right and off the bat wanted to purchase a telescope. My usual response to this is: "First, spend some quality time under the stars and then, when you think youíre ready, go out and purchase a pair of good binoculars."

Some might think that binoculars are a bit of a come-down from a telescope, but the fact is that for certain aspects of skywatching they are the best instrument to use. A pair of 7-power binoculars is lightweight and portable. And a quality pair of binoculars can far outrank a poor quality small telescope.

Binoculars come in a variety of sizes. Most observers prefer the so-called 7 x 50 "night glasses."

The 7 refer to the magnification, while the 50 refer to the diameter of the two objective lenses measured in millimeters. My own personal preference, incidentally, are 7 x 35 "wide-angle" binoculars that provide a much larger field of view (11ļ) as opposed to most other units.

Any good pair of 7-power binoculars, when held steadily, will give you a glimpse of the craters of the Moon, the crescent of Venus and the moons of Jupiter. Should a bright comet come along, there is no better instrument to give you a great overall view of both the head and tail. And by just sweeping along the Milky Way, youíll be treated to a myriad of stars you can't see with your eyes alone.

Step 7

Move up to a Telescope

Eventually, there will come that time that you will finally purchase a telescope. But what type of telescope do you prefer?

There are three types to consider: A refracting telescope has a convex objective lens at one end and an eyepiece at the other.

A reflecting telescope does not use an objective lens, but rather a concave mirror. The mirror (called the "primary") sends light up through the tube where a small flat mirror (called the "secondary") intercepts it and sends it to the eyepiece on the side of the tube.

A catadioptric telescope is a special type of reflecting telescope that possesses a correcting lens at the top to form the image. Most catadioptics are of the Schmidt-Cassegrain design. The light passes through the corrector, it reflects off the primary and then off a curved secondary, finally passing through a hole in the main mirror and reaching the eyepiece.

Unfortunately, space is far too limited here to discuss all the possibilities of a purchase. What I will say here (again), is to keep it simple!

If youíre just starting out, you might want to consider a 2.4 or 3-inch refractor or a 4 or 6-inch reflector. Make sure that the telescope can be quickly set up, yet has a sturdy mount. A good telescope is virtually useless if you mount it on a shaky or wobbly tripod.

Donít fall into the trap of purchasing what some amateurs refer to as a "trash telescope." For the amount of money you might spend for such an instrument, you would be better off investing in a pair of good binoculars.

Basically, a trash telescope is one that, along with having a poor mount, has been advertised by the manufacturer as promising "spectacular views" of the Moon or the rings of Saturn at magnifications of, say, 500-power or more. Unfortunately, too many uninitiated amateurs are "power happy." Any telescope will provide you with high magnification, but not only will you be increasing the size of the image, youíll also be increasing the effects of viewing an object through our turbulent atmosphere. A high-power image especially in a small telescope will often turn out quite dim and blurry.

A rule of thumb: The maximum amount of magnification for any telescope is 50 power per inch of aperture. So if you intend to buy a 6-inch reflector, 300-power is as high as you should ever attempt to go; the maximum for a 3-inch refractor should be 150 power. In fact, youíll probably be surprised to discover that your most pleasing views will come at much lower powers.

Sometimes, however, people get into trouble purchasing even a quality instrument.

These folks go right out a purchase a very expensive telescope, bring it home, try setting it up, and in the process get completely confused. One neighbor of mine did just this and ended up visiting me every other week with a "new problem," when it was simply a matter of properly adjusting the finderscope or collimating the mirror. She even queried me about the motor drive (which can be used to take long-exposure photographs): "I thought it would automatically point the telescope to what I wanted to see."

In the end, I think she realized that she was far in over her head! So don't waste your money or your time: Learn the sky, get some binoculars, see how much the hobby consumes you, and then make an intelligent telescope purchase.


Step 8

Join an Astronomy Club

If you have a telescope and donít already belong to an amateur astronomical organization, local or national, you ought to join one -- not only to make new friends and swap ideas, but also to get help and advice if you need it, and keep posted on developments in your particular interest in astronomy.

By far the largest national organization of amateur astronomers is the Astronomical League, whose member clubs hold annual and regional conventions at which amateurs talk shop and exchange useful ideas. The AL is composed of scores of local amateur astronomical clubs and groups, totaling thousands of individuals.

Many astronomy clubs often schedule field trips.

"What one person lacks in telescope skills is made up by another," says Sam Storch, a long-time Long Island, New York amateur astronomer. "One person might know the sky well and can suggest targets, while another can help with the setup, and so on. Donít go it alone -- the stars offer solitude, to be sure, but observing with another person will, synergistically, often be more than two people observing independently could accomplish. In almost all cases, two heads (or more) are really better than one!"

Susan Rose, president of the Amateur Observersí Society of New York, agrees: "One of the best parts of a public observing session is helping someone who has a scope but doesnít know how to use it. When finally set up properly, the look on their faces after first light is priceless."

If you own a telescope, but are experiencing problems with it, there is no better place to go than an astronomy club. Besides, there is also the camaraderie of spending time with other people from different walks of life who all share the same love for the nighttime sky.

Step 9

Bring Refreshments

This is especially true if you plan to make your stargazing session an all-night affair. But make sure youíre not eating anything thatís greasy and might get onto fingers and then onto eyepieces and other optics.

Include warm or cold drinks as appropriate, and avoid alcohol, which is a vasoconstrictor and can reduce your ability to perceive faint objects right at the threshold of your visibility.

Step 10

Prepare for the Unexpected

Stargazing may be the ultimate getaway, but if youíre planning an excursion to a dark-sky site far out in some open countryside, be sure to bring a cell phone and either a car cord or an extra battery. You may need it in an emergency or if you have car trouble.

Let somebody know in advance where you are headed, what roads you intend to use, and when you expect to return. If youíre close to being the last to leave a site, ask the other person to make sure that your car (and theirs) starts.


Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.


More Backyard Astronomy Resources:

Starry Night Software

Map planets, stars and constellations from your location

Starry Night's Fall Sky Tour 2002

Easy-to-spot stars and some more challenging targets

Spacewatch Main Page

A skywatching feature every Friday, plus backyard astronomy news

Skywatcher's Guide to the Moon

Includes a printable Moon map

Spacewatch 101: Tips and Terms

Things every skywatcher should know at the beginning

Sky Calendar & Moon Phases


Suggested Reading

For Naked-Eye Observing:

STARLIGHT NIGHTS. THE ADVENTURES OF A STAR-GAZER. By Leslie C. Peltier. Sky Publishing Corporation, 2000 (Third Printing).

STARGAZING: ASTRONOMY WITHOUT A TELESCOPE. By Patrick Moore. Cambridge University Press, 2000

NIGHTWATCH. By Terence Dickinson. Firefly Books, 1998.

40 NIGHTS TO KNOWING THE SKY. By Fred Schaaf. Owl Books, 1998.


SKYWATCHING. By David H. Levy. The Nature Company/Time-Life Books, 1995.


THE STARS. A NEW WAY TO SEE THEM. By Hans Augusto Rey. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976.

For Binocular Observations

EXPLORING THE NIGHT SKY WITH BINOCULARS. By Patrick Moore. Cambridge University Press, 2002.


EXPLORING THE NIGHT SKY WITH BINOCULARS. By David Chandler. David Chandler, Co., 1994.

BINOCULAR ASTRONOMY. By Craig Crossen and Wil Tirion. Willmann-Bell, 1992.

HOW TO CHOOSE BINOCULARS. By Alan R. Hale. C & A Publishing, 1991.

TOURING THE UNIVERSE THROUGH BINOCULARS. By Phillip S. Harrington. John Wiley & Sons, 1990.

For Telescopic Observations:

STARWARE. By Phillip S. Harrington. John Wiley & Sons, 2002.

ASTRONOMY WITH SMALL TELESCOPES UP TO 5 INCH, 125 MM. By Stephen F. Tonkin. Springer Verlag, 2001.

THE CAMBRIDGE GUIDE TO STARGAZING WITH YOUR TELESCOPE. By Robin Scagell. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

TELESCOPES AND TECHNIQUES. By C.R. Kitchin. Springer Verlag, 1996.

HOW TO USE AN ASTRONOMICAL TELESCOPE. By James Muirden. Simon & Schuster, 1988.