Do you ever find yourself staring up at the night sky, trying to take in as much detail as possible? You’re not alone! Especially thanks to NASA’s recent releases of breathtaking photos captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, interest in what lies beyond Earth’s atmosphere has skyrocketed (pun intended). These stunning images, like Webb’s First Deep Field below, reveal thousands of galaxies, each containing hundreds of millions of stars. And you may be surprised to learn that when we zoom out, we’re seeing just one minuscule slice of the night sky. Talk about mind-blowing, huh?
“This slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.”
Interested in learning more about astronomy and getting a better glimpse at the night sky with your own eyes? If so, get ready to dive into the spectacular world of stargazing and explore the cosmos from right here on Earth.
What is stargazing?
Stargazing, as you may have guessed, entails the observation of the stars! Once you dive deeper into astronomy, you’ll find that there are many other things to observe beyond just stars (we’ll get into that later). In your research, you’ll likely see that, in order to see as much of our observable universe as possible, many stargazing hobbyists own telescopes and binoculars, cameras and telephoto lenses, and other forms of advanced equipment. Don’t let that intimidate you! If you have any of this equipment, great, but in many cases, you can still admire the wonders of the night sky without spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The most important thing you’ll need at your disposal is a clear night sky. While you’re still getting the hang of identifying stars, constellations, and other planetary bodies, apps like Night Sky and Sky Guide are extremely helpful in giving some reference to your place in the universe (literally).
Best conditions for stargazing
Unfortunately, stargazing isn’t as simple as heading outside and looking up. Many factors outside of your control may enhance or hinder your experience, so be cognizant as you plan your next stargazing excursion! As we mentioned above, keep an eye on the forecast and ensure the weather will cooperate with your plans. Overcast, cloudy, and rainy nights will obstruct your view of the night sky, so plan to stargaze on a clear night if possible.
Light pollution is another factor that many forget to consider. Have you ever noticed that you see fewer stars the closer you get to civilization, especially near major cities? That’s light pollution at work. Artificial light obstructs our view of the night sky, so the further you can get away from populace areas for your night of stargazing, the better.
Finally, timing is an extremely important aspect of planning your stargazing experience in a few regards. There’s the timing of the year to consider, which will differ depending on what part of the world you’re in. Fall, spring, and especially winter are commonly regarded as the best seasons to stargaze, while summer is the best time of the year to see the Milky Way. While summer nights may produce hazy conditions, crisp winter nights will provide the clearest view of the night sky (just make sure to bundle up). The lunar cycle also comes into play for stargazing. Plan your night of stargazing around the new moon, or when the moon’s shadow is facing Earth. Remember, you want the least amount of light possible, so avoid stargazing during a full moon! For this reason, you should also be stargazing after the sun has completely set. Rest up because you’ll probably be staying up past your bedtime!
It may be called “stargazing,” but this hobby goes way beyond stars. As you become more familiar with the night sky, you may become familiar with constellations, or groups of stars that form a pattern to which we, humans, have assigned names. The most famous constellation is Ursa Major, which contains a smaller group of stars that has come to be known as the Big Dipper. You can also try to find the constellation that represents your zodiac sign depending on the location and timing of your trip!
Other members of the night sky are often mistaken as stars but are, in fact, planets! The easiest way to tell the difference between a star and a planet is this: stars twinkle in the night sky, but planets do not. So, if you see a bright celestial body that is fixed in the night sky, you might just be looking at a planet! Another way to tell if you’re looking at a planet is if it emanates a color. While stars appear white to the naked eye, planets often look slightly different. For example, Mars appears red in the night sky.
While you look up at the night sky, you may also see movement from time to time. Shooting stars, or meteors, are an exciting phenomenon, and it’s always exciting to see one streak across the night sky. Don’t forget to make a wish when you see one! Humans have also placed some remarkable manmade creations in space that you can see from Earth. Innovations such as the International Space Station, the James Webb Space Telescope, and the Hubble Space Telescope are visible from Earth depending on the time of year, conditions, and available equipment. There are many dedicated websites that track the position of inventions like the ISS, so you can try to time your stargazing experience along its path! And, of course, if you do see something unrecognizable moving across the sky, it could always be a UFO (or a satellite, but it’s more fun to imagine it’s a UFO).
Before heading out for your night of stargazing, be sure you’re bringing all of your essentials! As mentioned above, sophisticated equipment like telescopes and cameras could enhance your experience but aren’t necessary for a first-timer. However, if you do find yourself getting deeper into the hobby, it could be worth your while. For beginners, binoculars are a more affordable option that will broaden your view without breaking the bank!
Besides stargazing equipment, there’s other gear you may want to bring along to make your excursion more enjoyable. If you plan to stargaze in the winter months, keeping warm is essential. Bundle up with a hoodie or sweatshirt, or wrap yourself in a warm blanket. Looking to stand out on your night under the stars? Check out some of our favorite cosmically cool picks, and get ready to stargaze in style.