When you gaze skywards of an evening and sight a bright star, or notice the majesty of a New Moon, you are witnessing phenomena that have captured the imagination of generations and entire civilisations, throughout history. Simply by looking, you are engaging with the universe – and with a little know-how and insight into astronomy, you can make that engagement all the more satisfying. Just a few pointers will make the world of difference; turning a casual glance upwards into a rewarding experience with the heavens above.
When we look into the night sky, we are peering back in time, because the light that reaches us from many stars has travelled great distances before reaching Earth. As an example, it takes 8 minutes and 20 seconds for light to reach us from our own Sun, so we are seeing the Sun as it was 8 minutes ago. Just think, if it takes eight minutes for light to reach us from the Sun, then the light generated from certain stars much further away, were first emitted when the Romans ruled across Europe.
The late, great, cosmologist Dr Carl Sagan, (1934–1996), remarked that astronomy was a ‘humbling experience’, given the vastness of space and the seemingly endless possibilities that may lurk in the icy depths. I will always remember the words that he uttered during his landmark television programme Cosmos, about there being more stars than there are grains of sand, on every beach on Earth. It’s mind-blowing to even attempt to grasp the enormity of those words, but Dr Sagan said it should be this idea that serves as a stepping-stone, when trying to evaluate your own place in the Great Cosmic Design.
The journey begins...
When starting out in stargazing and astronomy, it’s often curiosity that will encourage you to take your journey from just the occasional glance upwards, and an attempt to find out the name of a bright star that you’ve spotted, to something deeper, where you discover that it wasn’t a star after all, but in fact, a planet!
For instance, during the spring of 2020, Venus – which the naked eye often mistakes for a star – kept us company in the evening sky, brightly outshining everything around it. The dense Venusian clouds made for an excellent reflective surface, rebounding the sunlight from a Sun that had long since dipped below the horizon here on Earth. Strangely, it was those Venusian clouds that were the subject of much talk in 2020, as a possible home to life.
Sadly, since that discovery was announced, another look at the data which first hinted towards life, has since generated different results, casting the whole notion into doubt. However, the possibility does remain. Venus, which is known as the ‘evening star’ or the ‘morning star’, is our closest planetary neighbour, and perhaps its runway toxic climate is a warning that if we don’t look after our own world, a similar fate awaits us.
Preparation for stargazing
In order to make the most of the night sky, it’s always a plus if you can find a location that offers you the darkest skies possible, away from house and street lighting. Granted, in towns and cities this may not be possible, but the more sky you can see that isn’t blotted out by light pollution, the greater your chances of experiencing more of what the night sky has to offer.
If you do have access to a garden, for stargazing, then try and make full use of it. By day, have a look to see how much sky you can see in Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western directions, making a note of where best to stand to look. At night, the garden can seem like a different place, so mentally know your way around to avoid trips and falls. If you don’t have a garden, then (with caution), window balconies or ledges can be utilized to observe the night sky, along with parks or recreation grounds. Once again, take time to find the best vantage point and make mental notes about the surrounding area, so that you feel safe and comfortable after dark.
Even if it’s a summer’s evening, as soon as the sun sets, it can grow quite chilly rather quickly. An extra layer of clothing is advisable, naturally more so on winter nights. A coat, hat, and gloves – indeed, anything to stave off the cold. Standing still for quite some time in the cold isn’t everybody’s idea of a great evening, but with clear skies, you will be rewarded for your patience. If you want to get really comfy, then try to find a suitable chair or sunlounger to sit on. If standing, then it’s a good idea to avoid standing on concrete as this will draw the warmth from your body – as bizarre as it may seem, try standing on a plank of wood.
Give yourself time to get properly adapted to the dark. Let your eyes become accustomed to the environment, then simply look up and see what you can see. As we move into the winter months, try and look for a bright star that is positioned almost directly overhead. This will be Capella, in the constellation of Auriga the Charioteer.
During the summer months, it will be a different star positioned overhead, that of Vega, in the constellation of Lyra the ‘Harp’. With the aid of a handbook to the night sky, you can begin to start to pick out the other bright stars and constellations, whilst also keeping a look out for naked-eye planets.
For further reading about the stars that make up the constellations and their associated mythology, have a look at this guide from Stardate.org.
If it’s a cloudy night, then you won’t be able to see much, which is where some light reading may come in handy instead. It’s worth having a read of Patrick Moore’s Beginners Guide to Astronomy, or the Collins Stargazing: Beginners Guide to Astronomy. Both these books are an excellent grounding for the beginner covering the stars, constellations, and planets, plus lunar and meteor activity.
The Moon – our nearest neighbour in space
One of the most rewarding aspects of astronomy when first venturing out is to explore our very own Moon. With the naked eye alone, simply following the Moon’s changing faces as it first waxes and wanes throughout the month, tells us that even today, and to a much greater extent long ago, the Moon, along with other aspects of the night sky, served as a companion to those in the farming community, as much as the seasons dictated a time to sew and reap harvests. When you gaze at the Moon, the darker areas on its surface are known as the ‘seas’ or more technically ‘maria’ (Latin for ‘seas’), and are vast lava plains created by lunar volcanoes millions of years ago.
In recent years, the moon has entered a period of renewed interest, as a possible staging post to Mars. 2021 is set to mark a milestone in UK space exploration, as the first British mission, (unmanned), embarks on a mission to the Moon! Watch out for Spacebit UK, the company behind this exciting project.
Or, to find out more about our nearest neighbour in space, here’s an excellent guide that incorporates lunar sites, courtesy of NASA.
Another planet that has kept us company during 2020 has been Mars, positioned over in the South, and unmistakable with a distinct reddish appearance. In one of its closest approaches in years, Mars really did make for a terrific sight during the summer and autumn, but as we approach the latter stages of December, this is set to be somewhat overshadowed by a rare spectacle indeed, as Jupiter and Saturn appear almost as one in the night sky.
On December 21st, watch in the Southwest as the two largest planets in our solar system appear as one to the naked eye. Get yourself the best possible view of the South Western horizon, as the sight won’t be on view for too long after the sun has set. Over the nights leading up to December 21st, (which coincidentally is also the shortest day), watch as the two planets draw closer and closer together. This ‘Great Conjunction’ is the closest the planets have appeared in the sky since 1623, not to be matched again until 2080. Whilst appearing close together in the sky, they are still actually 400 million miles apart.
With Christmas nearly upon us and perhaps with a desire to find out more about astronomy, one of the handiest guides to the night sky, and a companion that I’ve used for many years, is the Phillip’s month to month Stargazing Guide by Heather Couper (1949-2020), and Nigel Henbest.
To read more about the planets in our solar system, have a read of this guide from Planets Today.
Binoculars and telescopes
You can make stargazing what you wish, and your involvement does not demand the purchase of a pair of binoculars or a telescope. You can do so much observing without either of these, so please don’t feel put-off if you have not got any optical aid.
If your interest grows, then so will your passion to see more, and even then the necessity to own a telescope need not apply. There are plenty of astronomical societies and groups throughout the UK who would be more than happy to let you look through their own equipment, with the added bonus of talking to people with more experience, giving handy tips and advice to enhance your viewing. To find the nearest astronomical society to your areas, visit the Federation of Astronomical Societies.
However, if you do consider buying a pair of binoculars or indeed a telescope, then it’s worth having a look at the BBC Sky at Night Magazine to get an idea about some of the best ones out there (for binoculars try this article here, and for telescopes have a read of this helpful guide here). It’s a good idea to seek advice from your local astronomical society before making a purchase, as they’ll be able to advise you on which equipment would be most suitable for you – based on your experience level, and on what you’re most interested in looking at in the night sky.
Meteors and comets
With regards to my own first venture into astronomy, it was another naked eye phenomenon that attracted me; that of meteors, commonly referred to as ‘shooting stars’. Throughout the year, the Earth passes through various debris and rubble (meteors) left in the wake of comets – either periodical comets like Halleys, or those that are just passing visitors to our neck of the astronomical woods. One shower, the Perseids shower, associated with the constellation of Perseus, produces one of the richest displays of meteors. It was a display of the Perseids that certainly fired my interest to discover more about astronomy and space.
There are many meteor showers dotted throughout the year, but in truth you don’t have to wait for any specific shower to watch. Sporadic meteors occur regularly enough, as debris from space burns up in our atmosphere, the friction of which generates a blaze of light in the sky. Some of the debris – which vary in composition, from stone, iron, or nickel – can be as small as a pebble, or indeed larger, producing a more dazzling display. Because of the associated brightness, these meteors are classed as ‘fireballs’. With the advent of security cameras and dash cams, it is surprising how many meteors and fireballs are being spotted in modern times, where before they would go unnoticed. To find out more about meteors, try this guide from NASA.
Whilst there are comets that are regular visitors to our neighbourhood, we are sometimes (as we were in 2020) treated to other one-off comets that enter our solar system from time to time – so it’s worth looking out for these too.
Comets are the remnants left over from the creation of the solar system. Best described as ‘dirty great snowballs’ and varying in size, comets either orbit the sun and make regular appearances, or they appear as rogue comets, passing the Earth on a one way journey never to be seen again. When a comet approaches the sun, the intense heat generated by our star burns off some of the comet’s composition, forming a tail stretching out behind the comet that can be millions of miles in length. A truly spectacular sight.
This year, it was Comet NEOWISE that put in a display, reaching naked eye brightness for a time. Comet NEOWISE won’t return to our skies until the year 8863, due its staggeringly extensive orbit.
If you want to know what to look out for in 2021, take a look at this calendar featuring all the major meteor shower activity for the coming year. Or, if you’re keen to find out more about comets, you might want to take a look at this guide from the British Astronomical Association.
Sources of inspiration
When it comes to stargazing and astronomy, inspiration can come from many sources, and engaging with others who are interested in astronomy can serve as a great incentive to find out more about the night sky. You might find it helpful to engage with people on online forums or through astronomical societies – or to follow the work or guidance of notable, well-known astronomers.
It has been my privilege to meet and follow the work of many people from the field of not just astronomy, but spaceflight; including Fred Haise, part of the crew of Apollo 13. It was also a great pleasure to meet with Sir Patrick Moore, (1923-2012), a larger than life character who tamed science with his enthusiasm and passion for the subject, bringing the night sky into our homes via The Sky at Night television programme, produced by the BBC – which is definitely worth a watch if you’re in need of some inspiration!
A final note...
If you’re someone who’s new to stargazing and astronomy then it’s up to you to decide how involved you want to get, and to set the pace for your learning. For some it might just be passing interest, while others might be a little more curious to find out more.
One of the great joys is also being able to pass on the knowledge of the skies, and once you’ve learned only a handful of objects in the night sky, you too will feel a sense of fulfilment in helping others understand their place in the Universe.
Jonathan is a contributor to the BBC Sky at Night magazine. He has written three books on astronomy, Cosmic Debris; Rare Astronomical Sights and Sounds (which was selected by ‘Choice’ magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2019); and From Cave Art to Hubble, all of which are available from Amazon. Jonathan worked at BBC Radio Wales as their astronomy correspondent and is currently a columnist at the South Wales Argus. He has also written a book on castles, ‘Fortress Wales’, and was part of the writing team for the BBC Television show, ‘The Fast Show’, which won a BAFTA.