Look to the skies: With calm nights on horizon, experts provide tips for beginner stargazers
As temperatures heat up and clouds subside, the season for stargazing — one of the oldest nighttime diversions — is here. Stargazing can connect amateurs to the universe on a deeper level, putting life on this “pale blue dot,” which astronomer Carl Sagan has dubbed Earth, into perspective.
But, the hobby comes with a learning curve. For instance, what’s the difference between Pisces and the Big Dipper? How do you determine which way is north and south?
Longtime amateur astronomers provided tips to The Press about making sense of the night sky for absolute beginners. After taking the tips to heart, a reader should be able to, at the very least, impress a date.
Find a clear sky
The first step to a successful night of stargazing is checking the weather forecast beforehand, said Dean Smith, president of the Northern Sky Astronomical Society, a Grand Forks-based amateur astronomy club.
Websites like Accuweather.com and SpaceWeather.com provide stargazing-specific forecasts for visibility, while lunar calendar information is widely available online.
Smith said he recommends viewing the stars on a Moon-free night for optimum light and traveling away from the city lights. But the Moon is an interesting object to view in itself as it changes phases and reveals new craters to viewers, he said.
“People in antiquity were so much more invested in the stars than we are today,” said Bob King, a Minnesota-based amateur stargazer known for his popular blog, astrobob.areavoices.com.
King said he has an intuitive, ancient method for orienting a stargazer with direction. As the Sun goes down, a person should face that direction and extend his or her arms. The left arm points south, while the right arm points north.
Knowing this, a spatial sense of the galaxies, constellations and comets will open up to the viewer, he said.
Do your homework
Stargazers are constantly reading books and consulting online resources, King said.
The most important resource may be the farmers’ almanac, which also lists the lunar calendar and night sky synopses from month to month, he said.
Smith said he often consults Astronomy.com, as well as SkyandTelescope.com for up-to-date amateur astronomy trends.
Smartphone apps can teach new stargazers valuable lessons, King said. The GoSkyWatch Planetarium app can identify and locate stars, planets and constellations simply by pointing a smartphone’s camera eye toward the patch of sky in question.
The Starmap app provides an interactive map detailing 350,000 stars and other objects. Using these apps, a stargazer can become familiar with night objects in real time.
For viewing paper maps of the stars, King advised using a flashlight with red tissue paper wrapped at the end. White light can ruin a stargazer’s night vision, he said.
Buy binoculars or a telescope
While neither binoculars nor a telescope are necessary to enjoy pointing out constellations or shooting stars, they will vastly multiply viewable objects for the amateur stargazer.
King said he always keeps binoculars handy, which are useful for as little as $50. He recommends a first binocular with magnifying strength 8x40, 7x50 or 10x50.
As far as telescopes, for more advanced stargazers, Smith endorsed the Dobsonian, a typical amateur telescope known for its portability, affordability and power. They cost a few hundred dollars and can fit in the backseat of a car, he said.
With a six- or eight-inch lens, Smith said he can see hundreds of astronomical objects, including the intricacies of galaxies.
Keep track of planets and constellations
During May, three planets are clearly visible in the night sky — a great month for stargazers, King said.
As the Sun begins to set this month, the bright planet Jupiter should appear in the western sky for those paying attention. Around 9:30 p.m., the red giant Mars will show itself to the south. At about 10:30 p.m., Saturn will be crystal clear.
King said he prints out a monthly map from Skymaps.com to keep track of what planets will show themselves. Again, a farmers’ almanac comes in handy for predicting the paths of constellations.
This month, the constellation Leo is most apparent.