OARS’ resident star expert, Lars Haarr, dishes out some stargazing tips that will take you from casual viewer to amateur astronomer in no time
When I was first learning about the night sky it was winter in Utah. This meant the sun set early and there were many hours of darkness, but boy was it cold outside. It was hard to stay outdoors very long on those cold nights, so I spent a lot of cozy time inside with constellation charts and other star books, just trying to learn the different constellation names and how they related to one another. Once I learned the basic outline of a given constellation I would bundle up and head outside. I would then try and locate those particular stars among the myriad of others. The next night I would try to learn a new one and locate it in addition to the previous one. Little by little I increased my knowledge of the night sky, and over time these pictures began to leap out at me without any effort.
If you’re interested in taking your stargazing to the next level, here are a few tips to get started…
1) Invest in a good guide
The best place for anyone to start when they’re getting serious about stars is with a good book for beginners. My personal favorite—the one I bring on all my rafting trips—is The Stars: A New Way to See Them by H.A. Rey. This is the same author who wrote the Curious George books for children, and you’ll notice the same drawing style in all of the illustrations. Not only is this a great beginner book, but there is also a more advanced section toward the end of the book called “Some Hows and Whys” which is definitely for someone seeking a good deal more knowledge on the movement of celestial bodies, eclipses, seasons, and such.
If you’re more inclined to study up if the information is on your smartphone, there are several stargazing apps available that can help you become more familiar with what you’re seeing in the sky. I use Sky Guide, which aligns itself with constellations, planets, and more when you hold it up to the night sky. And although it has its limitations, it can be a quick way to figure out what you’re looking at when you gaze up.
2) Study the night sky
Once you’ve got a good book (or star chart, app, subscription to an astronomy magazine, etc.), it’s time to study. Some books have charts for each season, or even for each month. This is much less daunting than looking at a chart of the entire sky. So, start with the chart for whatever month it is and familiarize yourself with the names and basic outlines of the main constellations visible at this time. That way, when you get outside you’ll already have a head start. Something else to keep in mind when looking at individual charts is that not every single constellation listed will be visible at all times. Some may rise early and set around midnight, others may rise in the middle of the night and fade away as the light from the rising sun appears in the east. Understanding this apparent motion in the sky takes a bit of practice so don’t get frustrated if at first if you can’t find what you are looking for.
3) Protect your night vision
It can take at least 20 minutes for our eyes to become adjusted to the dark and a quick flash of the wrong type of light can quickly reset our eyes. This results in absolute, inky blackness for a minute or two after being exposed to light. A red light, however, will allow you to see where you’re going at night but won’t wreck your night vision; basically, this means your eyes will adjust back to the natural darkness much faster after the light source is turned off. Invest in a headlamp with red LED technology. Or, if you want a cheap fix for a white light you already have, get a roll of red plastic food wrap from the store and wrap a bit around the lens, securing it with tape or a rubber band.
4) Locate a dark sky place
The best way to learn the stars is to get real-world experience. While you can head to any natural area nearby and likely get some pretty good views of the night sky, it’s worth planning a camping trip (or river trip!) in a remote wilderness area to set yourself up for prime stargazing conditions. Need a little inspiration for where to go? The International Dark Sky Association has a database of officially designated “Dark Sky Places” throughout the world. Just enter a location and how far you’re willing to travel and hit the search button. You’ll be off on a stargazing adventure in no time.