As a stargazer since 1973, I’ve had the chance to observe in many places coast to coast in urban, suburban, rural and desert skies. What I’ve learned is that as long as it’s not completely overcast, you can stargaze just about anywhere! Stargazing can be with the unaided (naked) eye, binoculars, or telescopes of any size. Ultimately, where your interests lie will direct you to the best practices.
Naked eye observing
Naked eye observing was the only technique available to people until the invention of the lens. Today, the Moon is the only nighttime object known by everyone. But hundreds or thousands of years ago, more people were aware of the motions of planets, naming of constellations & bright stars, eclipses, and passing of comets. The lack of understanding of the denizens night sky led to the rise of astrology over 5,000 years ago. People didn’t understand the world around them, so it was natural to look for connections with the motions in the heavens. People still confuse astronomy and astrology. For the scientist, that’s like not understanding the difference between night and day.
My favorite naked eye observing activity is watching meteor showers. Meteors, shooting stars, are microscope-size particles of solar system dust that burn up in the upper atmosphere. In the course of stargazing, you will see meteors just because you’re looking at the right place at the right time. Meteor showers originate from trails of comets. The best way to observing meteors is to get away from the city, use a lounge chair or lay on top of a sleeping bag and look up. (If you get inside your sleeping bag, you’ll fall asleep before you see many meteors!) The brightest meteors are called fireballs. They can cast shadows and may explode (bolides) that occasionally leave meteorites behind.
This happened in the summer of 1977 in Louisville. I heard the explosion and went outside (about 3 PM) and looked up. Didn’t see anything… Within a week, leaks in several roofs were noted and meteorites were found. They ended up in the Smithsonian’s meteorite collection.
Conjunctions occur when two or more planets appear close to each other. They often occur in evening or morning twilight as the orbital paths of different planets appear to intersect. One planet may be close to us and the other on the other side of its orbit far away. Grand or great conjunctions are when two or more planets appear in close proximity. The rarest have as many as five planets in the same part of the sky, although not necessarily close to one another.
Binoculars offer a good look at the heavens, though not great views of most individual objects. They are perfect for the Milky Way and large clusters like the Hyades in Taurus. There are binoculars that have magnification greater than 10x, but they need to be tripod-mounted because the average person can’t hold their arms steady enough. Shaky observing isn’t observing at all! With decent magnification you can see Jupiter’s brightest moons but not the rings of Saturn.
If you are haven’t used binoculars to stargaze, get away from city lights and scan the Milky Way. Look at the Pleiades, the Beehive Cluster, the Coma Cluster (star, not galaxy cluster), the Orion Nebula, and if you are a southern observer (south of the equator), the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, and the Eta Carina Nebula are worthy targets. Also look for the Milky Way’s dust clouds – black patches that interrupt the Milky Way’s glow.
Telescopes vary in quality, size and price. The best way to familiarize yourself with different kinds of telescopes is to attend a “star party” held by an astronomy club. Astronomy clubs can be found in every large city and many smaller ones. It is beyond my scope to explore the array of telescopes out there.
Solar observing can be done safely by projecting the sun on a piece of white paper. If there are any sunspots on the surface, you will see them. NEVER, ever look at the bright sun with any optics – naked eye or magnified. Safe aperture solar filters allow direct views.
The moon is a favorite for many observers. For one, it’s easy to find! Telescopes reveal numerous craters, plains and mountains. Observing along the terminator where the lunar sunrise or sunset is occurring shows a fine detail. When the atmosphere is stable the detail will be easier to see. The first time you look at the moon with a telescope, you can imagine what Galileo felt when he first turned his simple telescope to the heavens.
Different planets offer different observing challenges. Venus, Jupiter and Saturn are the easiest. Mercury is always close to the sun but can be seen with a good horizon when it’s at the greatest elongation (in relation to the sun and Earth). Mars is smaller than our planet but may show detail at opposition – when it’s closest to us. The outer planets require small telescopes while Pluto needs a large telescope and a good chart.
Most comets never reach naked eye brightness. These balls of ice and dust pass through the inner solar system. Some amateur astronomers spend every evening and morning scanning the skies in hopes of finding a new comet that will be named after the discoverer. You can say it’s the ultimate ego rush. Most comets never get close enough to the sun to get a large tail.
The deep sky offers both variety and the opportunity for growth as an observer. I speak from experience. There are objects best seen in small telescopes to those requiring the largest amateur scopes (with mirrors above 20-inches in diameter).
Double stars (including trios, quadruples and rarely more) are common in the heavens. Some are easy in telescopes while others are challenging because they are very close or there is a great difference in brightness between them.
Variable stars change brightness over time ranging from hours to decades. Many are eclipsing binaries, where a cooler companion star passes in front to the bright primary. Others are pulsating stars that expand and contract – some with great precision, others erratically. The American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) is an organization whose members monitor variable stars, often for a lifetime.
Clusters are aggregations of stars. There are two types: open clusters found in the Milky Way’s disk and globular clusters that formed outside the galaxy. Open clusters range from a few million to over a billion years old. Globular clusters are almost as old as the universe.
Nebulae are composed of gas, dust or a combination. There are several types:
- Planetary nebulae are shells of ionized gas formed as a sun-like star reaches old age.
- Emission nebulae are clouds of hydrogen where stars are born. They often have dust.
- Dark nebulae are clouds of dust that absorb background starlight. In the rich starry Milky way, they look like holes in the sky.
- SNRs are supernova remnants, gas spreading from when a massive star dies in a supernova explosion.
- Reflection nebulae are illuminated by the light of nearby stars. Otherwise, they would remain invisible.
Galaxies are giant assemblages of stars, gas and dust – other Milky Ways. They occur in some basic forms: normal and barred spirals (with transitions in-between); elliptical and lenticular (dominated by old stars with very little gas clouds); and irregular galaxies that often are rich in gas clouds but have no distinctive shape.
Finding an astronomy club near you
The Astronomical League is an American organization that serves as a clearinghouse for astronomy clubs. You can also type the name of the city and “astronomy club” to see if there is a group near you.
Below is an information sheet I created back in the days of the National Deep Sky Observers Society. This was probably around or before 2000.