Want to get into stargazing? A professional astronomer explains where to start

There are few experiences as serene and calming as spending a night under the twinkling stars. Many people choose to go camping during the holidays to escape the bright city lights and immerse themselves in the beauty of the dark, star-studded skies. As a child, I developed a deep love for the night sky through these camping trips, which eventually led me to pursue a career as an astronomer. One of the greatest joys of being an astronomer is sharing the wonders of the cosmos with others. Introducing people to the night sky through a telescope and witnessing their awe as they catch their first glimpse of the universe’s marvels is truly magical. However, you don’t need a telescope to appreciate the night sky. Simply using your own eyes to identify constellations, planets, and even witness meteor showers can be a captivating experience. It’s easy to become captivated by the wonders of astronomy, and a common question I often receive is, “How can I get more into stargazing?” Here are some affordable ways to embark on this fascinating and timeless hobby. Learning the night sky If you’re new to astronomy, a great starting point is familiarizing yourself with the night sky. When I was young, I relied on a planisphere (a star map) or reference books to navigate the stars. However, in today’s digital age, there are numerous apps available that can assist you in finding your way around the night sky. Stellarium is an excellent example of a planetarium program that allows you to view the night sky from the comfort of your own room or plan your observing sessions in advance. To memorize the night sky, you can try a technique called “star hopping.” Begin by identifying a bright and easily recognizable constellation, and then use it as a guide to locate the constellations surrounding it. Challenge yourself to learn one new constellation per week, and within a year, you’ll become familiar with most of the constellations visible from your location. Let’s take the constellation Orion as an example. The images from Stellarium below depict Orion high in the sky on a summer’s evening. Orion can serve as a central point from which you can navigate the summer sky. By following the arrows in the images, you can use Orion as a guide to locate other constellations such as Canis Major, Taurus, and Gemini. By practicing star hopping, you’ll gradually become acquainted with the night sky, and the constellations will become like old friends. Virtual observing While observing the night sky with your naked eye is a breathtaking experience, it’s also fascinating to zoom in and explore celestial objects in more detail. If you don’t have access to binoculars or a telescope, don’t worry. Software programs like Stellarium can provide you with an incredible virtual observing experience. Suppose you’re eager to see Saturn’s majestic rings, even without a telescope. In that case, Stellarium allows you to easily locate Saturn, zoom in, and reveal more intricate details. As you continue zooming, you can witness the movement of Saturn’s moons in their orbits or observe the changing tilt of the planet’s rings from our perspective over time. A virtual observing session is as simple as panning around the sky until you find something of interest and then zooming in for a closer look. Sharing the hobby Astronomy is a hobby that is best enjoyed and shared with others. Most towns and cities have their own astronomy clubs, which are usually open to welcoming guests who have a passion for stargazing. When I was just eight years old, I joined my local astronomy society, the West Yorkshire Astronomical Society in the United Kingdom, and it had a profound impact on my journey as an astronomer. The members of the society were incredibly supportive, answering my many questions and offering guidance every step of the way. Joining an astronomy society provides the opportunity to attend weekly talks on astronomy given by club members and visiting astronomers from local universities. Additionally, these societies often organize regular night sky viewing events where members can gather and observe celestial objects using the society’s telescopes. Those who are passionate about astronomy love nothing more than sharing their knowledge with others. Astronomy clubs and universities frequently offer public night sky viewing events, which are perfect opportunities to explore the night sky through a telescope with experienced guides who can help you discover the most captivating sights. If you’re eager to learn more about the night sky, I encourage you to reach out to your local astronomy society. It could be the start of an extraordinary journey. If you’re unsure how to find a local astronomy group, you can consult this list for assistance. If you belong to a group that isn’t listed, please contact them to ensure their information is added.

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