Want to get into stargazing?

There are few things more peaceful and relaxing than a night under the stars.

Through the holidays, many people head away from the bright city lights to go camping. They revel in the dark skies, spangled with myriad stars.

One of my great joys as an astronomer is sharing the night sky with people.

There is something wondrous about helping people stare at the cosmos through a telescope, getting their first glimpses of the universe’s many wonders. But we can also enjoy the night sky just with our own eyes – pointing out the constellations and the planets, or discovering the joys of watching meteor showers.

It is easy to be bitten by the astronomy bug, and a common question I get asked is “how can I get more into stargazing?”.

Here are ways to get started in this fascinating and timeless hobby that won’t break the bank.

GETTING TO KNOW THE NIGHT SKY

A good place to start if you’re a budding astronomer is to learn your way around the night sky.

There are countless good apps to help you find your way around the night sky.

A great example of such an app is Stellarium – a planetarium programme allowing you to view the night sky from the comfort of your room or to plan an evening’s observing ahead of schedule.

To memorise the night sky, you can try star hopping. Pick out a bright, famous, easy-to-find constellation, and use it as a guide to help you identify the constellations around it.

Get to know one constellation per week, and within a year, you’ll be familiar with most of the constellations visible from your location.

By star hopping, you’ll slowly but surely learn your way around the night sky until the constellations become familiar friends.

VIRTUAL OBSERVING

Looking at the sky with the naked eye is a wonderful thing, but it’s also great to zoom in and see more detail.

What if you don’t have access to binoculars or a telescope of your own? Thankfully, software like Stellarium can give you a fantastic virtual observing experience.

Imagine you want to see Saturn’s rings – a spectacular sight through even a small telescope. You could easily do this with Stellarium. Find Saturn by using the search bar and click on it to bring up the planet’s info.

Click on the cross-hair symbol to ‘lock on’, then zoom in. The further you zoom in, the more you’ll see. You can even run the clock forwards or backwards to see the planet’s moons move in their orbits, or the tilt of Saturn’s rings changing from our viewpoint over time.

A virtual observing session is as simple as that – just pan around the sky until you find something you want to see, and zoom in.

A HOBBY BEST SHARED

Now, a virtual observing session is great, but it pales compared to the real thing. I’d recommend using planetarium programmes like Stellarium to figure out what you want to see, then heading out to look at it with your own eyes.

Astronomy is a wonderful hobby, and one that is best shared. Most towns and cities have their own astronomy clubs, and they’re usually more than happy to welcome guests who want to gaze at the night sky.

I joined my local astronomy society, the West Yorkshire Astronomical Society in the United Kingdom, when I was just eight years old. I owe them so much. The members were incredibly supportive of a young child with so many questions, and I genuinely believe I would not be where I am today without their help.

As a member, I saw first-hand just how fantastic the amateur astronomy community is.

We also had regular night sky viewing nights, using the society’s very own telescope – a behemoth the members had built themselves.

People who are passionate about their hobby love nothing more than sharing it with others. The members of astronomical societies are fantastic guides to the night sky, and they often have incredible equipment they’re more than happy to share with you.

Both astronomy clubs and universities often offer public night sky viewing nights, which are the perfect opportunity to peer at the sky through a telescope, with an experienced guide on hand to find the most impressive sights to share.

So, if you want to learn more about the night sky, reach out to your local astronomy society – it could be the start of something very special. – The Conversation

*Jonti Horner is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Southern Queensland.

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