Stargazing Basics: Astronomy Beginners’ Guide
This article is for astronomy newcomers who want to make their night sky observations more efficient. Here we answer the most frequently asked questions so you can fill up some blind spots. Use this manual as your starting point!
What is stargazing?
Stargazing means observing the stars and other space objects such as constellations, planets, satellites, comets, meteor showers, galaxies, and more. Simply look up at the sky, and voila — you're a stargazer!
How to stargaze?
There are billions of stars in the sky! How to know where to look to find something? One of the easiest ways is to use special applications that contain full interactive maps of the night sky.
You can also try to memorize the sky maps or bring along a paper star chart. However, the first option requires a lot of effort, and a piece of paper isn’t very convenient to explore in the full darkness.
The stargazing apps work as follows: point your device at the sky and see its detailed map with the names of stars, planets, and constellations. A good example is Sky Tonight, a free stargazing tool containing an astronomy calendar, an index that defines daily conditions for stargazing, and articles about the latest astronomy events.
More apps can be found in our 20 Best Apps for Stargazing in 2021 article. And don’t forget to use a night mode that turns a mobile screen red — thus, the white light from a device won’t damage night vision.
What's better for beginner: binoculars or telescope?
Binoculars are better for beginner stargazers. They have a wide field of view, are relatively cheap, widely available, and easy to carry and store. A 20x binoculars will allow you to see Jupiter’s satellites, the H-shape of the ISS, Andromeda galaxy, and Orion nebula. The Moon is also a beautiful view via a pair of binoculars: you can explore its surface structure and numerous craters.
Telescopes are for more advanced observations — they magnify a tiny part of the sky, letting you observe, for example, deep-sky objects. They’re way less mobile, might be hard to deal with, and are fairly expensive. But, as Sky & Telescope magazine advises, it’s better to save some money and purchase a high-quality scope than buy the flimsy, semi-toy “department store” one.
Eventually, the best tool is the one you actually use, not just keep in the attic.
Where to go stargazing near me?
You can stargaze pretty much anywhere; it’s just a matter of what you’re hoping to see in the sky. In the light-polluted cities, you’ll only see planets and (maybe!) the brightest stars. For dimmer stars and the Milky Way, you'll need to find a place where illumination is absent.
Good examples are a beach or a camping spot. A beach is perfect for viewing space objects that are low in the sky since no buildings or high trees block the horizon. A camping spot is nice for observing “shooting stars” as you can spend a long time outside, lying on your back and looking at the sky.
If you have such an opportunity, take a car and go as far as you can from the light pollution to find the darkest area where you'll be able to see the most stars.
What can I see in the sky tonight?
Depends on your location. From a city, you’ll see:
- the planets: Venus, Jupiter, Mars, or Saturn;
- the brightest stars: Sirius, Vega, Betelgeuse;
- the Moon.
The Full Moon, by the way, is always an existing view — especially, when it just rises. Low above the horizon, it looks bigger and orange-tinted.
To learn what exactly you can see in the sky this night, launch Sky Tonight, tap the telescope icon in the lower part of your screen to open the Visible Tonight section. There you’ll also see the Stargazing Index — the higher the number, the better the observation conditions. Set the magnitude limit to filter out objects visible only with the naked eye, binoculars, or telescopes.
What is a shooting star?
One more exciting view in the sky that can be easily seen is a meteor shower — or “shooting stars”. These aren’t stars, but meteors — the remnants of comets (or asteroids) that burn in the Earth’s atmosphere creating bright flashes of light in our sky. Meteor showers are easily predictable events that occur at around the same time every year. They can be seen when the Earth’s orbit crosses the orbit of a comet.
To catch meteors, you’ll need to drive away from the city center to less illuminated places. Exceptionally bright meteors (bolides) can be seen even from a megapolis, but they’re rare and fly randomly. You can test your knowledge about meteor showers and get useful tips on how to catch the most shooting stars with our quiz.
Learn about the next meteor shower’s peak date (the day when the maximum number of meteors are visible) in Sky Tonight’s astronomy calendar. Open it by tapping the calendar icon on the main screen.
What else can you see in the night sky?
Most stargazers start with observing stars or planets, but there are many more objects you can see in the sky — satellites, for example. The most frequently observable satellite is the International Space Station (ISS). To not confuse it with an airplane, remember that the ISS looks like a very bright star that crosses the sky (here is a live footage of ISS as seen from the Earth). If you see something similar but aren’t sure if it’s the ISS or another satellite, identify it with the help of Sky Tonight.
Once in several years, bright comets that can be visible via binoculars or even the naked eye take a close approach to the Earth. The latest one was NEOWISE in 2020; as for 2021, the comet Leonard looks promising. Read astronomy and space-related articles in Sky Tonight not to miss the most spectacular events in the sky.
Is it a planet or a star?
The International Space Station moves quickly across the sky, so you won’t confuse it with a star. But how to distinguish a star from a planet, especially when they have approximately the same visual brightness? The easiest way is to use the Sky Tonight app — point your device at the object you’re wondering about. Also, keep in mind that stars don’t have a stable light — they twinkle and even change color. It happens because the stars are more distant from us than the Solar System planets.
If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to ask us on social media or at email@example.com.
Sincerely yours, Vito Technology Team.