Get Regular Updates!
Search
|One small step: Getting started with astronomy

Space

image|

Getty Images

Remember to take your blanket—and someone to share it with.

One small step: Getting started with astronomy

Keen to get into astronomy or stargazing, but no idea how to start? Don't worry – it's easier than you think.

One small step: Getting started with astronomy

Astronomy might seem intimidating, but the secret is actually quite simple: it’s all about seeing as much light from the sky as possible. From the biggest telescopes to the humblest stargazer, everyone’s just trying to collect as many of those sweet, sweet photons as they can.

So how, exactly, do we go about that?

Wait for night-time

Unless one of our neighbours goes supernova sometime soon, there’s only one star we’re likely to see during the day: the Sun.

The Sun is so bright that just about everything else out there can’t compete. So the first thing we have to do is wait for the Sun to set.

But that doesn’t mean you get to sit around twiddling your thumbs! Before you head out, you’ve got some planning to do.

First, it’s a good idea to know what you’re looking for before you get outside. What’s visible in the sky changes over the course of the year, and over the course of a night, so it’s helpful to have some landmarks (or … skymarks?) to look out for. Have a look around Stellarium, have a read of The Sky Tonight, or check out an app like Heavens Above to get an idea of what’s up before you head out.

View Larger
Image|Getty Images
If you’re looking into apps, try to find one with a point-to-sky mode.

(If you do want to take a star chart out with you, remember that printed star charts and plansipheres are designed to be held up to the sky, not pointed to the ground. You’ll need to look up and hold the map above you rather than looking down on it if you want it to make any sense.)

Second, you’re going to want to get your tools together. You don’t need to jump straight in to telescopes to have a good time, but you are probably going to want some things to make your night a bit more comfortable. Since it’ll be dark, pack a torch, and since you’ll mostly be looking up, it can be nice to lie down on a towel or blanket.

You also might want to pack some snacks, because to really crank up the amount of light we’re seeing, we’re going to need to hit the road.

Get away from the city

It turns out that all the light from our buildings and street lamps lights up the night sky, much like sunlight does, making it harder to see the really good stuff. You’ll find that you see more from your local park than your backyard, and more again from somewhere like Kings Park.

View Larger
Image|Getty Images
Next time you hit the beach, keep an eye out for the evening “stars” Venus and Mercury as the sun sets.

Here in WA, beaches can be particularly good places to go. Not only is there soft sand to lie on, but facing out towards the ocean gives you a clear horizon, uninterrupted by hills and trees, meaning you can see more.

But by far your best option is to get away from the city altogether. Once you’re out in the hills or up or down the coast, you’ll start to get much less light from humans, and much more from the rest of the universe. The further you get, the more you’ll see.

Within the city, there are still some dark areas to be found… . Credit: lightpollutionmap.info View Larger
Within the city, there are still some dark areas to be found…
…but if you can get out of the city, viewing conditions are much better. . Credit: lightpollutionmap.info View Larger
…but if you can get out of the city, viewing conditions are much better.

Know what you’re seeing

You might notice that we’ve avoided saying ‘starlight’ so far – because there’s a whole lot going on up there. Most of what we see is starlight, but if you spend a little bit of time outside looking, there’s some other things which might light up your night as well.

Planets just look like particularly bright stars, but they’ll shine much more steadily rather than twinkling. They also move over time – not much over a night, but give them a week or two and they’ll be in a totally different spot.

Satellites will look a lot like planets, but moving. Satellites, including the International Space Station, will move steadily across the sky in a straight line – not blinking like a plane, and not streaking like a meteor. Unless you’ve planned ahead, you’ll want to spend at least half an hour outside to have good odds of spotting one by chance.

Meteors (or shooting stars) look more like a quick streak and will probably vanish before you get the chance to say, ‘Hey, look over there!’. Unlike planets and satellites, which reflect light from the sun, these light up because they’re burning up in our atmosphere. Again, unless you plan ahead, expect to spend some time outside waiting before you see one of these by chance.

What’s next?

Getting into astronomy doesn’t have to be complicated. You can see a whole lot with no special equipment if you plan ahead, know what you’re looking at, and really make the most of the light coming in to your eyes.

And if you do want to take the next step, you’ll be glad you learned your way around with your eyes first. Telescopes, cameras, and even binoculars let you scoop up even more light and see some even more amazing stuff – but it sure helps to know where to point them.

Happy observing, and we’ll see you out there.

We love science puns VIDEO

Republish

Creative Commons Logo

Republishing our content

We want our stories to be shared and seen by as many people as possible.

Therefore, unless it says otherwise, copyright on the stories on Particle belongs to Scitech and they are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

This allows you to republish our articles online or in print for free. You just need to credit us and link to us, and you can’t edit our material or sell it separately.

Using the ‘republish’ button on our website is the easiest way to meet our guidelines.

Guidelines

You cannot edit the article.

When republishing, you have to credit our authors, ideally in the byline. You have to credit Particle with a link back to the original publication on Particle.

If you’re republishing online, you must use our pageview counter, link to us and include links from our story. Our page view counter is a small pixel-ping (invisible to the eye) that allows us to know when our content is republished. It’s a condition of our guidelines that you include our counter. If you use the ‘republish’ then you’ll capture our page counter.

If you’re republishing in print, please email us to let us so we know about it (we get very proud to see our work republished) and you must include the Particle logo next to the credits. Download logo here.

If you wish to republish all our stories, please contact us directly to discuss this opportunity.

Images

Most of the images used on Particle are copyright of the photographer who made them.

It is your responsibility to confirm that you’re licensed to republish images in our articles.

Video

All Particle videos can be accessed through YouTube under the Standard YouTube Licence.

The Standard YouTube licence

  1. This licence is ‘All Rights Reserved’, granting provisions for YouTube to display the content, and YouTube’s visitors to stream the content. This means that the content may be streamed from YouTube but specifically forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution, except where otherwise licensed. When uploading your content to YouTube it will automatically use the Standard YouTube licence. You can check this by clicking on Advanced Settings and looking at the dropdown box ‘License and rights ownership’.
  2. When a user is uploading a video he has license options that he can choose from. The first option is “standard YouTube License” which means that you grant the broadcasting rights to YouTube. This essentially means that your video can only be accessed from YouTube for watching purpose and cannot be reproduced or distributed in any other form without your consent.

Contact

For more information about using our content, email us: particle@scitech.org.au

Copy this HTML into your CMS
Press Ctrl+C to copy

We've got chemistry. Want something physical?