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Man has always looked to the sky above for answers to many of life’s questions, but have you ever looked up and wished you had more answers about the sky itself? Astronomy is a fascinating hobby and chance to learn about the universe — the stars, planets, celestial bodies, and galaxies near and far. Anyone can take it up, novice or not, and stargazing is a wonderful activity to share with your partner, child, or friend. Best of all, you can do it from your very own backyard!
Let this be your guide to space exploration at home and see for yourself that the possibilities — like the universe — are endless!
Getting Your Home Set Up
The first step in your astronomy endeavor will be to find an ideal stargazing spot in your backyard. You’ll need a clear view of the sky — no trees, buildings, or power lines in the way. It should also be someplace quite dark, with as little light pollution as possible. A porch or balcony can be the perfect spot as long as the lights inside are switched off while you search the skies. If your backyard is large, you might be better off designating a spot somewhere further out, away from the light and commotion of your home.
If you live in an urban area, finding the right place for stargazing in your backyard can be a challenge. Blackout curtains can help block excess light from inside your home, and a privacy fence can limit light pollution from the neighbors. Moving just around the corner of the house will allow the building to act as a light shield. Some people even use a dark blanket to drape over their head or equipment while they gaze.
Once you’ve found a good place for viewing — get to stargazing! Every great astronomer began by looking up at the stars through the naked eye, so don’t rush to buy equipment right away. Start simple. Make it an evening ritual to sit and look at the stars, perhaps with your spouse or child. Are there any constellations you already know and can point out? Can you see the moon? Get acquainted with your view of the sky, and don’t feel pressured to know everything right away. Astronomy takes time to learn and patience to understand, so ease into it and enjoy it.
As you become familiar with the night sky over time, start to give yourself mini challenges. Do a quick search to find out which major constellations are currently visible in your area (keeping in mind it will change from season to season) and find at least one each evening. If you’re gazing with a buddy, you can work together to find one or each have your own list to complete. Not only will this allow you to sharpen your star-locator skills, these formations will eventually act as “landmarks” to help you find other celestial bodies.
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Study Up — Literally
Now that you’ve gotten a general feel for stargazing, it’s time to dig into the details. A great place to start is establishing the latitude of your home. This seemingly small detail will offer insight into which and when celestial bodies are visible, and help you determine which star charts you’ll need to work from — some will designate the hemisphere referenced, others will notate the latitude.
There are all kinds of online star charts and sky maps you can use, but most people prefer to have at least a couple paper copies, as well. Online options are excellent for specifying exact location, time of year, time of day, and desired celestial body, but many budding astronomers appreciate being able to take notes and bring their paper charts to their viewing spot. The light from a smartphone, laptop, or tablet can not only be a pollutant to your stargazing, it can be generally distracting from the task at hand. Paper sky charts specific to your area may be found at a local observatory, university, community college, or even municipal buildings like city hall.
Learning to read a star chart takes practice, but with time, it will be as familiar to you as a road map. Each will vary, and it’s important to read any special instructions or specifications included. Some will include an entire hemisphere, potentially broken up into different sections; others may be devoted to one section of the sky during a specific time of year.
In general, there are a few factors to consider when reading a star chart. The round edge represents the horizon, and the center line, or zenith, represents the sky directly overhead. Cardinal directions will label each edge; use them to turn the chart to match the direction that your stargazing spot faces. For example, if the balcony you use faces north, that edge of the chart should be closest to your body while you use it. Unless otherwise noted, the dots representing stars will vary in size based on the star’s brightness, or magnitude; the larger the dot, the brighter the star. Greek letters may also be used to indicate a star’s magnitude: the brightest bodies within a constellation are named with lowercase Greek letters.
Use a source of red light when you bring your star and sky maps for viewing to preserve your night vision. Start by finding the brightest stars and constellations. Try to disregard the dimmer stars until you have more advanced optical equipment — most won’t be visible to the naked eye, so focus on the bigger, brighter ones while you’re learning.
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Getting this general sense of direction in the skies will also help you find the right viewing spot to see one of astronomy’s most beautiful displays: meteor showers. These occur when a comet passes by the sun and sheds light-catching particles in a stream that runs along the comet’s orbit. They appear throughout the year, so mark your calendar! Even if your partner or children haven’t officially joined your stargazing efforts, it’s a wonderful event to share, and it just might spark their interest in astronomy.
Advancing to Optical Equipment
If you feel you’ve seen and learned all you can via the naked eye, you’re ready to graduate to a pair of binoculars. These are a great tool to progress to, because they allow you to see the sky in greater detail but are significantly easier to use than a telescope. Their portability will allow you to move throughout your backyard as needed, and just about anyone can be trained in how to handle them. A good pair of binoculars will allow you to see dimmer stars, craters and valleys on the surface on the moon, the changing phases of Venus, and even the moons of Jupiter.
Keep in mind that if your finances don’t allow you to spend a great amount of money on binoculars, you can still gain a lot from a less expensive pair. There’s plenty of time to work your way up to something more powerful, so if you have a pair you normally use for other purposes, that’s a great place to start. If you’re partnered up with an astronomy buddy, you can conserve your resources and share a pair. Kids will likely be better off with a smaller, more durable pair of binoculars that fits in their hands and won’t get too damaged if dropped. Finally, never underestimate the handiness of a neck strap — not only can it prevent dropping, it’s helpful to have them within easy reach as you look between your star chart and the sky above.
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You can spend months observing and learning with binoculars, so don’t feel rushed to purchase a telescope. When you are ready to make the purchase, however, there are a few key ideas to bear in mind. A good telescope has a strong, steady mount and diffraction-reducing optics that will limit light pollution. A large lens (or the aperture) makes for easier stargazing, but keep in mind that the larger the telescope, the more expensive and less portable it will be. As with binoculars, it never hurts to start small and work your way up, especially as you’re starting out learning to use this kind of equipment. Buy the telescope you’ll personally benefit from the most — if you’ve discovered multiple prime stargazing spots throughout your yard by experimenting with binoculars, a smaller, more portable scope is probably best.
There’s also a special kind of telescope called a GoTo telescope. These are significantly more expensive, but take the hassle out of searching by allowing you to enter the specific celestial body you’re looking for; the scope then automatically aligns itself with that object in view. Some argue against this kind of scope, saying it limits a person’s ability to truly sharpen their stargazing skills. Go with what best meets your needs and finances. Remember: it’s a learning curve for anyone to use a telescope, so don’t make the switch to a GoTo without giving yourself ample time to learn a manual scope.
Embracing Your Hobby
Starting an astronomy journal is an excellent way to keep track of what you’ve seen and the kinds of conditions best for viewing in your area. It can be as simple as noting down the date, time, weather, and equipment used in a small notebook. Alternatively, you can keep a more detailed account of your sightings, perhaps making sketches or recording notes about exactly how you located particular celestial bodies. Your journal can be the place you log both your progress and your goals, as well an outlet for sharing your sightings with your family. It’s also a special way to look back at your early endeavors into the world of astronomy for years to come.
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You should also consider joining (or starting) an astronomy group in your area. You’ll meet others who share your passion and make meaningful connections with your stargazing neighbors. Meeting other amateur astronomers also gives you an easy opportunity to seek advice, tips, and help with buying or handling equipment, seeking out certain celestial bodies or formations, and reducing light pollution.
Share your findings with your family each chance you get. Invite others to join you, even just for a night, teaching them and sharpening your own understanding in the process. Celebrate your successes, whether it’s finally mastering your new telescope, identifying a low-magnitude star, or finding a constellation without use of your star chart. Each step forward you take is truly rewarding — and sometimes doesn’t come easily! — so never be afraid to share and commemorate your accomplishments.
Astronomy may feel complicated in the beginning, but with time, practice, and patience, you’ll impress loved ones and strangers alike with your skills. The backyard can be your gateway to the universe — so look up and enjoy!