Mankind has long been fascinated with the night sky. An opportunity to see with our own eyes what there is outside of the world that we know, stars, planets and other celestial bodies can be viewed from your own garden, as long as you know where to look.
As many people in 2020 have been forced to find activities that they can do closer to home, stargazing offers a unique way to learn about the world that is interesting and exciting for adults and children alike, and it can be done for free using a host of resources and guides available online.
In this guide we will look at what you can see, how best to see it, and what we know about our solar system already, to get you started on your own stargazing journey.
The History Of Astronomy
The universe beyond Earth can be seen with the naked eye, meaning that humans have been fascinated with what the sky holds since the beginning of time.
Indigenous cultures around the world used their understanding of astronomy to help them to plan and navigate their lives, using their knowledge of the stars for things like:
- Religious practices
Ancient astrologers also created maps of the celestial sphere, which helped them to make the earlier discoveries.
The ancient Babylonians used these star maps to track five points of light in the sky that moved differently from the other stars, concluding that these were something else significant in the universe. Today’s scientists are confident that this is the first known record of the planets Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn.
Ancient Greeks, as early as the 6th century BCE, used their knowledge of astronomy to document evidence that the Earth was a sphere and not flat, as was previously believed. They did this by documenting how different the night sky looked from different locations, as well as noting what they believed to be the round shadow of Earth on the Moon during lunar eclipses.
Until the 16th century, people believed the Earth to be the centre of the solar system but, in 1543, astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a heliocentric model of the solar system, which states that the planets instead orbit the sun.
A revolutionary idea at the time, Copernican theory went a long way towards our understanding today of how the solar system works.
The invention of the telescope in the 17th century led to further astronomical advances, including the discovery of Jupiter’s four moons by Galileo Galilei, and a better understanding of how the planets move that eventually formed the basis of Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity.
More modern advances include:
- 1800 – William Herschel discovers infrared radiation
- 1923 – Edwin Hubble used the 2.5m-diameter Hooker telescope to prove that the Andromeda Nebula extends far beyond our own Milky Way
- 1927 – Georges Lemaître first proposed the big bang theory
- 1964 – the cosmic microwave background (CMB) was discovered, offering the most convincing evidence yet for the big bang theory
- 1969 – Apollo 11 moon landing
Britannica offers a full history of astronomy, which includes in-depth information about astronomical discoveries throughout history, up until the modern day.
What Can Be Seen With The Naked Eye?
While obviously it is useful to have a telescope or binoculars to get the best view of the night sky, it is also possible to see a lot of the universe from your backyard with just your eyes.
Of course, it helps if you know where to look, which is why it is best to find yourself a good sky map. Astronomy publication Sky and Telescope is a useful resource, featuring news and information about astronomy, as well as printable sky maps to help you to navigate the landscape of the night sky.
It is possible to view different stars and constellations at different times of year, meaning there is always something new to see. The best way to make sure you don’t miss out is to buy or, even better, make your own, planisphere. In-The-Sky.org has an excellent guide to creating your own planisphere, and you can download a full plan and kit here.
As the Ancient Babylonians discovered, keeping an eye on the planets is a little more difficult. Thanks to modern technology, though, there are a range of smartphone apps available that can help you to easily track and find the planets based on your latitude.
What You’ll See
Constellations are essentially groups of stars that form patterns in the sky. Astronomers have been able to map the sky and put these constellations into blocks that form a region with boundaries, much like the way that counties fit into a state.
Constellations have long been used as a way for people to navigate – long before the invention of modern maps. They also help astronomers to locate other constellations, planets and other celestial objects.
Here are some of the most well-known constellations, which also happen to be the clearest and easiest to see with the naked eye, even if you are a beginner:
Ursa Major (The Great Bear)
The largest constellation in the Northern Hemisphere, this constellation is so named because it looks like a bear running on all fours.
It is best spotted in the Spring, when it is set high on the Northeastern horizon, and it contains two smaller constellations, The Big Dipper and The Plough.
Ursa Minor (The Little Bear)
Ursa Minor is also easy to see in the Northern Hemisphere, and incorporates The Little Dipper. It is easy to find all year round, as it contains The North Star (Polaris), which sits at the end of the dipper’s handle.
Best viewed from September to March, Centaurus is one of the brightest galaxies and forms a half-man, half-horse creature seen holding a lance. This constellation isn’t always easy to find, but is most visible in the Southern Hemisphere, and best found by looking for Pegasus (The Winged Horse).
Cassiopeia (The Seated Queen)
Cassiopeia is named after a Greek myth in which a queen was banished to the sky for vanity. She is best found by looking for a ‘W’ shape, and her head will be found facing the North Star. Cassiopeia can be seen clearly all year round, and is most visible in November.
Carina (Ship Keel)
This constellation has an interesting history, originally forming part of a larger constellation called Argo Navis, which depicted the ship belonging to Jason and the Argonauts. Carina contains Canopus, the second brightest star in the sky, and can be seen most clearly in March.
The Solar System
One of the most important discoveries for would-be astronomers was the location of the ecliptic plane. This refers to the path taken by the Sun and Moon across the sky, from the perspective of Earth. The other planets in our solar system share this plane, meaning that we can predict and view where the planets will be when we want to observe them.
The planets can also be viewed with the naked eye, at the right times. Because all of the planets in our solar system follow the same ‘track’, some of the inner planets are hidden in front of or behind the Sun some of the time, and sometimes the Earth is behind the Sun so we can’t see the outer planets. For this reason the planets are only viewable from certain places and at certain times of the year.
Uranus and Neptune, being outer planets, are best viewed through binoculars or a telescope.
Pluto requires a good telescope and a star chart, as the smallest planet in the solar system, and the furthest away.
Where To Look For The Planets
Mercury and Venus are the two inner planets, and closer to the Sun than Earth is, meaning that they are easiest to see just before the Sun rises, or after it sets. Mercury is sometimes bright enough to be seen, close to the horizon, whilst Venus is brighter than all the stars in the sky, and thus extremely easy to spot.
Mars has a slightly longer orbit around the Sun than Earth, meaning that it is visible during those periods that we cross paths. Known as Retrograde Motion, the phenomenon where planets appear to reverse in direction through the sky is best explained here.
The next Mars Close Approach will be December 8 2022 and NASA explains more here.
Meteors, or shooting stars, can be seen on any night of the year. In areas with little light pollution you should be able to spot several over the course of a night if you are patient.
More significant meteor showers are always worth taking some binoculars or heading to somewhere clear, as they offer a spectacular view of the universe. The most famous meteor showers include:
- Perseids in August
- Draconids in October
- Orionids between October – November
- Leonids in November
- Geminids in December
Timeanddate.com has a full meteor shower calendar to help you to track upcoming meteor activity in both hemispheres. It is usually easiest to see meteor showers after midnight, and there is generally one night where the shower is the most active, information for which should be found on the calendar.
What You’ll Need
Telescopes For Astronomy
There are hundreds of different types and brands of telescopes, meaning it can seem impossible to choose between them. However, the type of telescope that is best for you will mostly come down to what you are using the telescope for.
The four types of telescope you will likely choose between as an amateur astronomer are:
- Reflectors, which use mirrors
- Refractors, which use lenses
- Hybrid, which has a mix of reflector and refractor elements
- Dobsonian, which is basically a reflector with a sturdy mount
Sky and Telescope has this helpful guide for choosing a telescope that is perfect for beginners. This guide will help you
Binoculars For Astronomy
Beginners are often more drawn to binoculars for stargazing, as they offer a level of mobility and ease that telescopes do not. Binoculars also offer a view for both eyes that makes it easier for you to interpret what you are seeing, which can be a downside of telescopes. The Space.com guide to binoculars and telescopes explains the usefulness of binoculars here, as well as providing in-depth information about finding and purchasing the right equipment for you.
Where we have discussed the usefulness of star maps and planet-spotting apps above, there are other technologically-advanced options for those looking to get started with backyard astronomy.
Starry Night Pro is a sophisticated planetarium program that provides you with an up-to-date map of the sky and any objects to be found in it every day. It even provides audio tours and descriptions to help you to make sense of what you are seeing, and learn more about the night sky.
This Dark Sky Reserve in Wales has managed to involve the local community in minimising light pollution to create clear, dark skies perfect for viewing stars, meteor showers, nebulas and even, in some conditions, the Northern Lights.
You can view the Magellanic Clouds all year round in the night skies above the mountainous Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, thanks to the clear, dark skies found there. This is one of the best spots for stargazing in the entire Southern Hemisphere.
Despite being in close proximity to Las Vegas, which is one of the most light-polluted areas of the world, Death Valley’s canyons and salt flats offer one of the best views of the stars in the world. In fact, many believe the skies here to offer one of the closest views to what our ancestors would have seen before there were cities.