This short guide will help to get you started on your journey learning about the brilliant sky at night. On any clear night, the amount you can see in the night sky is almost limitless. For example, on offer is a galaxy 2.5 million light years away, which you can see just with your eyes, but add binoculars into the equation and you can spot craters on the moon. Although learning about the dark sky may seem like an overwhelming task at first, taken step by step you can discover a limitless number of its best kept secrets.
Firstly, it takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to acclimatise to the dark. So why not take this time to tune in to the sounds of the night - an owl hooting, foxes barking, the rustle of wind in the trees. Be careful not to look at car headlights or your mobile phone, though, otherwise you will have to start the 20 minute countdown all over again.
Amateur astronomy should be calming, therapeutic, educational and fun, but you will need to pack a few essentials to ensure an enjoyable adventure.
One of the things that will turn your adventure into an ordeal is getting cold. Make sure you take lots of warm layers. Remember, you can always peel them off. A hot drink and food is always a must and is a great excuse to pack a few treats, but do keep food and drink away from your binoculars or telescope.
This orbiting sphere is incredible to look at, especially through binoculars, but if you’re wanting to see as much of the night sky as possible, avoid times when the moon as at its fullest. The brightness will make a big difference to the amount you can see. You will see most detail along the “terminator”, the boundary of light and dark on the Moon.
If you’re wondering where to start, pick something that you know, such as the Plough, and then use that to find other constellations and stars. A Planisphere, available in bookshops and via online retailers, is a simple tool to help you do this and work out what is in the sky that night. Collins and other publishers also produce small guides that detail what you can see.
In addition to these, there are plenty of great astronomy apps available to help you learn about the night sky. There are also all sorts of other apps that will aid your quest for knowledge when in the great outdoors, including those related to wildlife, sport and walking. But if you’re using them at night remember to choose one like Stellarium which uses red light and therefore won’t affect your night time vision.
You will need to be careful making your way around in the dark. Normal lights can easily be made dark sky friendly. For example, wrap a red sweet sticker around the end of a torch, paint the end with red nail varnish or use a red bike light.
A good pair of binoculars is as useful at night as they can be in the day. Although binoculars may not be as powerful as a telescope they will show 25 or even up to 50 times more than the naked eye. If you're using binoculars for astronomy, choose a pair that is not too heavy as you may be holding them skyward for long periods of time.
Take something comfortable to sit or lie on, or maybe pop a blanket in the car. That way you can wrap up warm against the elements. Deck chairs or garden recliners are stargazers’ best friends.
As you will be stargazing at night often at isolated locations, always tell someone where you will be going, take a mobile phone or, ideally, a friend. Cars left in isolated car parks at night can also often be a target for thieves. Do not leave valuables in your car at any time while stargazing. But remember, such incidents are rare, so have fun.