6 tips for stargazing in your own backyard and beyond

<p><strong>Sarah Jensen, DN</strong></p>

Sarah Jensen, DN

Here are a few easy constellations to recognize in the northern hemisphere. 

  • Ursa Major, also known as the Big Dipper and the Great Bear. This constellation looks like a cup with a long handle, and sits overhead to the north. 
  • Ursa Minor, also known as the Little Dipper and the Lesser Bear. This constellation can be found by tracing a line from the edge of the cup of the Big Dipper, to the star Polaris. This star is also known as the North Star and is the brightest star in this constellation. It resembles the Big Dipper, however, it’s much smaller in size.
  • Hydra, also known as the water snake. This constellation can be found to the Southwest after sunset and is the longest and largest constellation in the night sky. It looks like a sea serpent.
  • Leo, also known as the lion. This constellation is one of the easiest ones to spot for beginners. It can be found in the sky by looking for the ‘sickle’ which resembles a backwards question mark. It is found to the west. 
  • Cassiopeia, which is named after a vain queen from Greek mythology. This constellation is to the North and looks like a ‘W’.  

With summer in session, warm nights are the perfect time to get outside and look at the sky. Stargazing is a hobby anyone can pick up and it can be an inexpensive way to connect with nature and the universe around us. Here are six tips that will help you appreciate this activity.

1. Look for clear skies

The only thing you truly need to stargaze is a patch of clear sky. It’s important to look for evenings with no cloud cover and less humidity because it can cause a haze and prevent you from seeing as much of the sky as possible. It also helps to try and limit the light pollution around you, which can obscure your view of the sky. You can do this by getting away from street lights and buildings, if possible. If not, you can still see plenty of the brighter stars even with light pollution. 

2. Let your eyes adapt to the darkness

The longer you look up at the dark sky, the more stars you will begin to see. This is because of a process our eyes undergo, called dark adaptation. Our eyes are able to adjust and become more sensitive to smaller sources of light over time. This process typically takes our eyes anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to reach our maximum night vision. That being said, it’s important to not look at bright lights, such as street lamps or cell phones, while our eyes are adjusting.

When stargazing, it can be useful to have a red light with you for seeing things in the dark. Red lights allow for you to have visible light without affecting your eye’s dark adaptation. Some astronomy apps offer red light interfaces so you can still use your phone to learn about the sky while you’re stargazing. 

3. Download astronomy apps

One of the best ways to learn about the stars you see in the sky is through astronomy apps. They sometimes allow you to point your phone at the sky and tell you what stars, constellations, satellites and comets you are viewing. Here are a few popular apps recommended by Rachel Williamson, Charles W. Brown Planetarium show specialist, that can help you learn about the night sky while you are stargazing. 

  • Google Sky: This free website helps you explore the far reaches of the universe using Google Maps to position the planets and constellations with your own surroundings.
  • Stellarium: There is a $2.99 mobile version and a $9.99 version. The mobile option has an extensive catalog of space information. There is also a free open source planetarium computer program. It shows a realistic sky in 3D, just like what you see with your own eyes.
  • SkySafari: This smartphone app costs $3 for the artificial reality version and there is a plus version for $14.99 and a pro version for $39.99. This app shows you 120,000 stars, 222 of the best-known star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies in the sky; including all of the Solar System's major planets and moons, and more than 200 asteroids, comets, and satellites.
  • Star Tracker: This smartphone app has a free lite version and a pro version for $3. You can see stars, constellations and deep sky objects by pointing your phone at the sky and all of this data is available offline.            

4. Be prepared 

When stargazing, you want to make sure you are prepared to be outside for a while. Blankets, lawn chairs, bug spray, drinks and snacks are good to bring, as well as a red light and phone charger. If you are stargazing from home, it’s still a good idea to get all of your supplies nearby so you aren’t having to turn on lights and lose your dark adaptation. If you have binoculars, they can help you see stars in more detail, however, they aren’t necessary to get a good view of the sky. 

5. Look for easily recognizable constellations

The Earth is constantly rotating on its axis, but the stars are fixed. So, while the stars appear to be rotating, they are moving together across the sky. Being able to recognize a few constellations allows you to learn more about the Earth’s celestial sphere. 

6. Find stargazing friends

Finding people who either know a lot about the stars already or want to learn alongside you can make your stargazing experience even better. Many communities have local astronomy groups that encourage new membership of any skill level. In Muncie, there is the Muncie Astronomy Club. They host and attend astronomy classes as well as hold sky tours around Muncie. There is also the Charles W. Brown Planetarium on Ball State’s campus, which typically holds free astronomy shows for the public. It can also be beneficial to join Facebook groups or online forums for more tips and tricks about stargazing. 

Contact Sarah Jensen with questions at sejensen@bsu.edu or on Twitter @jensenesarah2