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Stargazing Tips for Beginners: In and Around the Solar System

Stargazing Tips for Beginners: In and Around the Solar System

Who could resist taking up amateur astronomy as a hobby? It may not always mean long weekends away on camping trips, or Hubble – like views of distant galaxies and far away nebulae (in fact it is nothing like that!) but it does mean a new appreciation of the night sky with efforts that always pay off, and an improved knowledge of the coolest thing out there – space.

Here is a brief but helpful guide to get you started.

General Basics

It is likely that most of your viewing will take place in your backyard, in a built up area. This can make the perfect stargazing conditions seem slightly impossible to obtain – but it can happen, you only need to be persistent, and aware of the factors that count most.

So what exactly classifies as good stargazing conditions? The first and most obvious aspect is as dark a sky as possible. Nights with a full moon (and the nights leading up to full moon, and just after full moon) are out for deep sky observations of faint objects but planetary observations are still possible. The sun’s reflected light casts more of a glare than you may initially realise, but be assured that it is enough light to dim even the brightest stars nearby, and completely block out any deep sky objects.

Viewing conditions and transparency needs to be good. Moisture in the atmosphere is just as bad as pollution. Colder, winter nights usually offer drier skies, which helps with transparency. Twinkling stars may be the object of affection in nursery rhymes, but in stargazing this is bad news. The twinkling – or scintillation, means that there is atmospheric interference, and whatever interference your naked eye is picking up on is sure to be magnified by your binoculars or telescope.

Both your telescope and eyes need time to adjust before stargazing. Your telescope should be left outside for an hour or two before your viewing session, to allow it time to acclimate. Heat escaping from the tubes can distort images, so leaving your telescope to cool will give you the best views.

Your eyes also need time to become dark-adjusted. This allows your pupils to dilate more, and thus let more light pass through them. You can’t be using a white light torch and if you use your phone for star maps, make sure you set it to night vision mode so it will display in red as the white light content will reduce your night vision. So how do you view your star-maps or viewing guide in the dark? Some red cellophane wrapped around your torch does the trick. Red light has a longer wavelength than other light, and so it is not as intense or harsh on your eyes.

Learning some simple tricks and techniques makes a world of difference too. A good one to learn is using your peripheral vision for viewing dimmer objects. You don’t pick up on the detail of it but it enhances its visibility.

Viewing the Moon

Contrary to what some might think, full moon is the worst time for viewing.

It may not seem so initially, but the glare from the moon magnified by a telescope or binoculars can be very harsh on the eyes. The bright light also tends to create a washed out effect on the lunar features that are best for viewing.

The Moon can withstand high magnifications

The Moon can withstand high magnifications

The best times for viewing the moon are at the two quarters: when the moon is halfway to full and when it’s halfway to new moon. Not only is the glare reduced at the quarter moons, but the light/dark contrasts allow features like mountains and craters to really stand out. The dividing line between the light and dark halves is called the terminator and it is the area that you will focus on.

The wonderful thing about the moon is that you can play with your telescope’s magnifications and discover what you can see at different focal ranges. Low magnifications have their advantages, and the moon is particularly good at withstanding higher magnifications.

So don’t be afraid to experiment and if you are new to astronomy, there’s a great range of telescopes for beginners on the market that are very affordable and will give you surprisingly good results.

Viewing Mars

Despite being such a tiny planet, Mars has a lot to offer.

Using a standard telescope and some filters, you can view polar caps and the contrast in colour of different regions among others.

Mars' polar caps can be viewed easily under the right conditions

Mars’ polar caps can be viewed easily under the right conditions

Magnification can be pushed up to as high as 100x – just don’t get any ideas of detailed, high resolution images, as those are usually only seen through much larger telescopes. To be able to really view the contrast of the surface area and Polar Regions, a red filter will work best. A blue filter can show equatorial cloud bands and darken reddish features.

View Mars often or for longer periods to be able to see both sides.

Viewing Saturn & Jupiter

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot (and the Jovian moons) as well as Saturn’s rings are usually the first targets in the solar system that amateur astronomers want to view. For both of the planets, a quality 4 inch telescope will suffice, but at 6 inch or higher the results are unbeatable.

Saturn is always a sight to behold

Saturn is always a sight to behold

To view Saturn’s rings, use a magnification of 100x or higher, while Jupiter works well with magnifications of up to 100x. A 6 inch telescope means you can also see Saturn’s Cassini Division (the dark gaps in between the rings), as well as Jupiter’s equatorial belts and spots.

Viewing Meteor Showers

The easiest thing to get out there and view is also one of the most beautiful things to view no matter what your level of amateur astronomy experience is.

Meteor showers don’t require any binoculars or telescopes to view. On the contrary, the best way to watch them is with the naked eye.

If you’re planning on spending a night out to watch a meteor shower, you may choose to bring your binoculars with you to do some other viewing in between. Check an almanac for the dates of meteor showers, and what the viewing conditions are – a meteor shower that takes place during the full moon produces unfavourable conditions.

Meteor showers take place over a few days or even weeks, so know the peak days of when you will be able to see the maximum meteors per hour. Also, knowing the radiant (where the meteors appear to originate from) can also help you determine where to look for the meteors, and be sure that the meteors you are seeing belong to the specified meteor shower.

Geminid meteor shower. Image credit: Asim Patelvia, Wikimedia Commons

Geminid meteor shower. Image credit: Asim Patelvia, Wikimedia Commons

These are but just a few of the celestial objects you can view within our solar system. It’s a good idea to always check for when there will be comets or asteroids for viewing, and eventually broaden out into viewing deep sky objects. Yet even if you are just taking a blanket outside, to lie down and view the Milky Way as a whole, it’s a satisfying experience that will only deepen your love of stargazing.