Astronomer advice on connecting with the cosmos
“That’s the cool thing about astronomy, anyone can go outside and look up.”
If you’re feeling stuck at home, confined or restless, all you need to do is look up. The skies above us offer a great resource for learning a new skill, expanding one’s knowledge and combating thoughts of existential dread.
With a lockdown in place in different areas across the world to help stop the spread of COVID-19, now is a great opportunity to gaze at the sky and uncover the wonders of the larger cosmos.
Stargazing will not only help you beat the quarantine blues, but you will easily pick up a new skill that you can still practice after the lockdown is lifted.
In order to help get you started, Inverse has put together a basic beginner’s guide to stargazing with the help of amateur astronomers that will turn you into a modern version of Galileo Galilie.
Getting started on this new hobby is as easy as a head tilt.
The sky is an open-access learning tool that is always readily available to you if you just look up.
“As long as you have a view of the sky, you can go outside and look up,” Irene Pease, president of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York, tells Inverse. “That’s the cool thing about astronomy, anyone can go outside and look up.”
If you live somewhere outside of the confines of cities, then that initial step is a little easier for you since you can go outside to your backyard or garden.
But if you’re in a city like New York, we still got you. You can go outside on a balcony, or your building’s rooftop. You want to get as high up as possible to avoid obstructions from other buildings, and light pollution getting in the way of a clear sky.
You also want to block out any light coming from screens of electronic devices, or flashlights, and allow your eyes to get accustomed to the darkness for around 30 minutes before you look up.
If you’re new to this and need to figure out your way around the sky then there are plenty of online resources to help guide you through.
Amateur astronomers recommend downloading Stellarium, an open source software that shows you a map of the stars, and acts as a virtual planetarium.
Chester, a 17-year-old amateur astronomer who posts some incredible images on Reddit’s astrophotography page, recommends the app to help you narrow down an area of the sky.
“My setup is very manual and often I have to find targets that I can't even see without editing, so having a good understanding of the surrounding star patterns is very important,” he tells Inverse. “Or where the nearest brightest star is so I can star-hop and find my targets.”
When he was first getting started, Chester also sought the help of online guides on YouTube by watching videos provided by the AstroBackyard channel which offers helpful tips for beginners.
If you’d rather not use a screen, you can also get a planisphere, according to Pease. A planisphere is a chart of all the stars, and shows you which stars are visible at what times. You can make your own planisphere by following the simple instructions provided by In The Sky here.
Do I need a telescope?
If you’re just getting started, you should probably hold off on investing in a telescope. Telescopes are difficult to use if you’re a beginner and often lead to frustration so experts recommend getting to know the sky first before you take a deep dive in the cosmos.
Instead, Pease recommends a trusty pair of binoculars. “The best first telescope is a nice pair of binoculars,” she says. “They’re great because you can see a lot in the sky with just binoculars.”
And you don’t need to invest in really expensive binoculars to get good results.
“Since I'm still in high school, I am constricted to a tight budget,” Chester says. “Many people think you need thousands to get into astrophotography, however, you can do it much cheaper if you buy smartly."
Therefore, he recommends buying used gear online.
Let the Moon guide you
The sky can be overwhelming, with lots of little details to see. In order to get you started on your stargazing, use the most familiar object to you in the night sky as your anchor — the Moon.
Pease recommends just watching the Moon and observing how it moves and its different lunar phases.
The Moon embarks on a new cycle every four weeks and goes through a few subtle, but noticeable changes every night.
“When you see the Moon moving from one night to the next, you can track where it is positioned in the sky and use the Moon as a marker,” Pease says.
What to look for?
Many of us are familiar with certain features of the night sky like the Orion constellation or the Big Dipper.
Astronomers recommend gazing out at those familiar, and easy to make out features of the sky first to get you accustomed to your new hobby.
There are also celestial events taking place every month that offer a peek at certain planets, a view of a bloody Moon or lunar eclipses. You can stay on top of these events by following the calendar put together by Sea and Sky.
Another thing to look out for is the orbiting International Space Station, which hovers approximately 220 miles above Earth. You can use the ISS Finder app to find out when the spacecraft will be passing through up above, and try to catch a part of its journey.