Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. - Stephen Hawking, Brief Answers to the Big Questions
I remember the first time I stargazed consciously. I was around 10 years old on a cabin in the woods with my friends and a couple of adults who explained to me which stars were actually planets, which obviously, blew my mind right away. I was watching planets with my bare eyes. And now, many years later, it doesn't get old.
Last year, I decided to gift my dad a telescope. My parents have a house on a hill outside(ish) the city and I figured that it would be a proper birthday gift. And it was! Although I have to admit that I've been the one using it more frequently, to be honest.
Little did I know that the world of telescopes is deep and complex. There was I spending 4 to 5 hours a night for a whole week investigating which telescope was the right one, how to set it up, align, focus, clean, adapt and repair it. All this, before even buying it. I quickly realized stargazing is real science and started gathering a lot of information to properly teach my dad how to do it and of course do it myself.
And after been doing it for a year, I decided to write all what I have learned in this single post, to get any of you that might be interested to start doing it yourself up to speed fast and easy (and saving you a lot of sleep hours). Without further a do, let's begin.
Reflector vs Refractor
There are two main kinds of telescopes that differ in the way they pass the incoming light into your eye.
Refracting Telescopes are the ones we're used to see on fiction or documentaries, long tubes with a big lens in one side, and a small one on the other. This telescopes are classic and they can pack a punch, as they can gather 100% of the light, but they are harder to point correctly, and cause a lot of chromatic aberration.
On the other hand reflecting Telescopes work by bouncing the light in a set of mirror, this are easier to handle and point, but they can only a maximum of 90% of the light through. Either way, this are the telescopes a beginner should be buying.
As a beginner, you don't need to focus your attention too much on the lenses. (Pun intended) usually 10mm and 20mm will do the trick, most telescopes come with one or two lenses around this sizes. Optionally you can get some 2x or 4x lenses to "zoom" into what you are watching.
The moon and other shiny objects can hurt if you look into them trough enough magnification. In this cases you would need to use a filter for your lens. You can also use sunglasses if you want to save in budget. There's even a filter that can help to see through pollution.
PLEASE DO NOT STARE INTO THE SUN EVER. IT CAN BURN YOUR EYES INSTANTLY.
This is quite logical, in order to be able to get most of the sky on our sight, it's essential to be high enough to see the horizons. Usually at low height cities this can be achieved on the roof a two-story house. Be aware of trees, buildings and anything that can block your sight. Sometimes, it's impossible to have the whole 360 degrees of freedom; this is not perfect but it's better than nothing. Be aware that a visible light source is worse than a parcial block of the horizons.
Even trough a telescope, light from the stars can be very dim compared to your smartphone screen, your eyes have to get used to darkness, this usually takes up to 19 minutes to start to be noticeable. Let yourself enjoy the beauty of darkness by turning everything off, if you need to reach or read something, you can make your own red light lantern by painting a regular lantern with red nail polish. This is the only light that will change your perception. (I'll soon explain why this happens on my podcast. A podcast? Yes. Be ready)
Now, obviously this the biggest reason why cities suck for stargazing. There are LED billboards, buildings, streetlamps, and neighbors TV's that can lower your light sensitivity, be aware of this and minimize the light sources around you if you're in this situation. (Don't engage violently with your neighbors. Please.)
The moon is really important in any stargaze adventure. The moon is absurdly bright compared to everything else. If your goal is to see the moon and bright stars, go on and choose any phase of the moon. But if you want to see dimmer objects, select only the dates around the new moon.
It's common knowledge that contamination and city light limit our ability to see the night sky, but did you know that the main obstacle is humidity? with more water particles in the atmosphere light scatters trough them, allowing a smaller percentage of it reaching directly your lens. This is why most of our most powerful telescopes are placed on deserts or very high places (more altitude also means less atmosphere). Be on the lookout for the driest seasons in your area, as this will have the best air conditions. Be aware that dry seasons usually mean forest fires, and seeing through smoke is almost impossible.
Clouds and Rain
Unless you want to see clouds and rain, I wouldn't suggest to stargaze on cloudy or rainy nights.
To get all your weather statistics and variables, I suggest you check your area on Weatherspark.
Just like when you try to see trough fire, heat distorts images. This is not notorious to our big eyes looking at big stuff unless the temperature is high enough. But when trying to focus a tiny spot on the heavens, even the slight temperature changes can distort what you see. Try to set your telescope on a cold area, specially look for cold floors or grass. Hot floors radiate heat upwards trough the night, avoid them at all costs.
Get a Sky Map
In order to find anything, one needs to know where to look. This is why Sky Maps exist. This maps are published monthly. Learning to read this maps is vital to stargaze, remember, looking on your smartphone will reset your light sensitivity. My preferred maps are hosted on skymaps.com, it can take a while to learn how to read them, specially because is a spherical map projected to a 2D drawing. If you need help reading them, feel free to tweet me a question. And remember, you will need a compass to be more precise.
Be proud of your stargazing discoveries and adventures, keep a log or a checklist, try to grasp everything you can. Taking notes feels amazing and it's a vital part of stargazing.
Ok, I think I have covered the basics. Lets recap.
- Get a refractor Telescope
- Be high enough you can see most of the sky (& horizons)
- Avoid any light source (use a red lantern if needed)
- Be aware of moonlight
- Prefer dry seasons with low cloud probability - Check on Weatherspark
- Search a cold place to setup
- Get and learn how to read Sky Maps
Stars are for everyone
Remember, stargazing is not only for the ones that have the chance to get a telescope. A lot of stuff can be seen with the naked eye, or binoculars, just follow the same rules with a telescope and you will be able to find tons of stuff. Bring your friends or family to your stargaze sessions. Watching alone is awesome, but company makes everything better.
Stay curious, and if you find a new star, please name it in my honor.
See you soon.