The night sky is here to stay. Astro-tourism is on the rise and everyone’s going outside to look up at constellations, supermoons, meteor showers and the Northern Lights. Have you got the right kit to make the best of your time under dark skies?
From when and where to stargaze to what binoculars and telescopes you should consider taking with you, here’s T3’s ultimate guide to enjoying the night sky.
When to stargaze
Always check with the moon. Sure, you have to get out of the city if you’re to see anything more than a handful of very bright stars – such as Sirius, Aldebaran and the stars of Orion – but if you rock-up in a rural area and there’s a full moon blazing, you’ll have the same problem.
The moon, you see, is a horrid light polluter. So the best time to stargaze is around a New Moon, when the sun is illuminating the far side of the moon. It’s therefore invisible, or only fleetingly visible as a crescent. Check this moon calculator for where you live and plan a trip to a dark sky destination in the week before a New Moon (plus a few days after when the moon sets early). That’s about a 10-night stargazing window each month.
Incidentally, if moon-gazing or planet-spotting is more your thing, then don’t even bother leaving the city since light pollution does not affect views of the moon or planets.
Where to stargaze
Wherever there are humans, there is light pollution, so the rule of thumb is to go to where other humans are not. If you’re into astrophotography – which requires long exposure photography – even a single light in your camera’s field of view will mostly ruin your shot.
If you’re stargazing with the naked eye or binoculars, or using a telescope, it’s less important, but the darker the skies, the better. Anywhere about 25 miles from big cities and urban areas is good, though there are some enticing and super-dark International Dark Sky Parks (IDSP) to choose from such as Elan Valley Estate in mid-Wales, Galloway Forest Park in southwest Scotland and Bodmin Moor Dark Sky Landscape in southwest England.
Note the difference between an International Dark Sky Park and an International Dark Sky Reserve (IDSR); the former is already ultra-dark while the latter is committed to reducing light pollution so may not be particularly dark throughout.
There’s also a network of smaller Dark Sky Discovery Sites in the U.K. that’s mostly rural pub car parks, lay-bys, parks and reservoirs. Choose a ‘Milky Way’-rated site for the darkest skies where the Milky Way is visible to the naked eye during the summer months.
How to stargaze
You need clear skies as well as dark skies. You also need to abandon the concept of white light. Yes, that means switching your phone off, or downloading apps like Stellarium and SkySafari that not only give you an augmented reality planetarium guide to what you’re looking at, but do everything in red light. Red light is important because it maintains your eyes’ dark adaption. To get dark-adapted eyes, simply switch-off all lights for about 20 minutes and start stargazing. As you do so, the iris in your eye will open up to let more light in, and gradually your retina will switch to detecting light in various wavelengths using rods and cones. Just remember that even a flash of white light instantly destroys dark adaption, so keep car headlights and torches off (or get a red torch) until you’ve finished stargazing.
The best way to learn the night sky is to study some constellations in a book using a red torch – or on one of those apps – and try to find them in the night sky. What you can see will depend on when you stargaze since all stars have a six month viewing season. For example, the stars of Orion are only visible in the winter months.
For added interest find out when the International Space Station is due to cross where you’re going stargazing; it takes about four minutes for the satellite to cross the sky. It’s a fabulously bright sight.
Best binoculars for stargazing
If you’re taking your first steps as a stargazer, go for a pair of binoculars rather than a telescope. Choose them by looking at the magnification and the size of the objective lens size: 10x50 is a good choice, denoting a 50mm lens (to let lots of light in) with 10x magnification (to get a great close-up of the moon and star clusters).
10x50 binoculars are highly practical and highly impressive, and thus ideal for amateur astronomy.
As with many things, the best binoculars for the job are the ones you have on you. Highly portable and relatively lightweight, the Olympus DPS I 10x50 binoculars have one-up on most competitors when it comes to astronomy thanks to their multi-coated lenses.
A clearer, sharper and brighter view of the heavens is guaranteed, though just as important is their wide field of view. With a 6.5º field of view, the Olympus DPS I are ideal for sweeping across rich star-fields of the Milky Way, but also for studying stunning star clusters like the Pleiades, as well as the moon and giant planet Jupiter.
If you find it difficult keeping your arms steady while using binoculars, consider these high-tech and weather-proof binoculars that use Canon's tried-and-tested optical image stabilising technology to smooth out the shakes.
The battery-powered IS system – similar to the one Canon uses on its DSLRs and camcorders – is comprised of a vari-angle prism that constantly makes adjustments to maintain a near perfectly still image.
It's an ideal system for stargazing, with ample 10x magnification and a big, bright 42mm objective front lens that offers a wide field of view. Just keep a couple of spare AA batteries to hand.
You’ll need to employ a tripod or similar to keep these heavy binoculars steady, but the rewards when spotting distant night sky objects are plentiful.
With a sturdy construction and premium build, these binoculars are for serious star aficionados – with provision made for glasses wearers too. The 100mm lenses provide a clear and sharp view of the night sky thanks to a fantastic optical design.
If you’re on a tighter budget, or don’t want to also invest in a tripod, take a look at the Celestron SkyMaster 25 x 70 binoculars, which are easier to use handheld.
Best telescopes for astronomy
Only once you’ve mastered the basic stars and constellations and can navigate the sky proficiently is it time to consider buying a telescope. Luckily, there’s a growing number of excellent value and budget-friendly telescopes on the market, but you do need to make sure your expectations are well-aligned for whichever telescope you set your sights on. For example, you need very dark skies for anything other than the moon or planets. We’ve selected three telescopes to get you started.
The Celestron 76mm Firstscope has long been one of our favourite telescopes for beginners, with its lightweight tabletop design, which makes it the best choice for kids or anyone else who might struggle with a larger scope on a tripod.
A mini Dobsonian-style telescope with a 76mm aperture reflector optical tube attached, which makes navigating the night sky really easy, all you have to do is point the tube and take a look.
The NexStar 8SE is one of Celestron’s high-end computerised devices, which means it does the hard work for you and can automatically find more than 40,000 celestial objects with the touch of a few buttons.
It has a large 8-inch aperture and good light-gathering ability, which means you’re guaranteed to get a clear view of many deep space objects with this advanced telescope, though you will need relatively dark skies.
There are much cheaper options available, which can give you a similar view, as well as smaller 6-inch and 4-inch models of this same telescope with a smaller price tag to match. However, this model ticks all of the boxes if you’re looking for a telescope that helps you easily study the bits of the cosmos you’re most interested in.
The SkyQuest XT8 Plus has a Dobsonian design, which means it’s a Newtonian telescope based on the design of amateur astronomer John Dobson. It’s built around an 8-inch parabolic primary mirror, which can collect a lot of light and therefore significantly increases your chances of spotting deep-sky sights.
The Dobsonian design is bulky and tricky to store (try a garage), but in terms of magnification they are unbeatable; other, slimmer designs with similar magnification cost at least twice as much.
This great-looking telescope has been upgraded and now has space for accessories and comes with a lot of new features, including a redesigned base and focuser, as well as a Safety Film Solar Filter and DeepMap 600 folding star chart to help you navigate your way around the night sky.