Stargazing and star parties

Stargazing is super fun if you have a dark sky and a clear night! If you live in a populated area, driving out of town for a little ways can yield good views (country roads without lights or too many trees are great; please don’t trespass), but the best will be found in Dark Sky Preserves. Here is a list of registered Dark Sky Preserves in Michigan, and here is an international list of certified Dark Sky Parks.

Strategy and tools

Once you know your stargazing location, check out the cloud forecast to see if you’ll have a clear night soon. Below is the clear sky chart for the MSU Observatory in East Lansing, MI. The red vertical lines indicate midnight, and the darker the blue, the clearer the skies.

Now try looking for constellations you recognize, like Orion’s belt, the Big Dipper, Cygnus, or Cassiopeia. Do you know what the constellation looks like for your horoscope sign? Check out the BBC’s guide to stargazing for beginners. The full-featured way to search for yourself without technological assistance is to use the paper Sky Calendar produced by MSU’s Abrams Planetarium, though you can also guide your search with software like Heavens Above, Stellarium, Sky & Telescope tools, and Google Sky, and browse your device’s app store for Google Sky Map. Be safe and have fun!

Equipment

You can stargaze with whatever you have on hand, even if that’s just your unaided eye. Here’s what to look for based on what equipment you’ll use.

Naked eye: Look for the Moon, bright stars and constellations, meteor showers like the Perseids and Geminids, and satellites like the International Space Station. If you’re far enough North or South, watch for the aurora!!

Binoculars: In addition to the naked eye objects, look for the phases of Venus (just like the Moon’s phases!), comets and some binary stars like Alcor/Mizar and Albireo.

Telescope, 4-6 inch diameter: Look for Solar System objects like Jupiter, its four biggest/brightest “Galilean” moons, and Saturn (YOU HAVE TO TRY TO SEE SATURN); and binary stars. Oh and here’s how to set up your telescope’s finderscope.

Telescope, 8-inch and larger: Look for “deep sky” objects in Messier’s catalog like the Orion Nebula (M42), Ring Nebula (M57), Beehive Cluster (M44), and the Andromeda galaxy (M31) without needing to set up long camera exposures. Note that your view is not going to look like the hi-res pictures from space telescopes with long exposures, but it’s still photons from that celestial source traveling through space and into your eyeball!

If you’re interested in astrophotography, browse the Astronomy Picture of the Day and check out the tips from Sky & Telescope and the BBC Sky at Night magazine.

Header image: A sky chart from 1670 by Frederik de Wit. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikipedia, scanned by Janke.