Stargazing is a beautiful experience. When the conditions are right, the sky seems to be bursting with stars, galaxies, and planets, sometimes meteors and comets, and even the occasional satellite or international space station.
Western Australia has some of the darkest, quietest and clearest skies in the world, so stargazing is a great excuse to find somewhere dark out in the country and look up. You never know what you might find.
If you need help figuring out where or how to start, we’ve compiled a speedy guide on what you need if you want to start stargazing this holiday season. Read on and find out more.
Stargazing with the Astronomy Australia Almanac 2024
Astronomers old and new, astronomers past and present, astronomers of all ages, and astronomers from all walks of life all have one thing in common. OK, maybe they have more than one thing in common, but one thing they share is they appreciate the value of a good astronomical almanac.
If you’re unfamiliar with these invaluable troves of astronomical wisdom, they’re yearly publications containing tables of the Sun, moon, stars, planets and a whole heap of other astronomical info.
To start stargazing, you need to know what you want to look at. When will a meteor shower peak? How will the moon affect visibility? What planets are visible in the sky, and what time? Consult your trusty Astronomy Australia Almanac and you’ll quickly find out that Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn are all in the sky tonight, with the moon and Jupiter separated by about three degrees.
This really is one of don’t leave home without it things: wallet, phone, keys, stargazing almanac.
Pick up a Planisphere (or download a mobile app)
There are some fantastic night sky and stargazing apps out there. In a world of technical wizardry, you’ll find an app for almost every purpose and occasion.
With apps like SkySafari and SkyView you simply raise your phone to the sky, point it at a star (or other object), and the app will help you identify what you’re looking at. We think that’s pretty neat! Or you might enjoy something like the ISS Detector app: it does exactly what it says on the tin, telling you when and where to look for the ISS.
But what’s better than a mobile app? A planisphere. Your trusty analog star chart shows you what’s up in the sky every night of the year. It’s small, it’s portable, like an app it will help you identify the stars and constellations but best of all it works without electricity or the internet.
Turn the wheel until you have your date matched to the time of night, and what you see on the planisphere is what is in the sky. A planisphere really is that easy to use, and you need one with you when you want to star stargazing.
Binoculars for Stargazing
When you want to start stargazing, a telescope can sometimes be a lot. It’s partly why we recommend binoculars for amateur astronomy. They’re small, lightweight, easy to carry, often cheaper than a telescope, and because you’re using two eyes you can get a more three-dimensional image of what you’re observing.
According to Brian Sture from the Astronomical Group of WA (AGWA), the best binoculars for astronomy are 7 x 50mm with a good eye relief. The 7 stands for magnification, and 50mm is the diameter of the object lenses. “7 x 50mm binoculars are easy to hold,” Brian says, “but make sure that the eye exits are not clipped or square.”
Brian says: “Hold the binoculars at arm’s length against a white or light-coloured background to check the eye exits in the eyepiece. Look at the eye exit area, and you’ll see the circles of light. This light area should be at least 6.5mm in diameter and look round, not square.
Remember that term Eye relief: this means the ideal distance from your eye to the glass of the eyepiece. Too far, and you don’t get the full picture, too close, and you’ll see shadows or a black ring around your vision. Glasses wearers need a higher eye relief because your eye is further from the eyepiece.
Of course, neither binoculars or telescopes are necessarily better than the other. Telescopes are more stable (if they’re on a tripod or mount) and because they’re bigger, heavier, and less portable, if you observe the sky from a fixed location (like your garden), you might favour a scope because you don’t need to move it
Put on the red light for stargazing
You step outside on a clear, dark night, look up, and across the inky black blanket of the sky, you see a few scattered, bright stars, perhaps a couple of planets. After waiting quietly and patiently for as little as 20 to 30 minutes, start noticing so many more as your eyes adjust to the dark.
It only takes about 20 minutes for your body start producing a special chemical that helps your eyes see in low light. But a white light can ruin it for you. Even a quick glance at your phone screen will reset your night vision, and you’ll be back where you started: needing to wait 30 minutes in the dark for your eyes to readjust.
That’s why you need a red light torch. A dim, red light gives you enough light to read your planisphere by (and you can get red light settings/filters for your phone if you’re using an app), without losing your night vision.
Check out the options available at Binocentral
A stargazing community
Probably the most important thing you need when you’re starting stargazing is other people. You need a community.
Community is an essential part of what it means to be human, and research shows it helps us live healthier, more fulfilling, and ultimately happier lives.
According to Act Belong Commit “relationships and social connections provide us with a sense of belonging, which is essential for our mental health and wellbeing. Belonging to groups, whether formal or informal, large or small, local or even international, contributes to our identity and who we are. Belonging helps define our sense of identity and satisfies our psychological need for friendship.”
You’re also more likely to stick to your newfound interest in stargazing when you’re part of a community. That’s why we’re a stargazers club: we’re all about bringing people together with a shared passion.
Our regular events and classes help you discover stargazing and astronomy in a supportive group environment. We offer advice and hands-on sessions to learn more about telescopes in a relaxed and friendly setting so you can feel part of Western Australia’s growing stargazing community.
If you’re new to stargazing, come along to our last dark sky night of the year, see what Stargazers Club WA is all about, and start on your stargazing journey.
FIND YOUR STARGAZING COMMUNITY HERE
We know first-hand that beginning an astronomy hobby can be challenging, and Stargazers Club WA is a welcoming community especially for beginners.
Jay Chesters is a freelance journalist, feature writer, and award-winning author with a particular passion for stargazing and astronomy. Jay enjoys any opportunity to share stories or pass on what they know.