A beginners guide to stargazing

You don’t need to invest in expensive equipment to start your stargazing journey. With just the naked eye Nyctophiles (fans of darkness and the night) can see several thousands of stars. Begin to spot constellations, explore the surface of the moon and talk about the universe with your little ones. We hope you enjoy our introduction to stargazing.

What should I pack for stargazing?

The essentials:

  • Something to lie on or some folding chairs
  • Nibbles, something to drink (take water, also as a treat, we recommend a thermos flask of hot chocolate – perfect for little stargazers and adults alike!)
  • Warm clothing. Even in the summer, it can get nippy when the Sun goes down. Make sure you’ve got a warm enough coat, and for the winter, hats, scarves and gloves.

Nice to have:

  • Binoculars or a telescope
  • A compass to help with navigating the night sky
  • A camera
  • A tablet or mobile phone with the Google Sky Maps app downloaded and installed (optional – you may just want to do it the old fashioned way!)

stargazing

 

Fun things to look out for

  • Comets
  • Craters and mountains on the moon (binoculars/telescope will help!)
  • Constellations
  • Lunar and solar eclipses (when they’re happening!) note: never look at the Sun directly!

Activity: Lunar eclipse

What is a lunar eclipse?

A lunar eclipse takes place when the Moon passes directly behind the Earth into its shadow. This only occurs when the Sun, Earth and Moon are aligned with the Earth in the middle. This means a lunar eclipse can only happen on the night of a full moon.

A lunar eclipse can be viewed from anywhere in the world, whereas a solar eclipse can only be seen from a small area of the world when it takes place.

Spotting a lunar eclipse is a great way to start a conversation with little ones about the universe around them and their place in it. This is a good opportunity to talk to them about the shape of the Earth, as they’ll be able to see the curved shadow cast across the moon.

When is the next Lunar Eclipse?

The next total Lunar eclipse in the UK will take place on 27/28 July 2018.

Timeanddate.com have an amazing lunar and solar eclipse tool where you can input your city, and it will tell you when the next eclipse is taking place, and what time it will be visible.

Activity: Create a pinhole projector

You should never look directly at the Sun. Doing so could cause irreparable damage to your eyes. To look at the Sun, create this simple pinhole projector. A pinhole projector is a great way to experience a solar eclipse. It’s a great opportunity to talk about what the Sun is; our closest star. The projector you make is also a great springboard into conversation on how cameras work.

What is a Solar Eclipse?

A solar eclipse happens when the Moon passes between the Sun and the Earth and either partially or fully blocks the light coming from the Sun.

In the UK, we will be waiting a while for the next really good one. The next (almost) total eclipse won’t take place until 12th August 2026 when roughly 95% of the Sun will be obscured.

What do I need?

One of the safest and easiest ways to view a solar eclipse is with a pinhole viewer. You can make one yourself at home with just a few bits and bobs from around the house.

pinhole viewer

  • 2 x pieces of white cardboard, (2 paper plates works well)
  • alternatively, 2 sheets of plain white paper
  • a thumbtack, a sharp pin, or a needle
  1. You can make a quick pinhole projector by taking a sheet of paper and poking a tiny hole in the middle using a pin or thumbtack. You need the hole to be round and smooth.
  2. Face with your back to the Sun. Hold one piece of paper or card above your shoulder and allow the Sun to shine through the hole in the paper.
  3. The second piece of paper will act as a screen. Tape it to an easel or hold it at a distance. If it’s easier, ask a friend to hold it. As the Sun shines through the hole in the first piece of paper, you will see an inverted image of the Sun projected on the paper screen.
  4. You can make the image of the Sun appear larger by holding the paper screen further away from the paper with the pinhole.

Activity: How to photograph the stars

Photographing the night sky may seem daunting, but it’s not as difficult as you might think. Most cameras can capture basic photographs of the night sky. However, if you have access to a DSLR or camera where you have more control over its settings, you may be able to capture something spectacular.

What you’ll need

  • Camera
  • Tripod (optional)
  • Shutter release cable (optional)

What to do:

Positioning and steadying the Camera – When you’re photographing anything in low light, you’ll need a longer exposure. When you use a long exposure, it means that you’re letting light into the camera for a longer time.

If your camera isn’t completely still, you can end up with camera shake blurring your images. Counteract thing by using a tripod. If you don’t have one, place your camera of a solid, flat surface.

Set the Focus – First, turn off your autofocus function. Your camera will struggle to use this setting in low light. If your camera has the option, set the focus to infinity.

To refine your focus, point your camera to brightest star you can see in the sky. Manually adjust your focus until the object is as sharp as possible.

Adjust the Aperture – Open your aperture as wide your camera allows. This lets in as much light into your camera as possible. You do this by setting your camera to the lowest f-stop or set your camera to ‘portrait mode’ and it should do this automatically.

Set the shutter speed – to capture stars as pinpoints of light, start with a shutter speed of 20 seconds. As we’ve said before, you will want to keep your camera as still as possible to avoid blur and camera shake!

Adjust the Zoom Don’t be tempted to try and zoom into anything in the night sky! Zoom out as much as possible to get a nice, wide shot of the stars.

Adjust the Sensitivity Camera setting your ISO in night time conditions is a bit of a balancing act. If you set it higher, it’ll be easier to see faint objects (like stars) in the dark. However, the higher you set it, the more digital noise you’ll get in photo (this can look like white spots).

Set your ISO after you’ve got everything else sorted – you may need to play with the shutter speed and ISO to get the effect you want!

Now all you need to do is get clicking!

Getting Started – Your first 3 Constellations to spot

Orion

Orion (the hunter) is perhaps the most famous and recognisable of the constellations. Complete with belt and sword, Orion is a great first constellation to look for.

orion

 

Canis Major

Canis Major contains the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius and depicts the larger of Orions dogs. This makes it easy to find a starting point with little ones.

canis major

 

Leo

Leo is a great constellation to try and spot as it looks a bit like its namesake and is arguably the easiest constellation in the zodiac to find. Look for the distinctive backwards question mark that makes up the head and chest. Leo’s brightest star, Regulus, forms part of the lion’s front right leg.

leo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We hope that our guide has given you plenty to get started with when it comes to your stargazing journey. To get the most out of the experience, it’s best to venture to the countryside, where light pollution is low, so that you can see the stars more clearly.

We’d love to see you on your adventures, tweet us at @LRUK to share your stargazing family pictures!