Stargazing costs you nothing
Born in the 1950s, I grew up during the exciting years of the Space Race to the Moon; this created a lifelong interest in space and the stars that I know will never go away. Seen as a bit of a “geeky” hobby by the uninitiated, astronomy is actually a wide-ranging subject and easy to take up. And you can enjoy it as a year-round hobby. Access to the sky is free and you don’t even need to buy any equipment to get involved. You can enjoy it alone or with friends and there are local clubs that will help.
A few facts: there are over 200 billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. These are similar to our sun and not to be confused with planets that look the same to the naked eye. Beyond that there are a very large number of other galaxies, at least one of which you can pick out with a pair of binoculars. Our Solar System contains eight planets (at the present count), four of which you may easily identify with the naked eye.
To start with, just go outside on a clear night – best with no moon and away from street lights – and look up. With the aid of a simple guide you will easily identify the larger constellations, patterns of stars first identified by the ancients. I recommend finding the Plough first and using it to identify the North Star, Polaris.
You can download an app to assist with this: Celestron Sky Portal is free and easy to use. From there you can explore and find your way around. A recliner in the garden on a summer night is a good way, but skies tend to be clearer in winter under high pressure systems.
The planets come and go with the seasons as they orbit the sun. At present Jupiter and Saturn are visible in the early evening to the South and may be easily identified, as the former is very bright. Venus will become visible in November around the same time. The Sky Portal app will help you find them.
Bring your binoculars
Moving beyond the naked eye gets expensive of course, but not if you don’t rush things and take advice from your local club. My suggestion is to start with a pair of decent binoculars and splash out on a telescope later, once you have found your feet.
I have a pair of Celestron Skymaster 15×70 binoculars. They cost about £80 and have none of the complications of a telescope. Start by looking at the moon or try looking at a patch of sky with very few stars: through the binoculars many more will jump out at you giving an idea of what is up there.
The great advantage of binoculars is that you can keep them to hand, they don’t take a lot of time to set up and align, and of course you can pass them around easily making the occasion more sociable.
Through your binoculars you will easily see some of Jupiter’s moons: these are the four Galileo discovered when he first pointed his telescope at a bright “star”. On a clear night it is also possible to pick out the rings of Saturn, a very satisfying experience.
From this you can move on to other more difficult targets for which a tripod is useful as the binoculars get heavy and difficult to hold steady. It also allows you to keep an object in view once you have located it.
Long summer evenings don’t help
Generally speaking, during the summer high pressure haze is a problem and it doesn’t get dark enough until quite late in the evening. There are other pleasures though that don’t need equipment: meteor “showers” in August, and the International Space Station (ISS) all year round.
The ISS flies over roughly from West to East and is clearly visible when at a high elevation in the sky. The NASA free app will tell you when and in what direction to look. A cold, clear winter night is best, but with obvious drawbacks!
Grovers Optics in Northallerton provide a wide range of astronomy related products and are able to give sensible advice. They have a website and will happily speak to you. I have found them very helpful and, like Celestron, I have no relationship with them apart from being a customer!
I took the photos with a Samsung S9 phone through my telescope. They are not as clear as you can achieve with a decent SLR of course, but you can see this with binoculars.
The Ashford Astronomical Society (Upcoming meetings) meets on the third Friday of each month in Woodchurch Memorial Hall, next to the Green. Woodchurch is in a dark skies area with little street lighting making it an ideal location, complete with two pubs.