Stargazing For Dummies book cover

Stargazing For Dummies

By: Steve Owens Published: 03-18-2013

Reach for the stars

Stargazing is the practice of observing the night sky and its contents - from constellations through to planets and galaxies. Stars and other night sky objects can be seen with the naked eye, or seen in greater numbers and in more detail with binoculars or a telescope.

Stargazing For Dummies offers you the chance to explore the night sky, providing a detailed guide to the main constellations and also offering advice on viewing other night sky objects such as planets and nebulae. It's a great introduction to a fun new hobby, and even provides a fun way to get the kids outside while doing something educational!

  • Gives you an introduction to looking at the sky with binoculars or a telescope
  • Offers advice on photographing the night sky
  • Without needing to get your head around mind-bending theories, you can take part in some practical physics

If you're looking for easy-to-follow guidance on getting to know the night sky, Stargazing For Dummies has you covered.

Articles From Stargazing For Dummies

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30 results
30 results
Stargazing For Dummies Cheat Sheet (UK Edition)

Cheat Sheet / Updated 03-27-2016

Stargazing is a fascinating hobby, but there’s an awful lot to gaze at up there. Eighty-eight constellations and hundreds of other objects both bright and faint mean that wherever you look when you’re stargazing, there’s something to see. If you want to make sense of it all, and make sure that your kit is properly set up, this Cheat Sheet is here to help.

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10 Stargazing Targets for New Stargazers

Step by Step / Updated 03-27-2016

As an excited newcomer to stargazing, you’ll want to get outside and start straight away. Here’s a quick list of targets that you can tick off on your way to mastering the night sky. If you’re hunting dark-sky targets, you’ll need to wait for a night when the Moon isn’t in the sky.

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9 Stargazing Marvels to Look For under a Dark Sky

Step by Step / Updated 03-27-2016

Following are ten things to look for the next time you’re lucky enough to be out stargazing under a dark sky. You will have to travel to see everything discussed here: some are only visible from certain parts of the Earth and at certain times of year.

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Focusing with Binoculars for Stargazing

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

If you use binoculars for your stargazing, you need to get them into focus before you begin. Once your binoculars are focused, the stars you see should look incredibly sharp. You can focus most binoculars in the same way. Just follow this simple step-by-step guide: Adjust the separation between the two eyepiece lenses so that they’re at the same spacing as the distance between your pupils, called the interpupillary distance. You can usually adjust the separation by holding both halves of the binoculars and physically twisting them apart or together. Point your binoculars at something bright but distant. A planet or a bright star like Sirius or Canopus works well. Have a quick look through. You never know; they may already be in focus! Close the eye that looks through the eyepiece with an independent focus. You may find it easier to put the eyepiece lens-cap back on so that you don’t have to squint. Adjust the focus until your target looks sharp for your left eye. Use the focus ring normally found at the top of the binoculars on the bridge between both halves. Close your left eye and open your right eye (or swap the eyepiece cap onto the other side) and adjust the focus for your right eye using the eyepiece focus, called the dioptre corrector. The dioptre corrector is for people who have two eyes of slightly different strengths. You’re now good to go, but keep in mind that everyone’s eyes are different. If someone else uses your binoculars, you may have to repeat the focusing process to get them back in focus for your eyes.

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Using Orion as a Stargazing Signpost

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Orion is great signpost constellation to use for your stargazing. In fact, it may be the very best, because you can use the stars of Orion to find seven other constellations immediately around it. The objects you can find using Orion as a signpost are: Orion’s Belt to Canis Major: Picture Orion as a hunter standing upright, with the stars Betelgeuse and Bellatrix marking out his shoulders, and Saiph and Rigel marking out his feet. You can then follow the three stars of Orion’s Belt down and to the left to find the bright star Sirius (α Canis Majoris) in the constellation Canis Major, the Big Dog. Orion’s shoulders to Canis Minor: Draw a line from Bellatrix through Betelgeuse and keep going to find a solitary bright star, Procyon, α Canis Minoris in the constellation Canis Minor, the Small Dog. Procyon is one of the brightest stars in the sky, so it stands out in this blank patch to Orion’s left. Rigel and Betelgeuse to Gemini: Draw a line from Rigel up past Betelgeuse and keep going until you reach two bright stars shining side by side. These stars are Castor and Pollux, α and β Geminorum, in the constellation Gemini the twins. Above Orion’s head to Auriga: Travelling up from Orion’s Belt between his two shoulders and past his head, you’ll soon come to the bright star Capella, α Aurigae, in the constellation Auriga the charioteer. Orion’s Belt to Taurus: Going back to Orion’s Belt, your next target lies up and to the right, following the line of the belt to the bright star Aldebaran, α Tauri, in the constellation Taurus the Bull. If you keep on following this line, a short distance later you’ll reach the Seven Sisters, or the Pleiades, star cluster. Orion’s right leg to Eridanus: Just to the right of Orion’s right foot, Rigel, you’ll find the first few dim stars in the huge meandering constellation of Eridanus the River. The rest of this constellation snakes down a great distance, ending at the bright star Achernar, not visible from the northern hemisphere. Beneath Orion’s feet to Lepus: Directly beneath Orion’s feet, you’ll find the faint constellation of Lepus the Hare. Between Canis Major and Minor to Monoceros: Another faint constellation lies in the seemingly blank part of the sky between Canis Major and Canis Minor. If you draw a line from Sirius to Procyon, then you’ll be passing through Monoceros.

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Using the Big Dipper as a Stargazing Signpost

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

One of the great signposts in the northern hemisphere sky is the Big Dipper, also known as the Plough, an asterism in the constellation of Ursa Major. If you can find the Big Dipper, then you’re well on your way to finding lots of other constellations. ‘Dipper’ is an American word for a large ladle for scooping liquid. The Big Dipper asterism has three stars in a curve representing the handle, and four stars at the end of the handle representing the scoop. Pointers to Ursa Minor: The two brightest stars in Ursa Major, α Ursa Majoris and β Ursa Majoris, lie at one end of the Big Dipper asterism. If you picture this dipper lying down, with the base of the scoop on the ‘floor’, draw a line up from β Ursa Majoris through α Ursa Majoris and keep going until you get to the next bright star, which is Polaris, α Ursa Minoris, the North Star. Polaris lies at the end of the tail of Ursa Minor and the end of the handle of the Little Dipper asterism. The rest of Ursa Minor curves from the North Star towards the four stars in the scoop of the Big Dipper. Carry on to Cassiopeia: Draw a line from α and β Ursa Majoris through α Ursa Minoris, the North Star, and go the same distance again on the opposite side of Ursa Minor, and you arrive near the distinct zigzag shape of Cassiopeia (which often looks like a W, an M or an E shape, depending on which position the constellation is in when you’re observing it). Little Dipper pointers to Draco: After you find the North Star using the pointers of the Big Dipper, and once you’ve found the asterism of Ursa Minor, then lying between the Big and Little Dippers is the curve of stars making up part of the constellation Draco. Locate the head of Draco using the four stars that make up the scoop of the Little Dipper. Imagine the Little Dipper lying down, with the base of the scoop on the ‘floor’, with its handle rising up and to the left. The head of Draco sits ‘below’ the scoop. Arc to Arcturus: Go to Ursa Major, to the handle of the Big Dipper. The three stars in this handle form an arc, and if you continue this arc, it will lead you to the bright orange star Arcturus, α Boötis. This pointer is easy to remember: just arc to Arcturus. Spike to Spica: After you arc to Arcturus, continue in that direction in a straight line, driving a spike down to the next bright star, Spica, α Virginis. So remember arc to Arcturus and then drive a spike to Spica. Little Dipper arcs to Camelopardalis: Another signpost in this part of the sky uses the tail of Ursa Minor, the handle of the Little Dipper, to arc to Camelopardalis. It’s not nearly as catchy as arcing to Arcturus, but Camelopardalis is a very faint constellation that’s hard to find, so having a signpost is very handy.

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Aligning Your Telescope and Finderscope for Stargazing

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

When you use a telescope for your stargazing, it usually comes with a finderscope, a small attachment which allows you to focus on the correct part of the sky. To align your finderscope and telescope: Get your alignment target in the centre of the field of view of your main scope. Your scope may have come with a cross-hair attachment that you can fit to your eyepiece to help you get the target exactly in the centre. Adjust your finderscope using the small screws attached to it, so that your target is exactly in the centre of your crosshairs. Keep rechecking and adjusting until you’re sure your finderscope and telescope are looking in the same direction. Your telescope and finderscope will be aligned. This means that when you’re stargazing at night, you can use your finderscope to track things down and be confident that your target will be in view in your main scope, too.

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How to Use a Tripod and Monopod for Steady Stargazing Hands

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

The first time you take your binoculars out stargazing, you may be disappointed to find that all the stars, planets and faint fuzzies that you’d planned on observing are dancing all over the place when you look through the eyepieces. Don’t worry, the universe isn’t moving; it’s just you. No matter how still you try to hold your binoculars, small wobbles in your arm, hands or head, and even your breathing, will cause the stars to move to such an extent that you may struggle to see much. So you need to find a way of steadying your binoculars to reduce the wobble. You can try balancing your binoculars on a nearby wall or perhaps your car roof or some other solid surface, but even these steady surfaces won’t cure the view of all wobbles. You’ll still have to hold your binoculars with your hands, and that means you’re the limiting factor. Some high-tech binoculars have image-stabilising hardware that reduces the wobble, giving you a stiller image. Imagestabilised (IS) binoculars aren’t cheap. However, you may be able to find a small pair of IS binoculars that give you a better view than a non-IS pair. If you can afford a lower-power set, which saves a bit of money over a high-power set, that’s the way to go. Tripods for stargazing: Three legs to stand on Tripods are great additions to your stargazing kit, especially if you’re using binoculars. By attaching your binoculars to a tripod, you instantly steady the image, because you don’t have to touch the binoculars at all. You can’t attach all binoculars to a tripod, though, so you need to find out whether you’ll be able to fix yours on or not. Some binoculars have a screw thread with which you can use an adaptor to attach them to a tripod. To find this screw thread, you may need to remove a small plastic covering cap, which will be hiding it from view. Most often, you can find the screw thread in the central bar of the telescope at the front, between the two objective lenses. If your binoculars don’t have a screw thread to attach them to a tripod, you may be able to use an adaptor that clamps onto the pivot bar between both barrels of the binoculars. If the surface your tripod is standing on isn’t solid, or if it’s windy, you still may have a bit of a wobble. The best place for binoculars on tripods is somewhere sheltered that’s firm underfoot. Monopods for stargazing: One leg to stand on In some cases, a tripod can be a bit awkward to manoeuvre around, especially if you’re planning on observing lots of different targets in the sky. The next best thing to a tripod is a monopod, which is really just a one-legged tripod. ‘But won’t it fall over?’ I hear you ask. No, not if you hold onto it! But if you’re holding the monopod, you may wobble and cause the image to jump about, and keeping the monopod steady is far more difficult that keeping a tripod steady. Having said that, monopods do have their uses. They: Are lighter and more portable than tripods Allow you to take the weight of your binoculars off your arms Steady the image more than you can just by holding the binoculars Make it easier to pivot the binoculars around to look at many different objects Binocular stargazing with a tripod or monopod After you’ve mounted your binoculars on a tripod or monopod, you’re almost ready to start some serious stargazing! One final thing you’ll have to consider is how to get comfortable looking through the eyepieces. Most tripods won’t extend high enough to raise the eyepieces to a comfortable height, so you’ll have to stoop. And if the thing you’re looking at is high overhead, you may have to simultaneously stoop and crane your neck, which isn’t exactly a comfortable position to be in. One of the best ways to overcome this awkwardness is to stargaze while sitting or lying on a reclining outdoor chair. Now that’s stargazing in comfort! This position is where a monopod comes into its own, as it’s much easier to move around than a tripod. If you’re stargazing from a chair, make sure that you dress warmly and put a blanket between yourself and the chair for insulation. If you’re not moving about much, you can cool down pretty quickly.

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How Good is Your Stargazing Site?

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Maybe you have two different stargazing sites in mind and want to figure out which one will work best. Or perhaps you want to keep a record of how your sky quality changes over time. You can, of course, buy a light meter and take measurements, but a much simpler way of calculating sky quality is to count stars. The more stars you can see, the darker your sky is, but counting all the stars visible in your sky – even if you’re observing from a bright inner city – can be a daunting task. Here’s how to make the process simpler: Find the constellation of Orion. You’ll have to wait until Orion is above the horizon to find it. The months of January through March are best because Orion is visible in the early evening, but you should be able to find Orion by staying up late during October through December, too. Orion has lots of stars in it, but the basic shape is made up of four stars in a rectangle, with three fainter stars in a diagonal line in the centre of this rectangle. The best time to observe Orion is January through March, although you’ll be able to see it from October through December. After you find Orion, wait for your eyes to adapt to the dark and then count how many stars you can see inside the main rectangle. One way of estimating the darkness of your night sky is to use the Bortle Scale, a nine-point scale of sky quality running from 1 (excellent dark-sky sites) to 9 (the brightest inner-city skies). The table shows what each rating means based on how many stars you can count. This number gives you an indication of how good your sky is. The more stars you can see, the better! The gives you the approximate number of stars you can expect to count in different stargazing sites. Number of Stars in Different Sites Bortle Rating Approximate Number of Stars What It Means 1 Far too many to count! Excellent dark-sky site 2 Too many to count! Typical truly dark site 3 More than 30 stars Rural sky 4 Around 30 stars Rural–suburban transition 5 Around 20 stars Suburban sky 6 Around 12 stars Bright suburban sky 7 Around 6 stars Suburban–urban transition or full Moon 8 Around 3 stars (the belt stars) City sky 9 One or 2 stars Inner-city sky

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Stargazing Targets: Northern and Southern Polar Constellations

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Both northern and southern hemisphere stargazers are treated to many striking constellations that are visible any night of the year – the northern and southern polar constellations. These constellations are what’s called circumpolar, meaning they never rise or set. That’s very handy, since it means they are above the horizon all year, and are visible all night, so you’ll soon get used to finding them and using them as signposts to other constellations. Stargazing: Northern polar constellations The six northern polar constellations are near the North Star, so you’ll only be able to see all of them if you’re stargazing in the northern hemisphere. If you were at the North Pole, they’d be spinning directly overhead, but for northern hemisphere observers they spin in an anticlockwise direction around the North Star. The six northern polar constellations, as shown in the figure, include: Ursa Major, the Great Bear Cassiopeia the Queen Ursa Minor, the Little Bear Draco the Dragon Cepheus the King Camelopardalis the Giraffe These constellations, when observed from northern latitudes, are circumpolar, meaning they never rise or set. That’s very handy because it means they’re above the horizon year-round and are visible all night, so you’ll soon get used to finding them and using them as signposts to other constellations. Where in the sky you have to look depends on where on Earth you’re stargazing. The northern polar constellations all appear towards the north of the sky, but the closer you are to the North Pole, the higher they are. In fact, the North Star’s altitude above the northern horizon is equal to the latitude you’re stargazing from. Stargazing: Southern polar constellations The stars around the southern pole form some striking constellations, such as the Southern Cross, and there are a wealth of great objects to look for, like the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. The figure shows a map of these constellations, which include the following: Crux (Southern Cross) Apus Chamaeleon Circinus Dorado Hydrus Mensa Musca Norma Octans Pavo Triangulum Australe Tucana Volans Remember that as the Earth spins, the position and orientation of the constellations changes. The maps show their relative positions next to one another. Check monthly star maps for your location to find out where in the sky the constellations actually appear.

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