A Guide to Stargazing

At night, a huge array of stars can be spotted in the celestial sphere up above. They always appear to be moving due to the earth’s spinning. Our view of the stars changes from day-to-day and month-to-month, depending on our position on earth as Earth orbits around the Sun. This is part of many people’s attraction to stargazing.

The starting point of stargazing is to note your compass orientation, the time and date of observation. Then you can either use the relevant star chart/atlas for the month or a planetarium app which works in the same way.

Sometimes nothing beats a romantic naked-eye view of the stars with a loved one. However, advanced stargazers use large binoculars or, even better, a large-lens telescope, which can enable you to see up to 70 times as much as your naked eye.

You can use a catalogue to find all the stars and clusters you find. The New General Catalogue (NGC) allows stargazers to plot all naked eye visible objects in space. There are over 7,800 objects, though, whereas the Index Calendar (IC) is the beginner version, containing just over 5,000 objects, including nebula, galaxies and clusters.

Types of Star

Each star has its own name and category on the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram, which is based on the visual brightness and colour of the star. It can be extremely difficult to identify the size of stars light years away from us (the closest is 4.24 light years away) without a telescope or mass spectrometry capability.

Some other objects you can easily see in the sky include the other planets of the Solar System, as well as nebula and entire other galaxies. The Andromeda Galaxy is the only other galaxy, except our own Milky Way, that can be seen with the naked eye from Earth. In fact, astronomers first noted it hundreds of years ago – and they thought it was a nebula, which is a big cloud of dust and gas. In fact, it contains many billions of stars and is about 2.5 million light years away.

Just seeing Andromeda from Earth might be a humbling experience and is well worth your time. You can see it in the Northern Hemisphere throughout November, where it hangs just below the constellation of Cassiopeia. It might take a cloudless and dark night to find it though – especially if you live in or near a city – so we wish you luck!

Star Clusters

Stars can form inside nebulae (gas and dust). As they evolve they attract all the gas and dust particles, leaving a group of young ‘open stars’ that sparkle in a cluster. There are over 1,000 clusters of open stars in our galaxy, plus clusters of extremely old stars called globular clusters. These are rarer, with only around 150 in the Milky Way. Unfortunately, none are visible to the naked eye.

The most popular star clusters are constellations named by the Ancient Greeks, such as Taurus and the Pleaides – and these can be seen throughout the year. You can see the Pleaides yourself, from the Northern Hemisphere in November, under a dark sky, where it shines just to the right of the three stars that make up the famous ‘belt’ of the Orion constellation.