“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist”.- Stephen Hawking.
Being a stargazer is easier than you think.
All you need to do is look up.
You don’t need expensive equipment as there are plenty of amazing sights that can be seen with just the naked eye.
And you don’t need to go far; you’ll be amazed at just how much you can see from even an urban garden.
Here are our top tips for marvelling at the wonders of the universe from your own small patch of the cosmos…
All the stars you can see in the sky are in our ‘home’ galaxy, The Milky Way, which contains more than a whopping 100 billion stars. On a dark night you’ll be able to see around 2,500 of these stars with the naked eye. Look closely and you’ll be able to see that the stars are different colours. The red stars are the coolest, smallest and are near the end of their lives, the yellow-white stars (like our Sun) are hotter and bigger, but the hottest of all are the massive blue stars.
The stars you are seeing are unbelievable distances away from us, making it an awe-inspiring experience to ponder them. Deneb is the most distant bright star visible in the sky and is about 1,500 light years away from Earth - to put this in context, one light year is approximately 6 trillion miles. On a dark night it’s also possible to see our neighbouring galaxy, Andromeda, with the naked eye which is a staggering 2.6 million light years away. Wow.
Closer to home, but no less thrilling is the chance to see our nearest neighbours: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, which can all be seen in the night sky.The planets are distinguishable from stars since they don’t appear to twinkle and because they are always on the move. Why not use an app or website to help you find them from your doorstep? If you have binoculars, you might be able to see four of Jupiter’s largest moons appearing as points of light around the planet and or make out the golden colour of Saturn and one of its moons, Titan.If have a telescope you’ll even be able to see Saturn’s rings. Magical.
Amazing Human Endeavours
Even closer still – just 220 miles above Earth – the International Space Station is home to a crew of astronauts performing research in space. You can see the space station with the naked eye quite easily when it’s in view as it’s the third brightest object in the sky. It appears as a bright light moving quickly across the sky – it travels at almost 18,000 mph - and is best seen around dawn or dusk.NASA’s ‘Spot the Station’ website and app lets you sign up to receive alerts when the station is visible from your location.
Several times a year there are major meteor showers visible from Earth as we pass through the orbit of a comet and its debris. So set your alarm, wrap up warm, lie down in your garden and enjoy a beautiful shooting star show!
The next major spectacle is the Lyrid meteor shower taking place between the 16 and 25 April – with the peak time after midnight on the 22nd and 23rd when you may see up to 20 meteors per hour - weather permitting of course!
Our Cratered Moon
Most views of stars and planets are best in a dark sky, when the moon isn’t full and bright. But the moon itself is actually a great place to start to learn about the night sky. It’s useful to have a pair of binoculars for moon gazing as you’ll then be able to see in clear detail its dark lunar ‘seas’ – which are actually larva plains - and the highland regions with their thousands of craters.
A great time to look at the moon is when it’s a thin crescent and just after sunset.You’ll see that the dark part of the moon has a beautiful glow on it. This is Earthshine, which is light reflected from Earth onto the surface of the moon. This is sometimes called ‘the old moon in the new moon’s arms’.
Make the most of the last of the darker evenings before summer arrives, grab a warm drink and head outside to get to know some of your neighbours slightly further afield!