Amateur Observing: How to Start Looking at the Night Sky

I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit of a space nerd. Always have been and, hopefully, always will be. There’s nothing quite like looking up at the night sky and imagining all the things whirling around out there, and being able to see just some of it in its natural form. But, if you’re new to it, you might not know how to get those great views you're looking for with any consistency. Consider this your quick guide to amateur observing. All the basics, none of the advanced stuff.


Oh, and all the photos you see here were taken by me! Check out my bio Here to find my website and social media links if you want to see more.


Let's jump right into it!



What is there to see?


The Moon as seen through a telescope
The Moon through a telescope (Captured by James Lang)

The Moon is always a great candidate. Each phase is beautiful in its own way (especially with a telescope), and there are total lunar eclipses about every two and half years at any given location on Earth.


The planets! There are five visible to the naked eye: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. With a basic telescope, potentially Neptune and Uranus. Jupiter and Saturn in particular are breathtaking with a telescope as well. Even without a telescope, it’s fun to point any of them out to friends and family. I use the SkyView Lite app (Apple, Android) to find them and it works great.


Meteor showers and shooting stars! There are always small meteors burning up in the atmosphere, so if you look long enough you’ll likely see one. On any random night, there’s probably a couple an hour, but during a good meteor shower there are potentially dozens or even hundreds an hour.


Constellations and the Milky Way! This one is most dependent on light pollution, which we’ll talk about next, but the stars on their own can be something quite special. Everyone should see the Milky Way with their own two eyes at some point in their lives. It’s well worth it and not too difficult.



Location, Location, Location!


The Milky Way as seen from Joshua Tree National Park
The Milky Way in Joshua Tree National Park (Captured by James Lang)

As you might expect, where you’re observing matters significantly. City light will drown out a bunch of otherwise visible celestial objects. But fret not city dwellers, there’s a lot yet to see from your rooftop or backyard!


Within cities, the moon and five visible planets are still observable. Meteor showers are still observable as well, but you’ll of course see more in less light polluted areas. Something like the Milky Way will require some urban distancing however.


In the picture of the Milky Way I took while at Joshua Tree National Park there's a yellow haze at the bottom of the picture; that's light pollution from the nearby town.


If you don’t know where to go, there are all sorts of light pollution websites and apps out there to help you out, like This. When using this particular light map, click on a spot and look for the Bortle scale rating on the popup. The lower the number, the darker the skies. Eight or nine is city light, one is as dark as it can get. To see the Milky Way, look for anything under a rating of four.


But location isn’t everything…



Do Your Research!


The weather and the Moon are your two biggest concerns besides location. Obviously if it’s cloudy, there’s nothing to see, but the lunar phase makes a big difference as well. A full moon adds a significant amount of light to the sky and will drown out the stars. Even if you’re in a class one Bortle location, a full moon will hinder your results so it’s important that you're aware of the moon’s phase.


The simple way is to watch the moon everyday. If it’s shaped like a D, then it’s in its waxing phase and it will be a full Moon soon. If it’s shaped like a C, then it’s in its waning phase and it will be a new Moon soon. An easy way to remember that is that ‘C’ is the third letter in the alphabet and the Moon is waning in its third quarter.


The Milky Way in Death Valley National Park
The Milky Way in Death Valley NP (Captured by James Lang)

But maybe you’re not really up for mental tricks and daily observations, well that’s what apps are for! There are a number of great apps out there that will tell you the lunar calendar, but I always use Photo Pills. Not only does it provide highly detailed information on lunar phases and its correlation with the sun, but it has tools for Milky Way placement and AR features and a whole bunch of other tools (including meteor shower calendars) that are helpful for photographers like myself. It’s amazing, but it also costs money so that’s up to you. There are free calendars available online like This One, if you’re just looking to get started. The same is true for meteor showers: Like This One, or This One!


I mentioned Milky Way placement… that’s something to be aware of. The Milky Way is not always out to see, even if it’s a new Moon and you’re out in the middle of nowhere. You might have to wait until three or four in the morning to get a great view, or you might luck out and see it at eleven. For more info on that, check out This Website.


Also, if you’re planning on traveling somewhere to get a good view, make sure you can be there after dark, that it’s safe to drive, and check the general rules and regulations. We don’t want anyone getting in trouble, and being caught on someone’s private property falls under that category and is far easier than you might expect.



Conclusion


Astronomical observing is something I recommend everyone to do! It’s great fun and often relatively cheap, but it helps to be prepared. Know what you're looking for and plan accordingly. Hopefully, I’ve provided some useful resources here for anyone to get started. There are lots of online resources for further knowledge development but also don’t let it overwhelm you. Just start with what you have, which might be as simple as stepping out back and trying to see Jupiter (which is how I started). That on its own is pretty fun.


Happy Observing!