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Kids sitting on a fence gazing at the stars
Don’t let the galaxy’s 100 billion stars intimidate you. Preston’s tips make stargazing simple.
Greg Rakozy/Unsplash

Stargazing 101, From A NASA Astronomer!

Here's what you need to do to see everything from the Big Dipper to Betelgeuse

Preston Dyches is an astronomer at NASA, and also serves as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's  Senior Public Engagement Specialist.

May 29, 2024 4:50 pm

Is that Jupiter? The International Space Station? Santa taking Rudolph out for an off-season training regimen? It can be hard to ascertain what you’re even looking at in the night sky, so Wondercade chatted with Preston Dyches, professional astronomer and public engagement specialist at NASA for over 15 years. He’s also the host of What’s Up, NASA’s long-running monthly skywatching guide. There’s a lot going on up there…so Preston’s the perfect person to explain the best way to appreciate the stars this summer, whether you’re a galaxy-gazing greenhorn, or Copernicus himself…

Stargazing is something anybody can do. If you look up at a clear night sky, you can access space. You can marvel at just how pretty it is, but you can get more serious and pull out the binoculars or telescope, and see what comes of it — a casual night of stargazing can turn into something memorable with your family and friends.

  1. Get yourself a stargazing app. Having a skywatching app is the number-one thing you can do. [Narrator Note:Click here for a list of a ton of apps you can download.] Keep the brightness down as low as you can, and limit how often you look at your phone or tablet, but you can use these apps to look up at the sky and figure out what you’re looking at, or whether that bright star is actually a star, or whether it’s Mars. And the widget on the NASA website can tell you when the International Space Station is going to be overhead!
  2. If possible, get outta town — literally. The light pollution in Los Angeles is something I’m constantly dealing with. Your best bet? Head out of town. If you’re in a big city, head to the suburbs, at least. But the more remote, the better — it means darker skies, which means you’ll see more stars. (There are light pollution maps online that can show you the best places for stargazing.) If you get out far enough, you might even see the Milky Way! It sort of looks like dark, strangely shaped clouds, which get brighter towards the south (assuming you’re in the northern hemisphere). The bright core of the Milky Way is really only visible in the summertime, and then late spring and early fall. So, this is the time to see it.
  3. Don’t look at your phone or bright lights. It takes almost two hours from the time the sun sets in the summertime for it to get fully dark. Your best shot at seeing hard-to-see stars or the Milky Way is to adapt your eyes to the dark once night sets in, which means giving them 10 or 15 minutes without looking at a bright phone screen, or being around bright lights.
  4. Look for the easier-to-spot constellations. There are 88 “official” constellations, and they’re sort of divided into “neighborhoods,” like the map of a city. Some of the easiest to find in the summertime include Scorpius (there’s a very bright red star called Antares at its heart), and an asterism — or a group of stars — called “the teapot,” which is part of Sagittarius. And finally, there’s Cassiopeia, a really easy-to-find constellation. It supposedly represents the throne of an ancient mythological queen, but it looks like a “W” to most of us! It’s toward the north and you’ll see it rising higher toward the east over the course of a summer evening.
  5. Keep track of the stars’ movement. Our view of space is always changing — we’re on a cosmic merry-go-round. Stars rise in the east and set in the west, and then they move at a pace toward the west of about 15 degrees per hour. So, to keep track of this and follow which stars are where over the course of the evening, simply make the rock and roll symbol with your hand — the distance between your index finger and pinky is about 15 degrees. Hold out your hand at arm’s length, and using your app, you can keep track of where constellations are in the night sky, or how far away certain stars or constellations are from each other.
  6. Pay attention to the moon cycles. The brighter the moon is, the fewer stars you’ll see. This summer, we have full moons in June and July on the 21st — the same day both months. So, for the best stargazing, that’s going to either be just before mid-month, or at the very end of the month. If you live in a city with lots of light pollution, you can plan your stargazing around these new moons, when the visibility will be a little better.
  7. Consider stargazing in the morning, as well. During June, July and August, you can see Jupiter, Saturn and Mars with the naked eye in the early morning sky. Again, an app can help guide you to where you can see this string of three planets.
  8. Appreciate how cool it is. When you look into space, you’re looking back in time: stars live anywhere from millions to billions of years. Space is also three-dimensional — when you look at the sky, you’re seeing light traveling from different stars that are different ages and at different distances. So, when you see a star, you’re seeing it as though you’re viewing it 10, 100 or 1,000 years ago — and the sort of mind-blowing thing is, you’re seeing all those moments at once! It’s pretty awe-inspiring.

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