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There aren’t many things more magical than gazing at a velvet-black sky spangled with stars. The only thing that could make the experience even more spellbinding is understanding exactly what those sparkly dots are.
“If we go back thousands of years, the stars and the night sky were a huge part of life for our ancestors,” says Hannah Banyard, an astronomer at Royal Observatory Greenwich. “Many ancient calendars were based on the moon and it was really important for people to look at the phase of the moon to decide when to plant and harvest food.”
“As the modern world’s progressed, we’ve lost touch with it, but there’s something really inspiring about the night sky,” says Hannah. “Just looking at it gives you a sense of feeling insignificant and part of something larger all at the same time.”
With more time to slow down and stare at the world around us during the pandemic, enthusiasm for stargazing rocketed. “We’ve definitely seen interest kick up,” says Hannah. “Lockdown was a good time for people to just stop for a moment and look up at the sky properly for the first time.”
Seeing stars was also a way for people to connect with each other during a time when we’ve never been so far apart. “When you had family all over the country, or the world, that you couldn’t see, you could still go outside and look at the same things in the sky. It’s a lovely way to bring people together,” says Hannah.
If you don’t know your asterism from your asteroid, read Hannah’s expert guide to stargazing for beginners. Find out how you can explore the night sky wherever you live, what equipment you’ll need and where you should point your telescope. Happy star spotting.
Hannah’s stargazing tips for beginners
Pick a dark spot
You can start stargazing in your garden, if you’re lucky enough to have one. If not, head to a park or another place that’s as dark as possible.
Choose the right night…
If you want to look at the stars, rather than the moon, pick a night when the moon isn’t really out. “Moonlight blocks out the fainter stars,” says Hannah. “So, you’re better off going out when you don’t have a bright moon.” It’s also best to avoid cloudy nights, because the cloud cover will obstruct your view of the stars. You can track the movement’s of the moon on the Royal Observatory’s monthly blog.
…and the right time
When you’re stargazing it’s important to head out at the right time. “As we enter into summer the days are getting longer so we’re getting to a time when we won’t get a proper astronomical night,” says Hannah. She recommends going stargazing later in the summer months when the brighter stars begin to appear. “It does get cold though, so wrap up if you’re going to be out for a while.”
It’s best to lie down when you’re stargazing. This means you can see more of the night sky and helps to block out light pollution from things like street lamps or your neighbours’ windows.
Adjust to the dark
To see stars properly, let your eyes adjust to the dark before you start stargazing. Around 20 minutes is enough to get your eyes used to the darkness.
Leave your phone at home
Try not to look at your phone while you’re stargazing because it will disrupt your night vision. “Astronomers always use red lights,” says Hannah, “because it doesn’t disrupt your night vision as much.” You can switch your phone to red light mode.
How to stargaze in the city
Just because you live in a light-polluted city, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a spot of stargazing. “Cities are filled with high buildings, which means people just don’t look up,” says Hannah. “If they do, they’ll notice lots of things in the night sky from the moon to some of our brighter constellations. The longer you keep looking up the more you’ll start to see.”
“The Royal Observatory in Greenwich is opposite Canary Wharf, which gives us so much light pollution, but we can still observe things in the night sky.”
If you are stargazing in the city Hannah advises avoiding as many light sources as you possibly can. “Turn your back and face away from any light,” she says. “Going up somewhere higher overlooking the city is also helpful. It means the city lights aren’t as bright and you’re closer to the horizon so you can see more of the sky.”
What equipment you’ll need
You don’t actually need that much equipment at all to stargaze. You can observe the moon and lots of brighter constellations just with the naked eye or a pair of binoculars.
If you are more serious about getting into stargazing you might want to invest in a telescope. “People can get quite intimidated when it comes to telescopes, but you don’t really need to spend more than £100 on a telescope that will let you see things like the rings of Saturn,” Hannah suggests buying a four-inch telescope if you’re a beginner.
If you don’t want to invest in equipment, try joining one of the many amateur astronomy groups around the country, like The Baker Street Irregular Astronomers in London. “You’ll find that one or two people in the group will have brought all the big equipment with them and they’re happy to share it and talk you through how to use it,” says Hannah. “These amateur groups are really, really passionate and more than happy to let other people come along.”
What to look for in the night sky
“The full moon is beautiful to look at just with your naked eye,” says Hannah.
If you want to look at the moon in more detail it’s best to wait until it’s in a different phase. “The full moon can look quite flat up close because there’s so much light on it,” says Hannah. “But if you wait for a crescent moon or a quarter moon, you can look at the craters and the mountains on the moon with a pair of binoculars. They’re quite easy to make out.”
Polaris (The North Star)
The North Star, or Polaris as it’s known in the astronomy world, is the easiest star to spot in the night sky. It’s circumpolar, which means you can see it all year round in the Northern Hemisphere.
To spot it, Hannah suggests looking for The Plough, or The Saucepan as it’s sometimes called. The Plough is an asterism. This means it’s not an official constellation, but part of the constellation called Ursa Major or the Great Bear.
“It’s quite easy to spot because it’s in a saucepan shape,” says Hannah. “If you get to the end of the saucepan, the two stars that make up the pan end are Dubhe and Merak. If you draw a straight line between those with your eyes and continue in a straight line to the next star you’ll see Polaris. It’s really, really easy to spot because it’s so bright.”
Once you find Polaris that will face you North because it’s pretty much directly about the North Pole. This means that once you’ve found Polaris, you’ll be able to locate other things in the night sky. “If there’s something specific you want to look at and you know that North is in front of you, it means to your right will be East, South behind you and West to your left.”
Ursa Major and Ursa Minor
Polaris, the North Star, is in the tail of Ursa Minor, which is also known as the Little Bear.
“You can see a couple of stars in this constellation with your naked eye,” says Hannah. “Look for Draco the Dragon, which runs between Ursa Major and around Ursa Minor.”
The Summer Triangle
“The Summer Triangle is one of my favourite things to spot. You can’t miss it,” says Hannah. “It’s made up of three really bright stars. They’re called Deneb, Vega and Altair.”
“What’s really beautiful about the Summer Triangle is that if you’re somewhere dark enough you can see the stripe of the Milky Way running through it.”
“It also has a wonderful story behind it in Chinese folklore. The story is about two lovers - Vega and Altair - who are separated by a silver river running between them, which is the Milky Way. The story goes that once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, which is China’s Valentine’s Day, the third star, Deneb, becomes a bridge of magpies so the two lovers can meet for one day.”
“It just shows that when we look up at the sky, it’s not just what you can see, it’s also about the culture around the stars and the stories they tell us.”
Constellation of Virgo
If you decide to invest in a telescope you will be able to make out the constellation of Virgo, which is up in the South at the moment.
“Virgo has a really bright star you’ll be able to spot called, Spica,” says Hannah. “In Virgo you can also see the Sombrero galaxy. It’s a spiral galaxy that you’ll be able to see side on. It has a bulge in the middle, which is why it looks a bit like a sombrero.”
A telescope will also allow you to see the star’s different colours. “When we look at the stars we just assume they’re all white, but this isn’t the case at all.”
If you look closer at the Summer Triangle with a telescope you can look for a star called Albireo. “It’s about halfway between Vega and Altair,” says Hannah. “If you look with your naked eye Albireo will just look like one star, but with a good pair of binoculars or a small telescope, you can make out two stars. One of them is blue and the other is orange. It’s part of a double-star system.”
A star’s colour is due to its temperature. “It’s the opposite of your kitchen taps,” says Hannah. “So blue stars are hottest and red stars are the coldest. It goes red, orange, yellow, white, blue from hottest to coldest. For comparison, the Sun is a yellow-white star. Our Sun is actually not a very exciting star, it’s just the closest one to us.”
Another colourful star Hannah suggests looking for is Arcturus. “Above Virgo is a constellation called Boötes or the herdsman,” says Hannah. “It really stands out because it’s got a really bright giant red star called Arcturus. You can see that easily with your naked eye.”
Jupiter and Saturn
“If you’re prepared to head out at 3am, you will be able to see Jupiter and Saturn in the southeast,” says Hannah. “They are quite low down on the horizon. You can see those just with your eyes. They’ll be pretty much the brightest things in the sky.”
Hannah Banyard, astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich
Hannah studied astrophysics at university and is now an astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, which has played a major role in the history of astronomy and navigation.