When I was eleven, I wanted to be an astronomer when I grew up. Okay, what I actually wanted to be was the character Ellie Arroway from the film/book Contact, but I hadn’t realised that nuance yet. After picking up a guide to backyard astronomy at the library, I spent a few weeks doggedly going out onto my family’s driveway in the evenings with a lawn chair, my dad’s binoculars, and a planisphere, trying to track down the Andromeda Galaxy. The problem with this plan was that I lived in Los Angeles County, where the combo of light pollution and air pollution gave the night sky a weird orange haze. The best I could usually see was the moon, a planet or two, and Orion’s belt. This was not the vast celestial view my astronomy book promised me.
As more and more of us humans flock to cities, stargazing is a hobby we tend to think of as reserved for country folks and campers. And it’s true — the farther away you go from urban areas, the more unspoiled your view will be. But stargazing doesn’t have to be a special occasion activity, and you don’t need a telescope to do it (you shouldn’t start with one at all!). If you’re a city kid curious about our galactic surroundings, here are some super easy ways to take your first baby steps into the cosmos.
1. Go outside at night and look straight up
I swear I’m not being a smart-ass here. This is not something we tend to do when out at night in a city. You’re looking at other people, you’re looking at cars, you’re looking for things you could trip over. If you’re out and about, take a moment to stand still, look up, and take inventory. Is the moon out? Can you see any stars? Any planets? (The difference: stars twinkle, planets almost never do.) Even just a few seconds of reminding yourself that the universe is much bigger than the street you’re on is a nice way to clear your head. If you want to take a step beyond that, make a point of going outside for a few minutes (or more) every night — weather permitting — and seeing what there is to see. You don’t have to go far. Your patio, balcony, or front step will do fine. Try to go out at roughly the same time every night. Find recurring patterns. Note the things that change as the seasons go on, even if the only changes you can see are one or two little specks. After a while, the sky will start to become a landmark as familiar as your terrestrial neighbourhood.
2. Download a star map app
I mentioned planispheres in the introduction, and they’re a solid tool for figuring out how the sky’s going to look that evening. But you don’t need to go out and buy anything special. If you’ve got a smartphone, you’ve got all you need. Star map apps use your phone’s GPS and compass to give you a real-time guide to what’s in the sky. Just point your phone up and presto — you’ll have planet names and constellation lines. This is a particularly useful resource for city dwellers, as it’ll show you the things you can’t see as well. There’s a cool feeling that comes along with looking at a seemingly empty section of sky and knowing that a galaxy or nebula is out there. I use Sky Map for Android, which is free and works great. As you’d imagine, there are plenty of comparable options for iOS users.
Bonus points: After you’ve installed your star map, take a minute to sign up for mobile alerts at NASA’s Spot the Station website. The International Space Station is easily visible with the naked eye, and it’s a treat to watch it zip overhead. Spot the Station will send you a text or email if the ISS is going to be visible in your corner of the globe, including what time to go outside and where to look.
3. Seek out a star party
If all you ever do is steps one and two, groovy. But if you’re hungry for more, it’s time to go find the cool kids. It’s likely that there’s an amateur astronomy group in your general neck of the woods. These folks are everywhere, and they’re delighted to help out newbies. What you’re specifically looking for are public star parties — casual, friendly gatherings where stargazing buffs set up telescopes and let others look through them. You can often find these hosted at schools, museums, local parks, or the like. And again, star parties totally exist in cities. The first time I saw the Galilean moons through a scope, it was in the parking lot of the community college, under that orange LA haze. Amateur astronomers will be over the moon (oh ho!) to answer any questions you have about what you’re looking at, where good local stargazing spots are, or — if you’re ready to take the plunge — what kind of telescope or binoculars to start out with.
And that’s it! Here’s wishing you clear skies and warm nights.