Where are you guys going right now? Anywhere? Nowhere? Maybe the grocery store every 10-14 days, like me? I’m on Week Five of social distancing and while on yet another walk today, I told my 9-year-old son that maybe we should pack the dog up in the car over the weekend and drive around. “But where would we drive to?” he asked. “Not to,” I responded. “Just ... around.”
So I’m feeling stir crazy, which is why when I came across this guide from the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMTO) about how to enjoy astronomy at home, it spoke to me. I can’t go to my in-laws’ house for dinner, but I can go into outer space! Fine, not really, but considering how small our world feels right now, extending only as far as one’s own property line, it would be nice to pause and appreciate all the vastness that is still out there.
The GMTO guide links you to stargazing tips from NASA, as well as astronomy podcast suggestions and the Smithsonian Learning Lab’s astronomy resources collection. But if you’re truly a novice, another good place to get started is EarthSky, which can get you up and running with some pretty high-quality stargazing with just a pair of binoculars:
The fact is that most people who think they want to buy a telescope would be better off using binoculars for a year or so instead. That’s because first-time telescope users often find themselves completely confused – and ultimately put off – by the dual tasks of learning the use a complicated piece of equipment (the ‘scope) while at the same time learning to navigate an unknown realm (the night sky).
EarthSky specifically recommends starting your binocular gazing with the moon—especially at twilight, when the glare is reduced and you can see more detail—and paying close attention to the moon’s phases. From there, you’ll move on to gazing at planets, then at star clusters inside the Milky Way, and finally at sites beyond the Milky Way.
If you’re really committed, you can buy a planisphere, which is a star chart that shows you which stars are visible in the night sky at any given time. To keep it easier and cheaper, you could download Sky & Telescope’s free “Getting Started in Astronomy” pamphlet, which includes star charts—or choose one of the many stargazing apps out there to assist you.
Or you could be very untechnical about all of and simply take a blanket out to your backyard on a clear night, lie down and enjoy the peaceful view.