My Beginners Guide To Stargazing

Night sky viewing is a fascinating pastime that opens doors to new perspectives. Knowing certain tips can help you to appreciate it a whole lot sooner. This article includes info for a beginner astronomer and about using telescopes and binoculars when starting out.

What’s So Good About Stargazing?

Everyday problems will seem insignificant when you realize the astronomical expanse overhead. Gaining knowledge of our connected cosmos like this provides perspectives beyond those of Earth’s. It fuels curiosity and ignites the imagination. As the astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, once said: “It’s this ‘cosmic perspective’ that makes everything else look different”.

Where to Start

A set of binoculars for astronomy is a good start. You’ll find binoculars are useful for viewing the moon and acquainting yourself with the night sky, but they are also a useful companion when using a telescope.

Using Binoculars in Astronomy

Binoculars have many uses in astronomy. I covered at least 10 uses in my article listing reasons to use binoculars in stargazing.

A good set is the most cost-effective way for a beginner to get acquainted with the night sky, other than by way of the naked eye. The basic reasons a set of binoculars are valuable:

  • They are multi-purpose — can be used for daytime terrestrial pursuits as well as for nighttime sky viewing
  • They have a wide field of view, so can take in more of the sky, which is useful for finding objects
  • Their size makes them light and easy to carry or transport

What’s not so good about them:

  • Keeping them steady to avoid blurred views
  • Magnification only goes so far (about an LSM – limit of stellar magnification – of 9.5 with a 7× 50)

What are the best binoculars for stargazing? The most popular binoculars for amateur stargazers, chosen for cost and ease of handling, are the 7 × 50, i.e., a magnification of 7× and an objective lens of 50 mm (2”) diameter.

A wider lens is better if you want a wider field of view and you are not worried about a bigger and heavier item. A magnification of 10× or higher is also better but in both cases, you’ll need to keep the binoculars steady for a blur-free view.

You also need to consider the exit pupil measurement. This differs with observers’ age. For more on this and what else is important when choosing binoculars for astronomy, see this guide on buying binoculars.

Once you find constellations, stars, and planets using sky maps with your binoculars, a good telescope will help you expand that appreciation of the night sky.

beginners stargazing telescopes
Orion is a constellation beginner stargazers will easily recognize. A good telescope will give you a deeper view of the night sky, close-ups of the moon, and a better view of stars and planets.

With a telescope, you will see billions of celestial objects that you’d only faintly see with the naked eye or maybe not at all.

Using Telescopes in Astronomy

Find a dark location

Lucky for you if you live outside major populated areas…your front yard could simply be your site for night sky viewing.

But if you live in polluted skies then you might want to find a suitable location.

Do you have somewhere close that is reasonably dark? You can google for ‘the best stargazing spots {your location}.’ For example, search for the best places for stargazing in San Francisco.

Once you are confident, there are some awesome dark spots for stargazing enthusiasts that you might like to visit in your travels. You can check out our list of dark spots to stargaze here.

Tips on traveling to your stargazing location:

  • Organize to arrive well before dusk
  • If you need to travel, organize to be at your stargazing destination well before dark, to set yourself up.
  • Make it an exceptional experience.
  • Take a rug to lie on, some pillows, and a picnic basket with refreshments.
  • If you have a family, involve the kids.
  • Find out about the local information.
  • You could inquire with astronomy groups online (or in-person), and which you can join and find out about local information.

Taking Shots of the Moon and Planets

If you are wanting to do some astrophotography, be aware that not all types are suited to astrophotography. The Dobsonians, for example, are not recommended for this.

In some brands, you can attach your smartphone using special mounts as seen here to create a beginner astrophotography telescope. Alternatively, you might want to look for the best telescope for astrophotography at the high end of the range.

Either way, consider getting a good manual, such as the Astrophotography Manual. This will instruct you on what gear to buy and how to best use your astrophotography equipment to capture the most amazing images of the celestial bodies. You can get the Astrophotography Manual here.

Automatic Or Manual Positioning

How much time do you want to spend looking for objects versus looking at them? Some telescopes can be programmed for automatic positioning. These are called Go-Tos, which require a bit of fiddling to use at first, but you don’t need knowledge of the sky for these. You’ll find these in this article that looks at telescopes for viewing planets.

For telescopes requiring manual positioning, you will need to know the sky in terms of the positioning of the objects at specific times.  This is worth learning if you want to broaden your knowledge of astronomy and there are plenty of sky maps online and apps that can help with this.

Features Of a Telescope

Knowing where to start, where to buy a telescope, and which telescope to buy is confusing for the beginner or anyone interested in the best home telescope for night sky gazing. First, let’s look at some important features to understand, amateur telescope wise.

1. Types of Telescopes

The three basic designs of optical telescopes:

  • Reflector (mirrors)
  • Refractor (lenses)
  • Catadioptric (mirrors and lenses)

The reflector uses mirrors to gather light and reflect the image. Typically there is a mirror at the back that gathers and concentrates the light onto another smaller mirror which then sends the light to the eyepiece. A reflector type recommended for beginners is a Dobsonian because it is a simple design and usually has a larger aperture size for the amount of money you pay (better bang for the buck as they say) compared to any other type.

The refractor has a series of lenses to capture light and reflect the image. These have fixed collimation.

The catadioptric combines reflecting and refracting. A Maksutov-Cassegrain is a catadioptric type, as is the Schmidt-Cassegrain. These also have fixed collimation. The catadioptric are usually compact in size, which makes them good for portability.

There is also the Bird-Jones Newtonian which uses the mirror and lens design. That is, it has a spherical mirror and a Barlow (corrector) lens built into the tube.

2. Aperture Size

One main feature to consider in a telescope is the aperture size, which is the diameter of the main light-gathering lens or mirror of the telescope. The sharpness and brightness of the view will improve with the size of the aperture.

3. Focal ratio (f)

The focal ratio (f/) relates to the brightness of the image and the width of the field of view. It indicates the ‘speed’ of the telescope’s optics. A ‘slow’ telescope (high numbers) is suited to narrow field viewing, such as observing details of the moon. A ‘fast’ telescope (small numbers) is suited to wide field viewing, such as looking at galaxies and for star hopping. This type can capture images faster than slow telescopes. If f/ is not given, you can calculate it by dividing the focal length by the aperture size.

4. Telescope Mounts

For the best views, the mount needs to be sturdy to keep the optics stable and in this respect, a heavier one is better, though not suited for portability. Still, try to avoid flimsy plastic types.

There are two main telescope mounts: equatorial and altazimuth.

The EQ (equatorial mount or GEM) is a mount that allows the telescope to follow a particular object with the Earth’s rotation. It has one axis tilted to your latitude and the other parallel to the celestial equator (a projection of Earth’s equator onto the celestial sphere).

The Altazimuth (or alt-az) allows for manual tracking of objects with the Earth’s rotation on a two-axis basis (altitude and azimuth). What this means is that it allows altitude (up and down) and azimuth (left to right) movement to find the celestial object — it’s a bit like finding an address on a street map using an alphanumerical index.

5. Other Features and Options

Other features and options include a Barlow lens that increases the eyepiece magnification, a finderscope, the focal length, the highest and lowest useful magnification, and the limiting stellar magnitude.

A thing to remember about the limiting stellar magnitude (LSM – the faintest apparent magnitude of a celestial body): The lower the apparent magnitude, the greater the brightness. Our sun, for example, has an apparent magnitude of -26.7 while Neptune has a minimum apparent magnitude of 8.0. 

So, the greater the limiting stellar magnitude of the instrument, the fainter the objects that the telescope can detect. This aside, there are factors that limit what you can expect to see, and these include atmospheric conditions and the human eye.

You can refer to our Important Features to Consider When Buying a Telescope for more details on these and other telescope features.

Best Telescopes To Buy

What is a good telescope? What telescope should I buy?

What is your intended purpose, your ‘why’ and ‘how’, or reason for using a telescope?

  • Do you want to observe the finer details of the moon?
  • Are you wanting to view large faint objects like galaxies?
  • Do you want a telescope that is portable?

The telescope’s aperture size and focal ratio are important factors here and these will partly determine how much you pay for a good beginner’s telescope.

How Much Does a Good Telescope Cost?

You’ll find telescopes for sale from under 100 to a few 1000 dollars for the high end telescopes for amateur enthusiasts.

If you are just starting out, you’ll probably want the best cheap telescope to gain experience and confidence before making a larger outlay.

If you are just starting out, you’re probably wanting the best cheap telescope to gain experience and confidence before making a larger outlay.

Having the best telescope under 200 dollars or the best over 2000 won’t matter… if you don’t use it.

But, starting out with a limited budget or not wanting to outlay a lot at the start could mean you are looking for something under 200 dollars. Then, check out the guide to the best telescopes under $200.

Looking for a gift for a child? Then, check out the guide on the best telescopes for children.

Wanting a lightweight portable telescope to take with you on your travels or excursions? Have a look at our article on the best portable telescope.

Are you interested in the planets? For a decent look at the details of planets, the best telescope is at least a 6-inch (150 mm) mirror in a reflecting telescope or at least a 4-inch refractor type …and, one with a focal ratio of f/6 – f/10. More on those here.

About Star Hopping

Once Set Up…

You can start with Starhopping — this is simply locating and moving between known landmark objects in the night sky. For this, you can start with binoculars or a manually driven telescope. Locate objects, using maps (or memory) or a phone app, and start ‘hopping’ between them.

Look out for unique cosmic events.

Even with the best telescope in the world, the greatest escape comes from knowledge and experience.

Interesting Sky Facts

Imagine, our galaxy (the Milky Way) alone contains 200 – 400 billion stars and over 100 billion planets.

Then consider… the Milky Way is just one galaxy…there are 200 billion to 2 trillion or more galaxies estimated in the observable universe!! Note I wrote  ‘observable.’

We can quickly become engrossed in the grandeur of the cosmos.

And so, we no longer think of the ‘cave’ we call home, nor the regional, national, or even planetary scale issues.

A perspective can completely alter not only who you are but the civilization you’re a part of

~ Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist

Moreover, gazing at the night sky adds depth and balance to our world.

I’ve done this with wonder since childhood. The expanse of the universe is humbling.

Did you know, that Aussies and New Zealanders (Kiwis) see the constellations in reverse to that observed by star watchers of the Northern Hemisphere?

That’s why the ‘saucepan‘ is a landmark for them — the Archer (Orion) is on his head, and the belt and sword, together, looks like a saucepan (or pot).

Also, the Southern Cross is used for navigation by Aussies and Kiwis, just like the Northern Star (Polaris) for those in the northern hemisphere.

If you are in the Southern Hemisphere, look for these easy-to-find clusters and constellations:

  • the saucepan (the belt and sword of Orion),
  • the Seven Sisters (Pleiades), and
  • the Southern Cross (Crux).

Winter can be the best time in Australia for stargazing because of a higher frequency of clear dark nights.

Like traditional Australian Aboriginal groups, ancient peoples all over the world studied the skies. It is one of the oldest sciences and was used for guidance on seasonal hunting, gathering, cultivating and in living intuitively.

What have you found from stargazing?

We hope you’ve gleaned some value from this beginners’ guide to stargazing.

Further Info Sources