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A Beginner's Guide To Stargazing

The inky darkness of a forest night offers the perfect opportunity to gaze at the stars. Here we get to grips with how to become a successful stargazer.

We've got Professor Brian Cox to thank for it. Since his illuminating TV series "Wonders of the Universe", interest in stargazing in the UK has rocketed - so much so that sales of telescopes are up by 500%. Although local councils are now turning off street lighting to minimise light pollution in an attempt to promote darker skies, to really experience the night sky you need a truly dark location away from the city glow. Only then will you be able to see some of the delights of our universe in all its glory.

So, here you are; standing quite still in a forest clearing, on a clear, starlit night, eyes trained on the skies above. Stargazing is one of the great, unsurpassable pleasures of life, and one of the unforgettable highlights of a Forest Holiday, but how can you make the most of this wonderful opportunity? We caught up with enthusiastic astronomer Steve Bowden to get some tips: what to take, where to look, and how to identify those celestial bodies.

Did you know…?
Light pollution from towns and cities turns the night sky orange and obliterates all but the brightest of stars. Away from this "sky glow", you are reconnected to a stargazing culture that stretches back to the beginning of human civilisation.

Did you know…?
The Andromeda galaxy is hurtling straight towards us at 400,000 km/hr. Don't panic yet though, impact with the Milky Way looks to be about 4 billion years away!

What stargazing equipment will I need?

The first question for most of us is - what kit do I need? And Steve's answer is - not much! "Because of the darkness of our forest locations, you can see many of the wonders of the night skies with your naked eye, although your eyes will need a good 20 minutes to adjust to the darkness. Any bright lights, such as that from your torch, will set them back again. You can reduce this effect by putting a red filter on your torch."

"For the more committed, it's worth investing in a telescope and a camera, to capture the scene forever - a tripod for your camera is essential." Can I use binoculars instead of a telescope? "Yes, definitely," says Steve "they are cheaper, easier to carry, and great for seeing the moon, planets, and some deep sky objects". Binoculars can be purchased quite cheaply from about £20 upwards. Look for ones with glass lenses and if you can get anti-fogging ones then even better. What about those deep sky objects? "Basically, the stuff that's not our solar system or stars - it's nebulae, star clusters, and distant galaxies".

If you have a smartphone, The Night Sky app is fantastic; point your phone at the sky and it will identify exactly what you are seeing. Set it to night vision though – remember the 20 minute adjustment time if you get too much light. And for the less technologically endowed? A good old star chart has been doing the job perfectly well since long before smartphones came on the scene. You simply set the date and time to show what is in the night sky.

According to Steve the best time to head out is a cold clear winter night and it probably goes without saying that you should wrap up warm and bring plenty of hot drinks with you.

Did you know…?
Google Skymaps is a superb free app, available for Android and iPhone. You point your phone towards the sky and it shows you the constellations and identifies the stars using inbuilt GPS.

Ok Steve, we're wrapped up, binoculars in (gloved) hand, ready to go. What are we looking for out there? "Well, starting with our own solar system, you should be able to identify Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Then look out for star clusters such as the Seven Sisters, and galaxies such as Andromeda and our very own Milky Way. If you are very lucky you could see a shooting star or meteor." August and November are particularly good months for shooting stars.

On a good night, all the above will be visible to the naked eye, although binoculars or a telescope will improve the view.

One of the things that confuse us as beginners is the question of how the night sky changes from night to night, season to season and even from dusk 'til dawn. So we asked Steve for a few pointers.

"You first have to remember that we are all moving. The earth is rotating on its axis and it is orbiting the sun, along with (but at a different speed) the other planets in our solar system; meanwhile, the stars are fixed. During the night, as we rotate, we gradually change our angle of vision. Likewise over the course of a year, as we orbit the sun, we edge around roughly one degree per day. That's why a star chart is useful. It can show us what to look for and when."

"When you find your spot and have allowed your eyes to adjust, the first thing to locate is Polaris, the Pole Star, which is always due north. Once you have this in your sights you can gradually work out other constellations, which are groups of stars that have been named based on the shapes they suggest. Most of the main ones, such as Orion, are from the Greek myths, giving us a connection back to the folklore that has long been associated with the stars."

Anything else we should be looking out for? "Well the kids will be excited by the International Space Station, which can often be seen above the UK, as well as Iridium flares from the 66 Iridium communication satellites, then other satellites, comets, and nebulae."

What's the best thing about stargazing?

Nothing beats the feeling of wonder, the sense of your own connection with all of creation, the excitement of an unexpected sighting. The "big one", aside from all the heavenly objects we've already looked at, is the chance to witness the Aurora Borealis, more commonly known as the Northern Lights. "2013 was a year referred to as Solar Maximum when the activity on the sun's surface peaks during its 11-year cycle. This means a greater chance of eruptions, known as Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), which can eject billions of pounds of plasma from the sun's surface. If the earth is in the firing line, this electrically charged plasma interacts with the earth's magnetosphere and causes spectacular light shows around the poles." Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to be located in Scandinavia to witness these light shows; Scotland and even some parts of England have witnessed sensational sightings. The next Solar Maximum is predicted to take place in 2019-2020.

So, what are you waiting for? The skies are ready for you in all their glory. Picture yourself, binoculars in hand, viewing the night sky from a woodland clearing or the edge of the forest, the velvet blackness punctuated by points of light that you can now confidently identify. Good luck, stargazer.

A final thought

For the ultimate stargazing experience, and this is so deliciously appealing, throw off the layers, swap the hot tea for something a little stronger, sink into your hot tub out on the balcony of your cabin and raise your glass to those guys, 240 miles above, in the International Space Station. This, of course, is only our advice; Steve will still be out there doing it rather more professionally!

Top 5 Constellations

Getting Started - Your first 5 Constellations to spot

• Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) has been used by sailors since ancient times to locate the fixed-point Pole Star and navigate home.

• Leo (the lion); is it a lion, as the Greeks decided? Or is it K9 from Doctor Who?

• Cassiopeia (the queen of Aethiopia) is one of the easiest constellations to locate and looks like a huge W, almost directly overhead.

• Cepheus (the King of Aethiopia) is one of 48 constellations identified by 2nd-century astronomer Ptolemy. Imagine a child's drawing of a house, complete with roof.

• Orion (the hunter), with belt and sword, is perhaps the most famous constellation - and one of the few that actually bears some slight resemblance to its namesake.

5 Stargazing Facts for Kids

Did you know….?

• You can see the International Space Station without using binoculars, and you can track it moving across the sky.

• The sun is 300,000 times bigger than earth and 93 million miles away. If you could catch a plane to the sun, the journey would take 20 years.

• We're more connected than you might think. The gravity of the sun and moon bring about the tides in our seas.

• Footprints and tyre marks on the moon from the Apollo 11 mission will stay there forever - there is no wind to blow them away.

• How much do you weigh? If you weigh 50kg here on earth you would only weigh 19kg on Mars, because of lower gravity.

5 best myths/legends

Stories of the skies in Greek Mythology…

• Ursa Major was Callisto, Zeus' lover. She was turned into a bear by his jealous wife and cast into the skies by Zeus. Zeus had many lovers and…

• Cepheus, the king of Aethiopia, was descended from the nymph Io, a favourite of Zeus, making him worthy of a place among the stars. Cepheus was married to…

• Cassiopeia, who was punished by Athena for her vanity and condemned to circle the celestial pole forever. She also had to sacrifice her daughter…

• Andromeda, who was chained to a rock and left to the monster Cetus, before being rescued by …

• Perseus, the warrior who killed Medusa. He fell in love with Andromeda and they are beside each other in the night sky for eternity.


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