Stargazing with a Telescope: 5 Tips for Beginners

Social media has widened the average person’s awareness of rare space phenomena, like Super Blood Moons or meteor showers, seen once a millennium. Based on social media posts, one would think that the moon was closer to the Earth than it’s ever been at least a dozen times this year alone. While any serious stargazer can set the record straight about what’s really going on up in our skies, the proliferation of fantastic photos from across the world can inspire people to become interested in a new hobby. If you’ve caught the stargazing bug from the orbs you see above you at night or from the pictures in the palm of your hand, this article can help you get started in your new nighttime adventures. 

1. Get Away from Everything

The first step to stargazing with a telescope is to get as far away from the maddening crowd as possible. No matter how advanced your equipment is, you’ll be able to detect little more than a full moon if you’re too close to city lights. The key to exploring constellations and nebula is escaping light pollution, which can be easier said than done. Light pollution is ambient light in the sky caused by nearby ground lights. Ideally, a trip to the desert, an unpopulated beach or a remote mountaintop is your best bet for seeing celestial bodies. If you can’t get that far away from civilization, at least try to find a field or parking lot that’s a little off the beaten path.   

2. Take Your Time

Once you reach your destination and set up your equipment, turn off the headlights and flashlights and unwind for a few minutes. It takes human eyes 15-20 minutes to adjust to the dark, so you will be constantly adjusting and readjusting, focusing and refocusing if you try and start too soon. This will also allow your equipment to reach the same temperature as the surrounding air, reducing the risk of having to look through condensation. If you live in a chilly or humid climate or know there will be a large change in temperature from where your equipment is stored to where you will be stargazing, you may want to consider an anti-fogging spray for your eyepieces and lenses.   

3. Examine Star Charts

If you’re serious about learning what’s above you, invest in a star chart. This can come in the form of a good old-fashioned paper book or one of many apps for your smartphone. Since our planet is constantly moving, both in rotation and orbit, make sure to get a book that is relevant to your region. For instance, a month-by-month star chart for the U.S. will show quite a different view than a chart designed for Australian astronomers. Smartphone apps are your best bet, as they use the phone’s internal GPS to give you an accurate reading of what’s visible on any given night. Simply open the app and hold your phone up to the point in the sky you want to explore and see what constellations there are. 

4. Start with The North Star

Most astronomers will tell you that learning how to find Polaris, or the North Star, is a good starting point. While not actually the brightest point in the sky (several of our solar system’s planets and a few other stars appear brighter than the North Star), it’s always due north and is a good reference point to learn how to hone in and find what you’re looking for through your telescope. From Polaris, you can easily find major constellations like Orion, Ursa Major (also known as the Big Dipper) and Cassiopeia.  

5. Join an Astronomy Club

If you have your star charts and telescope at the ready and you still don’t know where to begin, consider contacting a local astronomy club. The Astronomical League is the largest such organization, and they have thousands of branches of local amateur clubs spread out across the country. These clubs will help you find likeminded hobbyists with wide-ranging levels of expertise. You may find a good mentor to pair with or another newcomer with whom you could team up and learn how to stargaze together.  

Ease in slowly and don’t feel deflated if your first time behind a telescope’s eyepiece doesn’t reveal as much as you thought it would. Stargazing can be a truly awe-inspiring hobby–and the more you learn, the more fascinating it becomes. Social clubs can make all the star charts and research materials seem a lot less overwhelming. No matter how you approach it, stargazing can easily become a lifelong, enjoyable hobby.