Sponsored content independent of Scientific American's board of Editors.
A Guide to Exploring Starry Nights
There's a science behind observing stars—literally, of course, but also when it comes down to best practices.
By Explore Scientific
When Scott Roberts, avid stargazer and founder and president of Explore Scientific, describes what it’s like to observe, through a telescope, our solar system hurtling through space among the vastness of cosmos and billions of other galaxies, he details a journey like no other. After several hours of observation, he says, the stargazer reaches an epiphany when his guard falls down and he’s overcome by humility. A “feeling of interconnectedness” takes hold, and at that point, he makes an abrupt transformation from observer to explorer. “Every object he or she sees for the first time is a discovery,” Roberts says.
Indeed, stellar exploration is radiating as a popular pastime for both amateur and advanced stargazers—thanks, in part, to an increasing awareness of celestial events, state-of-the-art astronomy technology and a skyrocketing public interest in all things outer space (fueled by everything from the Star Wars frenzy to entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson’s race to space). The movement has given rise to star parties, along with astrotourism, where travelers are voyaging to faraway lands to perch telescopes atop mountains and volcanic peaks under the darkest skies, and astrophotography, with stargazers capturing images of lunar objects and large spans of night sky. With the potential for space exploration running far and wide—nearly 5,000 total planet candidates have been found to date, with more than 3,200 now verified, according to NASA—stargazers are cruising along on this wild ride of discovery.
Now, with summer in full swing, the time is certainly ripe for enthralling observation, particularly since Saturn’s opposition is coming in early June (June 2 and 3), and the planet will remain visible all season long. On August 23 and 24, an awe-inspiring alignment will take hold between Mars and Saturn, two of the brightest planets visible to the naked eye, and Antares, the lead star of the Scorpius constellation. And at dusk on August 27, two of the brightest celestial objects after the sun and moon, Venus and Jupiter, will be in very close proximity—separated by just 10 arc-minutes, which is the equivalent of a third of the diameter of the moon’s disk in the sky. So whether you’re looking to see Saturn’s rings swirl or catch a glimpse of Venus and Jupiter’s close encounter, the skies are bound to open up for deep and intriguing observation.
But before delving into stargazing, consider this: Just as one might expect, there’s a science behind observing stars—literally, of course, but also when it comes down to best practices. For starters, it’s helpful to come equipped with all the right tools for a night of star observation: a red flashlight, low-power binoculars and a planisphere to show which constellations are up at any given time, Roberts says. A wave of astronomy apps is also available for stargazers to learn more about the backstory of stars and planets and the ideal times and locations for exploration.
Enlisting the right telescope that aligns with personal goals and objectives is also essential. This involves selecting a large enough aperture, or diameter of the main, light-gathering lens or mirror, but also ensuring the telescope is small enough to tote around. Often, stargazers, particularly in big cities, will have to travel to remote spots where the sky is darker with clearer transparency—and it’s important that the size of the telescope facilitates a willingness to move around as needed. Suburban stargazers looking to observe the faintest objects, like dim nebula and distant galaxies, might prefer a larger aperture, but they should keep in mind that the weight and size could limit portability.
With breakthroughs in modern design and computer optimization, stargazers are also turning to a telescope’s eyepiece or a range of eyepieces to identify faint objects in the sky. Selecting the ideal equipment comes down to determining the lowest and highest useful magnification and the ideal focal length, which is the distance between the lens and field of view (a longer focal point leads to a narrower field of view, and vice versa). Roberts also suggests that stargazers choose the lowest magnification of power that matches their fully dilated eye, which is personal information that is helpful to have on hand at the time of selecting a telescope. Straining to see faraway objects through a telescope could cause a stargazer to miss them completely, so it’s important to get a comfortable fit, Roberts warns.
Mount and tracking computerized systems can also go a long way toward locating and following celestial treasures, so stargazers should select one that offers the level of detail and guidance that they desire. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to selecting the ideal telescope, and it really comes down to the individual stargazer’s aspirations, Roberts explains.
To reap the benefits of the shared enthusiasm, exploratory sense of adventure and rich treasure troves of knowledge that astronomy mentors so willingly share, stargazers should consider immersing themselves in their local astronomy club or community. Roberts explains that the stargazing community thrives on exploration of the entire lifecycle of the universe as an ongoing process. “Stars are dying, new elements are creating new stars, and it is a constant cycle of destruction and creation,” Roberts reveals. “Once you get into it, it’s one of the most amazing adventures, and it just never stops,” he says.