Star gazing

Train your sight skyward on a pitch dark night to get intimate with some real heavenly bodies

Man and woman gazing at the stars

I am a wanderer, a vagabond. One who loves to walk in deep forests, surrounded by tall trees and cool shadows. A stroll around the edges of a lake, immersing myself in the pristine beauty around, the crumpling sound of the fallen leaves and the crunch of the forest floor mesmerise me. On one such stroll, I met a friend who introduced me to the pleasures of bird-watching. A binocular in hand and I was in the colourful world of birds.

Then on a silent night, I trained my binoculars skyward to see the stars and lo and behold! my breath was taken away. I was seeing things that were out of this world—they were unlike anything I had seen till now.

The next day my curiosity led me to the library, I had to find out more on astronomy. The first book that I came across was by one David Levy. It was a thick book, completely illustrated with colourful sky-maps and photos of celestial wonders. I went through its pages, making notes of things to observe in the night-sky.

I also bought a sky-map for my latitude. It was made of cardboard and it allowed me to adjust timings of my observations. With a red-gelatine paper over my flashlight, I waited for the sun to go down. Holding the sky-map overhead and aligning the directions, the sky above now seemed a familiar terrain. I could identify the planets, constellations, stars and several other sky wonders. Countless nights were spent star-gazing and identifying the celestial objects and making notes. By then, I had already graduated to a spotting scope, which greatly magnified and widened my vision and gave a nice black contrast. Now, allow me to take you on a star-trek

What you will need for star gazing

  • Curiosity: To persist when you cannot see much because of unfavourable climatic conditions.
  • Enthusiasm: To provide you the warmth while you are out in the open, watching stars on cold, windy nights.
  • A dark sky: No telescope, however big can help unless this requirement is fulfilled. Since the telescope magnifies, it will magnify a flaw too. So if the sky is light-polluted, a good observation cannot happen. Be prepared to do some serious hunting to find a suitable spot. Even a small bulb shining in the distance can destroy your viewing pleasure.
  • Horizon-to-horizon view: An ideal spot is one that provides you with a view of the horizon on all sides, unobstructed. Hence, mountains are ideal—a flat patch on top of a mountain is suitable. A beach for example can be a compromise, because light coming from the stars will have to pass through a thicker layer of atmosphere. Such atmosphere acts as a thick glass, hampering the view by causing refraction of the light. From a mountain, the atmosphere will be comparatively thinner and viewing is better.
    Now, for city dwellers, finding such a spot is difficult but not impossible.
  • Astronomy book: It could be either a small pocket guide to stars or a big coffee-table astronomy book, both can be wonderful, provided they are used in the night while you’re out stargazing.
  • Flashlight covered with red gelatine paper: You need night-vision to be able to watch the stars, which are hundred times dimmer than our surrounding lights and million times farther away from us. Red light helps our eyes to adapt to low light and develop night vision. But it’s not to be used unnecessarily. Use it only to read the book or the sky-map. Resist the urge to shine the flashlight on the faces of those around you to check what they are doing. This habit can ruin a successful stargazing night. Remember, it takes a minimum if 30 – 45 minutes of staying in complete darkness for night vision to develop and only a second of shining the flashlight on your face to destroy it.
  • Proper clothing: Ideally, the entire body should be covered. A full sleeves shirt and a full length trouser are best. They help to protect from wind, cold and the insects. Cotton ear-plugs are good to beat the wind, which gains entry through the ears. Ear-muffs, gloves, windcheater and light woollens provide good warmth. You will not repent carrying an umbrella or a raincoat too. Weather changes, on mountain tops, happen frequently without warning and you don’t want to spend the night shivering after getting drenched in unseasonal showers. Umbrella and plastic covers will also help you protect your equipment from rain. Wear socks, in case you’re using open footwear. Carry a sleeping mat and bedspread to lie down and observe comfortably and also to rest during breaks.
  • Sky-Map: Cardboard hand-held planetariums are available in science stores, made for your stargazing position and your observing latitude. You can also download one of the many apps developed just for this.
  • Group strength: Being alone with stars is a delight and you can be one with the universe in solitude. But having a group of observers provides safety especially if you’re a beginner [remember, the equipment is expensive]. Group observation also boosts good astro-habits, like keeping a record of your observations done. All is lost if you do not maintain notes. A simple drawing of craters on the Moon or the names of stars, planets, nebulas, galaxies observed will be beneficial in the long run, to tell you how much you have progressed in your observations.
  • Viewing aids: If you are reading this, then you already have the most essential ones—your eyes. Yes, astronomy starts in your back yard and unaided eyes can show you a lot. Armchair astronomy clubs are thriving and a lot of discussions, theoretical ones, can take place in your living rooms. These discussions can ignite passion for observations, which will take you and your audience out in the field. Once out under the stars, a binocular is the basic aid that will provide immense pleasure to the observer.

Things to remember

  • Always seek prior permission from the site-owners to avoid getting into trouble.
  • Refrain going solo as it’s unsafe. Join a star-gazing club in your neighbourhood instead.
  • Never look straight at the sun even with viewing aids. The blindness it causes is painless and permanent.
  • Avoid viewing the near-full moon with binoculars or telescope as it may hurt your eyes. This is because the viewing aid magnifies the brightness of the moon too.

Reach your observing site before the sun sets as adjusting the telescope in the dark is difficult.

Golden rule

The bigger the better. The bigger the light-grasp [also known as light bucket] of your instrument, the better will be the viewing experience. A telescope is the best starter instrument.

A minimum of 10×50 binocular is perfect to start with. In case of a telescope, a minimum aperture of 150mm should be a good investment. As your aperture and light bucket increases, so will the cost and weight of the instrument. So, portability of the telescope should be kept in mind while purchasing one. A good telescope is one which is used frequently and not just bought and kept unused.

What you can see

» With unaided eyes

  • Constellations—patterns formed by arrangement of stars, which may not be related to each other.
  • Stars—the brightest to the faintest—can be seen and identified depending upon the darkness of the location.
  • Zodiac signs.
  • Shooting stars, the meteorites that stretch a light-trail as they burn entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Meteor-showers are the best times to observe them in abundance.
  • Planets, namely Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
  • Satellites, both artificial and natural, which include moons of different planets as well as the International Space Station [ISS] and many communications, weather-forecasting, global-positioning satellites.
  • Milky Way, our very own galaxy, which can be seen as big as a rainbow stretching across the night sky dividing the darkness with its milky glow.

» With binoculars

All the sights seen with unaided eyes can also be viewed using a pair of binoculars. In addition, we can see:

  • Star clusters are a collection of stars in a group and sometimes form patterns, which resemble butterflies, beehives and imaginations in our minds!
  • Nebulas—the birthplace of stars. The Great Orion Nebula is one such nebula that is easy to spot.
  • Galaxies, including the nearest one to us—Andromeda Galaxy. These are visible if the site you have chosen is dark. You can even see its glowing disk that is as big as the full moon.

» With a telescope

Everything that you can identify in your sky-map can be observed with even the smallest of telescopes.

Just remember, a telescope will magnify a flaw too. So if you are observing from a light-polluted site, you will be magnifying the light-pollution too.

Good spots to star gaze

Hill stations: They are good for stargazing if they are undeveloped or away from city-lights.

Beaches: India is blessed with a long coastline and beaches are ideal [even romantic] locations for a couple to star gaze from.

Farmhouses: Situated away from cities, surrounded by orchards and fields in the valleys, they can provide dark skies necessary for observation as well as homely comforts and warmth from the natural elements.

Terraces: They are the best starting place as they are easily accessible. They make for a great viewing point especially when electricity fails. Else, try them after most of the neighbourhood has switched off its lights. Open playgrounds too provide a good view of the horizon.

A version of this was first published in the July 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

Ajay Pradhan
Dr Ajay Pradhan is a homoeopathic physician practising in Mumbai. He spends his leisure time trekking, watching birds, gazing at stars and appreciating other wonders of Nature. He also conducts group adventures.


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