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Dublin: 11 °C Sunday 20 April, 2014

Column: Stargazing for beginners – get the most out of these dark winter nights

Short days can hinder what we can do with our free time – but there is plenty to see and do at night, even in these days of less money to spend, astronomy is a surprisingly inexpensive (and often free!) hobby to enjoy, writes Conor Farrell.

Conor Farrell

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” – Oscar Wilde

THE WINTER MONTHS are well and truly with us now and the short days can hinder what we can do with our time. However, there is plenty to see and do at night: even in these days of less money to spend, astronomy is a surprisingly inexpensive (and often free!) hobby to try out and enjoy. It’s a great way to enjoy something extra on an evening stroll under a clear sky, to provide a talking point with a few friends, or even a way to entertain the kids for an hour or two! So wrap up warm, and I’ll show you how to get started straight away in a little stargazing!

Getting Started

It’s important in cold weather to dress properly. The best way is to wear layers with a hat and gloves. When you go outside first and look up, you’ll notice that you won’t see much at first, but your eyes will adapt to the dark over a few minutes you’ll gradually see more stars. If you’re in a town or city try to find a dark area such as a park with as few streetlights as possible. Avoid looking your phone or bright lights as this will spoil your “night vision”. Wrapping a torch in red cellophane is “safe” as red light doesn’t affect your vision.

The Night Sky

Now it’s time to look up! Winter is a fantastic time for stargazing as the season has bright and easily recognisable constellations, as well as clearer nights. The first one we’ll find is an asterism known as the Plough, or Big Dipper, which forms part of the constellation Ursa Major. The Plough is located in the northern sky and forms a large shape made up of seven bright stars in the shape of a cooking pot or plough. When you find this you know you are facing roughly north, and if you follow an imaginary line through the two outer stars of the “pot” you will arrive at Polaris, more commonly known as the North Star. This star is positioned directly north and is used in navigation.

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The next constellation we’ll check out is Orion. This is located towards the southern sky, so when you find the Plough simply turn and face the other direction. What you need to find now is a group of three bright stars in a line: this is Orion’s Belt. Above it you’ll find two stars making up Orion’s shoulders, and below it, his knees. To the right you might be able to spot an arc of stars making up his shield, and to the left a sword or club.

Like the Plough, we can use Orion’s Belt to find our way around the sky again. Imagine another line through the stars going off to the left. You will arrive at Sirius (the Dog Star) which is the brightest star in the sky. Sirius is in the constellation Canis Major (the Big Dog) who accompanies the hunter Orion on his travels.

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If you’re under a dark sky, you may notice a hazy band that has more stars and light coming from it stretching right across the sky. This is, in fact, the outer edge of our galaxy, the Milky Way, as we see it from within the galactic disc. The faint glow comes from billions of stars too faint to spot individually by eye. If you have binoculars, this part of the sky gives stunning views, as you will see more stars than you could imagine.

The Planets

We live inside a solar system, so aside from the constellations and stars, we can also spot some of the other planets that travel around the Sun with us. Depending on the time of year, various planets are visible in the night sky. For example, you may have recently noticed the planet Venus around sunset in the south-west, lingering brightly over the horizon. Later on during the night Jupiter is currently visible in the east, where it appears as a rather bright ‘star’.

Going Further

www.Heavens-Above.com and www.stellarium.org are excellent free resources to help you navigate the night sky and find out what’s visible. If you prefer the paper variety, any good bookshop will stock books on amateur astronomy that usually contain starmaps showing you the constellations.

Astronomy Ireland’s monthly magazine contains a sky diary, which gives a map of the sky and tells you how to best view some of the month’s astronomical highlights. The magazine is available in shops, and you can get more details at www.astronomy.ie.

If you want to see a bit deeper, binoculars are recommended for beginners as they’re easy to use and relatively inexpensive. They’ll show star clusters and nebulae (vast clouds of gas and dust) as well as giving amazing views of the Moon. The smallest size you should go for is 15x70 (this refers to magnification and lens size), but be aware that big binoculars can be difficult to hold and may need a tripod. Telescopes are the next step up and the beginner setups by reputable brands like Orion, Celestron, and Meade are a great way to go further without breaking the bank. Even smaller telescopes by these manufacturers will reveal the clouds on Jupiter, the rings around Saturn, and lots of deep-sky objects like galaxies and nebulae.

Over time you’ll learn more and more about the night sky as you observe it. Keep watching, and you’ll be able to find your way round like a natural. Clear skies!

Conor Farrell is an avid science enthusiast and studied physics with astronomy at Dublin City University. He now works with Astronomy Ireland to promote all things space-related to a wider audience. In his spare time he writes about science and current affairs, and can be followed on Twitter at @conorsthoughts.

Read more of Conor’s columns here.

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