How to Get Your Family Started With Back Garden Astronomy
Hello and welcome to DIY Gardening’s astronomy starter guide.
My name is Hannah Miller and I’m a co-owner of this site, my aim is to get as many families off their sofas and outside, enjoying their gardens as I possibly can.
Just because northern hemisphere countries are now approaching winter it doesn’t mean we have to hibernate indoors. There’s an entire universe out there to explore and with Covid-19 restrictions, could there possibly be a better time to get started with back garden astronomy?
Garden astronomy is a great way to get the family introduced to the sciences and it doesn’t need to cost the earth either, you can start with just your eyes or some basic, cheap equipment.
Below you’ll find lots of hints and tips on how and when to find interesting sky objects to observe. I’ve listed some really exciting resources to help you get started, from apps and websites to online tools and YouTube videos I like + lots more.
Here are some interesting facts to start off with:
- Did you know the Moon’s craters are visible with binoculars?
- The astronauts’ footprints on the moon will likely be there for millions of years.
- If you glance up at the night sky without a telescope, you’ll be able to spot another galaxy which is 2.5 million light-years away from the Earth – if you know where to look of course!
- Did you know that history is full of hobbyist astronomers making ground-breaking discoveries?
– William Herschel, a musician, discovered the planet Uranus as far back as 1781.
– Thomas Bopp, a construction manager, first spotted the Hale-Bopp Comet more recently in 1995.
You don’t need a telescope the size of a house, or a credit card without a spending limit to enjoy the night sky. In fact, I think you should start off with nothing more than your eyes and a back garden, window or even balcony.
What is Astronomy, Exactly?
Astronomy is the study of the biggest there is – the universe.
As well as comets, celestial objects can include moons, planets, stars and even faraway galaxies and tiny particles. Many amateur astronomers also take an interest in other events and objects near to earth, tracking and observing skyborne features such as the international space station, satellites orbiting our planet, and the launch of rockets used for space exploration.
Astronomy is not a new science. Astronomers from early civilizations constantly observed the night sky, learning things which prompted the development of calendars and techniques of navigation.
Like you, they were attracted to the starry skies, and through regular and careful observation they discovered it was possible to learn a lot about what happens in the heavens above us. And as their knowledge of the universe grew, so too did their understanding of planet Earth as a part of that universe.
Given the right practical stargazing opportunities, our children are just as curious to learn about the world above their heads as the rest of us.
So if you can make it fun, you’ll open their eyes and minds to a lifetime interest.
Reasons to Take Up Back Garden Astronomy
The great study of the skies begun by ancient civilizations is still far from over. Even though there are countless numbers of professional scientists studying astronomy, this is one of the few scientific disciplines in which amateurs continue to make important contributions.
Observing the night sky is the perfect hobby for anyone who enjoys being outdoors, has an interest in the universe around us, and is keen to learn more. You’ll soon notice that celestial objects constantly move across the sky, and as an astronomer, you will start to learn how and when to get the best views of constellations, stars and other particular objects you wish to study.
Many astronomers use photography as a way of capturing such events in the night sky. And just using a camera and a telescope will allow you to take some brilliant, detailed photos of that same universe.
As with all hobbies, many other enthusiasts share the same interests. Some will be in your local community, while others can be easily found using online social media sites such as Facebook. Those who share your passion for stargazing will not only be interested to hear about your discoveries, they will also be happy to answer any questions you may have and share hints about how to get the best results.
Get Started: 6 Things You Can See With The Naked Eye
No matter whether you live; under remote, crystal-clear dark skies or in a densely populated area, there is always much to see up above – even without visual aids such as binoculars or a telescope. To whet your appetite, here are six things you can see from your back garden just with the naked eye:
1. The Space Station
The space station is easy to locate if you know when it’s due to appear over your area.
Head over to the ISS Tracker website to see exactly where the space station is now and where it will be in the future. Then set a date in your diary!
Alternatively, sign up to Nasa’s email service and get notified when the station is above your area.
Screenshot from a live map showing the location of the space station and where it will be in 1.5 hours time.
2. The Moon
Earth’s natural satellite is the brightest object in the sky after the Sun. It’s so big that it’s hard to miss, and in April and May 2020 we were also treated to the sight of a supermoon around 10% larger than normal.
Our moon is actually ¼ the size of the Earth, which makes it (proportionally) the largest natural satellite orbiting any known planet in the universe. For us, as for the early astronomers, lunar eclipses are spectacular events we occasionally get to see from Earth.
With your naked eyes, you’ll be able to see some dark- and light-grey patches. The dark grey areas are old, dried-up lava beds. They are called “seas” simply because ancient astronomers thought they were real oceans. The light-grey patches are different mountainous highlands of the moon.
Looking carefully at the lower portion of the moon – around seven o’ clock if the moon were a wrist watch – you should spot a white circle surrounded by more outward rays of white. Well done! You’ve found Tycho, a moon crater which is almost the size of East Anglia. And with a telescope or any kind of binoculars, you’ll also be able to look at the edge of the moon’s circle. Except it’s not the smooth circle it appears: The moon has a broken, jagged edge because it has so many lunar mountain regions.
Each day sees the moon moving on through its phases. A ‘phase’ is the portion of the moon’s surface which can be seen from Earth. This is occasionally a full moon, but we also see half-moons, crescent moons etc. Avid moon watchers who know about the lunar cycle can tell you whether the moon is ‘waxing or waning’ (growing larger or smaller) just by noting its shape on any particular night.
These two sites contain details about the moon’s phases, start with these:
3. Five Planets
Beginners will be encouraged to note that you can start spotting planets straight away. For instance, the planet Venus, also known as the ‘Morning Star’ and the ‘Evening Star’, can be seen as a bright dot in the western sky at night. Although Venus is shrouded by thick clouds, they reflect the sun’s rays very strongly, which is what makes this planet seem to sparkle like a bright jewel in the sky.
In April and May, you’ll find three planets lining up in the eastern sky just before dawn. The three glowing colourful dots on the horizon are Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. Anyone looking through binoculars will also be able to see that Mars is a beautiful salmon-pink colour, and Jupiter is not a circular planet but is actually an oval shape due to its spectacular rings. Sometimes it’s even possible to spot some of Jupiter’s many moons – scientists currently believe it has a total of 79, but there are 25 moons they haven’t yet got around to naming!
The planet Mercury (first spotted by Galileo’s telescope in the 17th century) is closest to the Sun and harder to spot than those planets mentioned above. The best time to hunt for this planet of extreme temperatures and weird sunsets is in the late evening.
You’ll love The Sky Live website which tells you what you can see from your part in the world and when. It also reveals whether you can see the planets with the naked eye or if you need a telescope. Asteroids and comets are also listed.
Screenshot from The Sky Live website
4. Star Constellations
Constellations are internationally recognised patterns of stars, but their names are often handed down from the ancient astronomers. Typically, these are the names of objects, animals or mythological people, but the official list now has a total of 88 constellations. It’s important to realise that constellations are really imagined shapes and figures connected only by imaginary lines in the sky. However, the constellation of the Greek god Orion (the great hunter of Greek mythology), seen in the west after sunset, is a good example of how useful this system can be.
Look carefully and you’ll soon spot three stars in a row. That means you’ve found Orion’s “belt”. And hanging down from that twinkling belt, you should see another trio of stars which form Orion’s “sword”. If you look northward, you’ll also see the seven bright stars of the Plough, and the plough’s “handle” even has what is known as a double star.
Learn more about the constellations on astronomy.com.
5. Noctilucent Clouds
Most of the time, astronomers are not very keen on clouds. However, from May through to July there is a hauntingly beautiful cloud formation visible in the night sky you will really want to see. These noctilucent (= night shining) clouds are a magical mixture of shimmering crystal clouds in a blend of white and electric-blue colours. Similar to the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), these noctilucent clouds appear only during the summer months. Look for them in the northern sky around an hour before dawn, or an hour after the setting of the sun.
Also known as ‘shooting stars’ or ‘falling stars’, meteors are actually nothing at all to do with stars. In reality, they are various kinds of debris spinning around in outer space at speeds of between 30,000 km to 60,000 km per hour. Mainly rocks, dust particles and pieces of ice, these elements sometimes enter the Earth’s gravitational field and are then pulled towards our planet. As they enter the upper atmosphere, they begin to burn up and disintegrate. It is this phenomenon which causes the familiar streaks of light which appear to fall through the sky at night.
When the Earth’s own orbit passes through the dust tail of a comet, these meteors occur more frequently. Such events are called meteor showers. Some happen regularly every year and produce sparkling light shows as they streak across the sky. These annual meteor showers are usually named after the star constellations from which they are thought to originate.
How to Avoid Smog and Pollution
Unless you’re lucky enough to live inside an International Dark Sky Reserve such as Exmoor or the Brecon Beacons (where the night skies are always much brighter), some form of pollution may interfere with your backyard stargazing from time to time. Two types of pollution are problematic: the first is light pollution caused by the strong light coming from some towns and cities, and the second is smog created by the constant burning of fossil fuels.
If you live in the heart of a light-polluting city, there will sometimes be a limited amount you can see in the night sky. In such circumstances, you can remedy the situation by using a telescope and a decent camera. But both kinds of pollution are now mapped. For instance, a light pollution map will help you identify the best locations in your area for skywatching. Meanwhile, smog behaves rather like low cloud and thus can be predicted.
In the UK, organisations such as Defra produce excellent smog/pollution forecasts to help you gauge when conditions are most suitable for active amateur astronomers.
For readers in the US, try this site.
So checking your location for light and smog pollution will enable you to choose the optimum spots and the best conditions in which to view whatever you hope to see.
Screenshot of a light pollution map
Buying Your First Telescope
Before jumping in and buying your first telescope, you should first view the sky with the naked eye and then binoculars and here are the benefits:
- Binoculars are readily available, affordable, and very portable.
- You get a broad field of view, so it’s easier to find your way around the sky.
- Even standard 7x to 10x magnification binoculars will really enhance your naked-eye viewing.
- Many high-end telescopes use automatic tracking to follow objects but good old fashioned binoculars is a great way to map what’s above us in the mind.
When it comes to buying your first telescope, we think these buying guides are well worth reading first:
Space.com‘s guide to buying your first telescope.
Astronomy.com has a very in-depth guide to what you should look out for when buying a telescope, it’s a great read.:
Blending Astronomy and Photography
One aspect of astronomy that may appeal to younger generations is the ability to take beautiful photos of the moon, planets and stars and post them on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram etc.
Most good quality telescopes can be attached to DSLR cameras which can take high-quality images. By layering/stacking multiple images of the same object in a software tool such as Photoshop, you can create very clear, breathtaking images.
Welcome to the world of astrophotography.
This website explains the benefits of stacking and you can see some examples of very clear images.
The video below is very inspiring, although you don’t need such an expensive telescope to get great images:
Resources and External Links
The Naked Eye Planets is a great place to start – view the planets without spending a penny on equipment.
The Sky Live – perfect for tracking planets and comets.
Moon calendar – track the phases of the moon with this online tool.
This light pollution map is very helpful.
Crash Course Astronomy is a series of 46 YouTube videos designed to help you get started with this hobby, it’s great for kids and adults alike.
We really hope this guide to back garden astronomy helps you start your journey.
You don’t need a ton of expensive equipment to get into this hobby. With digital aids on free apps and websites, you can get a headstart and find interesting objects to find, using nothing more than your eyes, binoculars or a cheap second-hand telescope.
We have one last suggestion for you, a good old-fashioned book:
Meet The Author: Hannah Miller
Hannah is a former NHS administrator, mother of two and keen gardener with a horticulture qualification who loves growing new plants and experimenting in the garden.
She enjoys gardening as much as she cares about the environment and likes to share her knowledge with others.
This year is all about pollinators, and Hannah has set herself the goal of only buying new plants that attract pollinators; she aims to make the garden as bee and butterfly friendly as possible.
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