In July, there was a lunar eclipse. In preparation, I left the city I live, Leeds, in and spent a few days in Northumberland where the skies are much darker and hoped for a beautiful view. On the night, the whole sky was covered in cloud and I couldn’t see a thing. Without any hope of seeing the event, I got an early night.
The next morning, I woke up to a barrage of messages from friends who live in London. One had seen the eclipse by accident, looking out of a train and captured the red glow of the moon on her phone. Another had seen it from their ninth-storey window. In the biggest city in the country.
When it comes to astronomy, nothing is guaranteed. You can be in the darkest skies and see nothing, or you can get a beautiful view in the middle of a city.
When people think of stargazing, they might think of sitting in a field in the middle of nowhere, miles away from the nearest sources of light pollution. Or they might think of a telescope set up on the top of a remote mountain. The reality is, you don’t need a telescope or even binoculars to see plenty of stars, and you don’t have to venture too far away from the city you live in.
Instead of being a bad place to begin, cities are great place to start when looking to learn some of the constellations. Only the light from the brightest stars make it through the glare of street lights and other light pollution, making it easier to make out the familiar patterns in those stars, the asterisms and constellations.
The first trick to maximise the number of stars and planets you’ll be able to see in your area is to get as far from light pollution as you can. If you live near a park, go there and go as far into the middle of it as you can, away from the light from street lamps and nearby houses. If that’s not an option for you, but you have access to a rooftop terrace, go there. Getting high above the light pollution is just as effective, if not more, as moving horizontally from it.
The next bit of advice I’d give would be to be prepared. At the start of each month, spend an hour or so looking up what astronomical events are going to be happening. When will the next meteor shower be? What are the planets up to in the next week? Write these in your diary, and when you see an evening is going to be clear of clouds, see whether there is something you can search for. It doesn’t need to be a special night to go stargazing, and you can see plenty of beautiful stars in the sky on any clear night, but it helps to have something exciting to search for.
Stargazing doesn’t have to be a solitary hobby. Instead of having a group of friends for dinner, why not take them to your nearest park, pack some food and a bottle of wine or a thermos flask and a blanket and see what you can spot.
An easy way to look like a stargazing pro to your friends is by learning the main constellations for your part of the world and the time of year, and how to star-hop.
In the summer in the UK, you can look for the Summer Triangle. It’s not an official constellation, it’s an asterism, meaning it is a pattern made up of part of another constellation or constellations. And it’s easy to spot because it shines almost exactly overhead during summer. Then there’s the Plough, part of the constellation Ursa Major, which points towards one of the sky’s brightest stars, Arcturus.
Winter nights are dominated by the bright three stars that make up Orion’s Belt. Once you’ve found that, try and see the rest of the constellation. Orion’s Belt can be used to star-hop to Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.
Spot the planets. If you see a really bright light, usually quite low in the sky, that isn’t flickering like the rest of the stars, it might be a planet.
Make the most of technology, too. Download a few stargazing apps and see which ones you like. There are loads that you can point directly at a start or planet and they’ll tell you exactly what they are. SkyView, Sky Guide or Star Walk are worth a try. You’ll be surprised how quickly you can learn the familiar ones for that time of year. There is nothing wrong with using an app to identify what you’re looking at – nobody expects you to learn all the constellations off by heart. The most important part is that you are looking up at all.
The Art of Urban Astronomy by Abigail Beall is published by Trapeze and out now in hardback