While many of us are unable to carry out our usual leisure activities due to the coronavirus restrictions, stargazing is something that almost all of us can still enjoy. Whether it’s from your doorstep, balcony, garden or even through a window, as long as you can see the sky, you can do some astronomy!
You don’t even have to wait until it’s dark – one of my favourite things during lockdown has been trying to spot the Moon during daytime dog walks. Look out for it in the morning sky during the days following a full Moon, or in the afternoon in the days before the full Moon.
For anyone who is visually impaired, there are still ways to participate in astronomy through projects like the Tactile Universe that we run at the University of Portsmouth.
Getting started with stargazing
Whenever I find myself outside at night, there are a few different things I like to look out for.
Constellations and asterisms are the dot-to-dot pictures that astronomers imagine in the sky, drawing lines between the stars to make people, animals and other objects that help us find our way around the night sky. Our view of the night sky changes through the year as the Earth orbits the Sun, so many of these constellations and asterisms are only visible for part of the year.
However, a great one to learn to recognise when you’re starting out in astronomy is an asterism known as the Plough or Big Dipper (part of the constellation Ursa Major), as it’s visible every night of the year in the UK and can point us to different things in the sky. Look for a pattern of seven stars that look like a saucepan with a bent handle.
Other solar system objects are often visible in our skies. The Moon is the most obvious one but some of the other planets can also be spotted if they’re in the right part of their orbit compared to us. Venus has just disappeared from the evening sky after being visible for a few months, but you’ll be able to see it before sunrise towards the end of June. If you fancy staying up late, then Mars, Jupiter and Saturn all appear through the night at the moment.
All these planets will basically look like stars, although Jupiter and Venus in particular will be very bright. But unlike stars, they wont twinkle unless the planet is very low on the horizon.
More stargazing resources to explore
If that’s given you the bug for astronomy then there are so many resources out there to help you with your stargazing.
We use Stellarium in the university’s inflatable planetarium, but it works on computers and mobile devices (search in the app store) and can show you what the sky will look like at any time from any location. I often use the app to check which constellations will be visible before heading outside, or to work out which planet I’ve just spotted.
Our friends at Winchester Science Centre have monthly beginner stargazing guides available on their website and the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics publish a more detailed monthly guide to the night sky (also available in audio form as part of The Jodcast).
The BBC Sky at Night magazine website has lots of ideas and advice, including an article on astronomy in isolation. One of their suggestions is worth highlighting here – while we’ve been lucky to have clear skies a lot recently, should you end up clouded out each night you can contribute to astronomy research instead (including ours at the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation) by participating in citizen science projects such as Galaxy Zoo and Gravity Spy on the Zooniverse.
We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we’ll be able to hold our Stargazing at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard event at some point in 2021, but for now we’re working on ways to share our love of space remotely. Keep an eye on Twitter and Facebook if you want to know more, and don’t forget to look up!