The cutting-edge astronomy of the 21st century is incredibly impressive and even intimidating: Huge telescopes that seem bigger than the average house, impossibly crisp images of planetary surfaces, and mathematical calculations that boggle the mind.
But astronomy emerged from humble beginnings, growing out of natural human curiosity and a desire to learn more about the surrounding universe. For millennia, people have looked up at the night sky and found patterns in its stars.
“Backyard” astronomy may not be quite as old as the stars themselves; but it’s a time-honoured human tradition. And with just your own eyes—and perhaps a set of binoculars or a basic telescope—you can learn an awful lot.
Why Learn About Astronomy?
Backyard astronomy and stargazing has attracted a wide variety of practitioners, drawing everyone from sci-fi fans to outdoors enthusiasts to curious children. Historically, people have turned to astronomy for scientific, religious, cultural, and practical reasons: They’ve organized calendars based on the movements of the skies, navigated across vast bodies of water with the stars as their guide, told creation and foundational stories based on the constellations, and even sought to predict the future.
Here are some of the reasons I personally became interested in backyard astronomy:
The night sky is simply magical
From my backyard perspective, the sky around is always changing, bringing new celestial bodies into view. And the more I learn, the more I feel that sense of familiarity. In a way, learning the stars is like learning your way around a new city or learning to play a new musical instrument. With time, the strange and unfamiliar begins to feel like home.
You don’t need expensive equipment to get started
Sure, having a nice-quality telescope helps, but you can learn and see a lot with just your eyes. If, after trying out this hobby for a while, you decide you want to invest further, you can find reasonably priced binoculars or telescopes out there.
Astronomy gets me outdoors
I spend so much time inside these days. I work inside, eat inside, sleep inside, and spend a good deal of my free time inside too. Backyard astronomy gets me out in, well, my backyard and connects me to the natural world around me. I become more attuned to the fluctuations of the seasons – it may sound odd, but looking up to the skies gives me a feeling of being grounded here on earth. Even in inclement weather (or if you don’t have a backyard), you can stargaze out the window to find a similar sense of connection to the natural world.
How to Get Started with Backyard Astronomy
First, some general advice. Simple curiosity lies at the heart of this hobby. Often, the best way to get started is simply to begin taking note of the night sky, as you can observe it from your window or backyard. You don’t need to go out immediately and buy tons of expensive equipment (though you can if you want!).
Views of the night sky will, naturally, be clearer in darker areas (think remote, protected areas, the countryside, or even just twenty minutes outside your local city). But since this guide is focused on backyard astronomy, I’ll focus on things you can observe from towns, cities, and suburbs.
What to Observe
The Moon is an ideal object for new stargazers. Its proximity makes it appear large in the sky, and it remains visible to the naked eye even in areas with significant light pollution.
So, if you live in a light-polluted city, don’t despair. Wherever you are in the world, learning about the Moon and its cycles is a perfect place to start as you get to know the sky. Keep a notebook and track its phases, sketch what it looks like on any given night, or take photos.
You can complement your observations with some simple research online: Learn how we think the Moon formed, how it is related to the Earth’s tides, when and why lunar eclipses occur, and so on. (In sections below, I’ll provide some of my favourite resources for learning about astronomy).
Next, observe the Sun – but NOT directly! Looking directly at the Sun will of course harm your eyes, so don’t do this. You can, however, learn about the Sun and its patterns just as you’ve learned about the Moon: When does the Sun rise in your town? How much do sunrise and sunset times change over the course of a year? Which points on the horizon does the Sun appear?
Again, you can supplement your observations with further research: Learn about equinoxes and solstices, and find out more about what the Sun is actually made of: It’s a huge ball of ridiculously hot plasma radiating energy outward. The Sun is such an ordinary feature of our everyday lives that I sometimes forget how fascinating it is!
In any case, the Sun is our very own local star. Our lives literally revolve around it, so we might as well learn more about it.
As you develop your hobby of backyard astronomy, you’ll likely want to learn all about the many other stars and constellations. After years of backyard stargazing, I feel almost as familiar with the stars as I do with my own neighbourhood.
I suggest getting your hands on a star map (also called a star chart, sky map, or sky chart), which marks the various constellations, and sometimes also the path of the International Space Station (ISS). You can either buy a star map or find a free one online.
Astronomy apps and online resources may also come in handy: Apps such as are Stellarium, Google Sky Map, and StarWalk are excellent programs that allow you to get oriented and find your way around the night sky. Or check out The Sky Live, an interactive online planetarium that offers a map of the sky as visible from your location.
As you grow more familiar with the constellations, you may also want to learn their stories! Many constellations, for instance, are named for figures from Greek mythology: Orion, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Aries, Capricorn, and so on. There’s Canis Major and Canis Minor, Orion’s hunting dogs, forever in the sky chasing the hare Lepus. And Leo, the lion of Nemea, slain by mythical hero Hercules.
Making the Most of City Stargazing
Even if you live in a huge city with major light pollution, you absolutely can learn more about astronomy. Of course if you get the chance to stargaze in more remote areas, those experiences are incredible. But the night sky is still there and waiting for you no matter where you live.
Here’s my advice for urban stargazers:
When choosing an observation site, you need somewhere that is as dark as possible, accessible, and safe. If you live in an apartment building, inquire about roof access. Getting higher up helps lift you above some of the street-level light pollution. If you have a telescope, you might simply point it out a conveniently placed window. Or, you can look into group stargazing events hosted by a local club.
If you plan to purchase a telescope, evaluate your personal situation carefully. A larger telescope will take in more starlight—but if you have to lug it up and down four flights of steps to use it, you may find it gathering dust in the closet. One thing to consider is a computerized telescope mount, which makes it easier to find objects when the sky is bright and stars are faint—but this will come at a price.
Finally, keep timing in mind. Objects that are hazy and hard to see when down by the horizon line tend to appear much more brightly when they are higher up in the sky. In addition, try to get a feel for the light pollution patterns in your city: In many areas, light pollution decreases after midnight or so. You might have to stay up pretty late, but this can be worth it for the darker skies.
Useful Equipment for Backyard Astronomy
For me, stargazing out in my backyard is the ultimate in relaxation. Yes, I enjoy driving out to the middle of nowhere with my telescope, but there’s so much I can see right from home with nothing but my eyeballs. You really can get as fancy—or not—as you want with astronomy.
That said, here are the items I find useful for stargazing from my backyard:
- A star map: I like using Stellarium, which is free and open-source. You can use Stellarium as a mobile app, or go to the web version. It displays a remarkably realistic star map that helps me make sense of what I see outside.
- A comfortable chair: I have a nice lounge chair set up on my patio. It reclines enough that I can comfortably look up at the sky for as long as I like without craning my neck. I also have a folding chair I use when I’m at my telescope.
- Blankets, a table, a good coat, and a thermos of cocoa: Along similar lines…stargazing is more fun when you’re comfortable! Winter nights in my town get very cold, so I make sure I’m wrapped up accordingly. Before you settle in for an hour or two of stargazing, ensure that your set-up is decent. I’ve got a little wooden table out on my patio, which holds all my stuff. Any old table will do, whether metal or wood or folding.
- Red lens headlamp: There are a range of headlamps on the market; mine is by the brand Black Diamond and overall it’s a great piece of technology: durable and compact with long battery life. When you’re stargazing, you do not want to have your outdoor floodlights on, since that will block out the actual stars and ruin your night vision. A red light lets you see (so you can find your snacks, or walk without tripping), while preserving your night vision.
- Binoculars or telescope: As you get more into this hobby, you may decide you want some binoculars or a telescope to amplify what you’re able to see. These tools come in a vast range of price points and capabilities. In the next section, I’ll go into a little more detail on the pros and cons of binocs vs. telescopes and general guidelines for choosing a model.
Binoculars or Telescope?
You might automatically associate astronomy with telescopes—but many people prefer a good pair of binoculars for backyard stargazing! The advantages of binoculars include:
- Portability: Take them anywhere.
- Convenience: Easy to use, with no need for elaborate set-up.
- Versatility: Useful for birdwatching and stargazing alike!
Telescopes do have some advantages, however:
- Power: A good-quality telescope can really up the ante and show you details you never thought imaginable.
- Options: Telescopes come in different categories (for example, reflectors vs. refractors), which use different technologies (mirrors vs. lenses) to generate their images.
- Stability: A stable base leads to super crisp images (also helpful if you take an interest in astrophotography).
Remember that you can always invest in astronomy equipment gradually. When I first started out, I used some of the freely available resources I found online. Then I borrowed some binoculars from a friend as I got more into the hobby. Now, I have some binoculars of my own and a couple telescopes!
What to Look For in a Telescope
Before purchasing your telescope, you’ll of course want to do some research. As I’ve mentioned, there are several different kinds of telescopes, and there are a seemingly endless array of telescopes on the market. When selecting the right telescope for your goals, consider factors such as:
- Aperture: The size of the telescope’s light-collecting area.
- Focal length and ratio: This often affects the telescope’s field of view: Some telescopes are high-power and offer excellent, though narrow, views of distinct objects such as planets; others are better-suited for wider-field, broad views of more dispersed phenomena such as the Milky Way.
- Electric vs. manual control: A factor that often affects convenience and ease of use as well as price.
- Portability: Will you use your telescope primarily or exclusively in your own backyard? Or do you hope to take it on the road?
- Mount: Does the base or tripod provide sufficient stability?
But now for the fun part: Once you’ve bought your telescope, what can you realistically expect to see? Here are just a few examples of what I can observe with my telescopes:
- Surface details of the Moon.
- Mars, along with some surface details.
- Jupiter, plus its cloud bands, moons, and Red Spot.
- Saturn and its rings.
- Orion Nebula.
Ideas for New Backyard Stargazers
Many of my friends enjoy stargazing as a casual hobby and stick to the activities I’ve outlined above: observing the Moon and Sun, learning the constellations, and so on. But if you’re interested in diving deeper into this hobby, there are endless directions to go.
Here are a few ideas for fun challenges and goals for backyard astronomers:
1. Find the Milky Way
This is the galaxy containing our solar system, and the name comes from the “milky” or hazy band of light that can be seen from Earth. How hard is it to find this band? That depends on the weather conditions and your geographical location. But even in light-polluted city conditions, you may just be able to make out a faint smudge in the sky. Or, head out beyond your backyard to the great outdoors and scan the sky after pitching your tent. Catching a view of the Milky Way is a great activity since you can see it with the naked eye, and if you get a good view, it’s really unforgettable!
2. Spot the International Space Station (ISS)
To the naked eye, the ISS sort of resembles a plane—it’s just a lot higher up in the sky and moving a lot faster. With this handy how-to website from NASA, you can figure out when the ISS is visible from your location and get a glimpse of it.
3. Memorize 10 (or 20, or 50, or more) constellations
It took me some time before I felt like I “know” the night sky. But one night, I looked up and realized that I could identify most of the constellations within view. That was when I really felt a sense of familiarity, and I could suddenly imagine how people might navigate vast stretches of ocean using only the stars.
4. Watch for meteor showers
Meteor showers come around every year, and I always try to catch a couple of the showers projected to be most impressive. Find a list of meteor showers and put some on the calendar. These are my favourite nights to spend outside with my family, sipping on tea and watching the show.
5. Try astrophotography
This is a whole hobby in its own right, requiring its own equipment and set of skills. But if you enjoy both photography and astronomy, the next logical step might be combining those interests. I’ve tried my hand at astrophotography and been pleasantly surprised with my photos of the Moon, which are framed in my living room.
6. Learn the mesmerizing history of astronomy
I’ve recently been reading The Light Ages by historian Seb Falk, a fascinating primer on medieval astronomy told through the perspective of a 14th-century British monk. Falk explains all about astronomical tables, scientific innovations (like alarm clocks!), and the refinement of instruments like the astrolabe in medieval Europe. I like that the book offers a concrete sense of some of the techniques and calculations used at the time—some of which remain applicable for the backyard astronomer! So whether you’re interested in Mayan astronomy, ancient Egypt, or famous figures like Galileo or Copernicus, find a book that speaks to you.
7. Take a (free) astronomy course
Thanks to online platforms such as Coursera, it’s easier than ever to drop in on an Astronomy 101 class. Sure, academic classes might not be focused on the practical how-to aspects of stargazing in your backyard—but it can be rewarding to learn more about the science in general and some cool recent discoveries.
Backyard astronomy is an activity that can accompany you through life and provide endless entertainment, enrichment, and education. It can be a solo hobby you do to unwind in the evening, or a social activity you enjoy with family and friends. It can be combined with other hobbies, such as photography, journaling, scrapbooking, learning about history, hiking, or camping.
Today, we know more about the stars and planets than ever: Scientists uncover new celestial bodies and make incredible technological leaps every day. Who knows—maybe someday soon, we’ll be living on Mars. Yet at the same time, many of us actually know much less about the stars than our ancestors. As I’ve learned from reading The Light Ages, for example, medieval monks were capable of astronomical calculations that make my head spin.
Backyard astronomy acquaints us with new skills and a deeper appreciation for the world around us.
There’s something undeniably cool about taking part in one of the oldest and most important hobbies in human history. And finally, astronomy can be as simple or as complicated and high-tech as you want it to be.
Whether you love the challenge of figuring out new gadgets or just want to check in on the Moon every once in a while, this is a hobby that can easily become a part of your life.