There may well come a night in your life as an outdoorsperson when you wander away from the campfire, gaze up at the thousands of stars burning over the backcountry, and realize you know almost nothing about the night sky.
Start with the Big Dipper
For people in the Northern Hemisphere, astronomy begins with the Big Dipper, a group of seven bright stars in the constellation Ursa Major laid out in the shape of a ladle. Michael Narlock, head of astronomy at the Cranbrook Institute of Science, a natural history museum in Bloomfield Hills, outside Detroit, says finding the Dipper is the first step to unlocking whole swaths of the sky, no binoculars or telescopes needed. “Once you find north, everything flows from that,” he says. “You can use the handle to find other constellations and stars and orient yourself to the rest of the sky.”
Experience the Dark Skies of Michigan
With an International Dark Sky Park, three remote national parks and lakeshores, and half a dozen spectacular state parks, Michigan is the perfect place for stargazingRead More→
Utilize a Few Simple Tools
For casual stargazers, an augmented-reality smartphone app like Star Walk or Night Sky that can be held up to automatically ID stars and constellations overhead is fine. But Narlock says really learning your way around the sky requires a little more dedication. Paper star charts that correspond to your date and location or a planisphere—a wheel-like gadget that shows how the constellations move throughout the year—are the only gear you’ll need at first. After getting the Dipper under your belt, beginners should wear a dim red light to preserve their night vision and work with the star chart to find celestial touchstones like Polaris, the North Star, visible year round, before moving on to other bright, shiny objects like Vega, Arcturus, and Sirius the Dog Star, often the brightest bodies in the sky.
Get Some Binos to Peer into the Great Beyond
Once you’ve made friends with a few constellations, it’s time to start looking a little deeper into the sky. While most people think astronomy is all about telescopes, the best bet for novices is a pair of binoculars. Not only are binos much cheaper than good telescopes, they’re more portable, meaning you’re more likely to carry them into the backcountry.
Which ones? When it comes to astronomy, the key isn’t magnification. Instead, the size of the objective lens, the wide front lens that allows light in, is what counts. Beginners should look for 7x50 binoculars, which magnify seven times with a beefy 50mm lens. Most people can hand-hold binos of that size with minimal shaking.
Looking deeper into space means you’ll need an upgraded star chart that shows objects that can’t be seen with the naked eye. A map of the moon is useful at this point as well. With just a modest amount of magnification, you’ll begin to see craters, maria, and mountains on the moon and can start to follow the wandering of the planets.
Join a Club
After some time chasing planets and gazing at the moon with binoculars, you might find yourself browsing for telescopes. Using one opens up entirely new worlds, literally. A scope that magnifies by a power of 100 will reveal Saturn’s rings. Pinwheel galaxies that were smudges with binoculars will show off their arms. You can even see comets and their iconic tails. As with binoculars, the objective lens is a big deal. The larger it is, the brighter and more detailed the images will be. There are so many options that before you buy one, Narlock recommends hooking up with a local astronomy club to try out some gear firsthand and get expert advice. Having trouble finding one? Just type “astronomy clubs near me” into your web browser.
Head for Dark Skies
While a nice telescope can reveal awesome images of the heavens from just about anywhere, to get the most out of the magnification, you also need to get away from human-generated light. Even driving 20 minutes away from a city is often enough to find a spot with spectacular night skies. For people with a little more time on their hands and a burning need for crisp eyefuls of the Swan Nebula, there’s nothing like a dark sky park. Located in areas far away from light pollution, these parks have been established internationally and by states to protect naturally occurring dark skies.
Michigan has some of the darkest parks, lakeshores, and wilderness areas in the U.S. and it's one of the best places in the world to view the northern lights. Click here to see the best places for stargazing in Michigan and here to plan your next trip.