Stargazing for beginners

Visitors enjoying one of Bristol Astronomical Society's stargazing evenings at Tyntesfield, Somerset

Exploring our twinkling night sky is an adventure the whole family can enjoy. ‘Go stargazing’ is no. 27 in our list of 50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾, and the kids will love getting involved.

" The best time for stargazing is in winter – all the best starscapes can be seen then."
- David Fincham, ranger

Before you begin

  • Stargazing is best done before the moon is full, so check the phase of the moon before you book your trip.
  • We hold stargazing events for all of the family throughout the year. Give your local National Trust place a call to see if there is an event coming up.
  • Download one of Dark Sky Discovery's free seasonal stargazing guides. This one tells you which constellations to look for in Winter (PDF / 0MB) download
  • Download an app like Star Walk (iPhone) or Google Sky (android) to your mobile or tablet, and they will tell you what stars you can see from your current location. You can also install Stellarium on your desktop computer to explore the skies near you.

What to take with you

  • Something to lie on. A blanket or camping mat will do the trick.
  • Food, drink and warm clothes to keep kids happy and warm as you wait for the stars to come out. On a cold night hot chocolate can help keep little (and not so little) stargazers warm.
  • A sprinkling of imagination to keep kids entertained. How about uploading a playlist of space-themed songs to your iPod? Or as the sun sets, you could read them ancient myths about the stars and tales of space exploration.
  • A compass to help you find a particular constellation or star.
  • Your camera to capture the wonder on stargazer’s faces or the stars above. There is quite an art to photographing the night sky so take a look at our photography video for a few tips.

What to look for

The sunset
What better way to start your stargazing extravaganza than by watching our own star set? Share your favourite shots with us on Facebook or Twitter.

Constellations
A constellation is a grouping of stars that we see as a specific shape. Some are easier to spot than others.

'The Plough is easy to spot if you imagine you're looking for the shape of a saucepan,' advises Nick Allison, park manager at Morden Hall. If you imagine a line rising up from the last two stars in the Plough, it will lead up to the North Star

Shooting stars
‘If you get the timing right a meteor shower can be an incredible spectacle. These do require a little patience though so might not be ideal for the very youngest children,' says Rod Hebden, National Trust staff member and astronomy enthusiast.

The moon
It wasn't until people saw the moon through binoculars that they realised it wasn't a perfect sphere. On a clear night, it's easy to see its craters and bumpy edges.

Planets
‘Believe it or not, planets are often the easiest things to spot with the naked eye,' says Rod. ‘Venus can be incredibly bright.' Venus has been known as both the Evening Star and the Morning Star, as it is often be seen just before sunrise or just after sunset.

Satellites
If a light is moving slowly across the sky and it isn’t flashing then it is likely to be a satellite. On the NASA website you can register to receive an email update when the International Space Station passes over your house.

The Milky Way
‘If you can get somewhere with very little light pollution you can easily make out our galaxy, the Milky Way,' says Saul Burton, park manager at Erddig. This galaxy is a flat spiral, but from our perspective it looks like a bright band across the sky.

Video

Winter Stargazing - Orion

Winter is a great time for stargazing but sometimes you need a little help to get started. In this video, Rod Hebden from the National Trust shares a few handy hints on how to spot the main stars in the constellation of Orion.