Corfe Castle and comet
© Kevin Ferrioli
Just looking up and thinking ‘wow’ is quite often what most of us do when we first look up at a dark night sky. If you want to know more about what you’re looking at start with your naked eye.
Learn a few basic star patterns that you can use for “jumping off” to other parts of the sky. Learn to identify the Plough (aka Big Dipper) asterism and the “W” of Cassiopeia, which are in the northern sky all year round.
Here are some star patterns to look for by season
Winter: Orion, Taurus, and the star Sirius.
Spring: Leo and Cancer.
Summer: The “Summer Triangle” of the stars Deneb, Vega, and Altair.
Autumn: The Square of Pegasus.
The northern sky in autumn
The southern sky in autumn
These images are available to study more closely on the free open source planetarium website and app Stellarium
One way to learn how the constellations fit together is to do what our forebears did: learn some of the constellation stories. Many of these, such as the Perseus and Andromeda story, which incorporates many other constellations, came to us as the familiar Ancient Greek legends, but every culture has its own set of Star-Myths. These tales are a particularly effective way for youngsters to learn the sky.
Cranborne Chase AONB has put together a collection of resources, specifically for young people, that can help them learn about the constellations, planets, and moon phases, as well as a Planisphere, which is a perpetual star map that you can set for any date and time. Visit the Cranborne Chase AONB website to find more details.
Once you have a basic familiarity with the night sky, you can progress to binoculars. They will show you much more than your eye does, and their wide field of view and zero set-up time makes them easier to use than a telescope. Binoculars can show you craters on the Moon, Jupiter’s moons, star clusters, and distant galaxies. In fact, they are much better than telescopes for large star clusters and asterisms (informal groups of stars that form a recognisable shape).
As you become more familiar with the sky, you will begin to know what aspect of astronomy appeals to you (e.g. solar system or deep space); this will determine whether or not you get a telescope and, if so, what telescope you get. As a beginner, you need to get something that is simple to use; you want to spend your time looking through it, not figuring out how to set it up or getting it to work, and you certainly don’t want one of the “hobby killers” that ends up cluttering an attic or shed!
When you choose your first telescope, it is useful to get advice from more experienced astronomers (and most of us are more than willing to help and share). You can do this by joining a local astronomical society (see the Federation of Astronomical Societies), attending a stargazing event and speaking to astronomers there (see Go Stargazing), or joining a reputable astronomy forum like Stargazers Lounge.
Get these initial stages right, and this could be the beginning of an enormously rewarding life-long hobby, or maybe even the first steps on a career path.
Read annual the highlights and the dates on a list compiled by the Royal Observatory astronomers
Space and astronomy highlights calendar
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Learn how to capture the stars with astrophotography
The first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England to become an International Dark Sky Reserve.
Fun resources to help you learn about astronomy as a family.
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