Naked-eye Observations Guide

Getting started with naked-eye observation in the UK.

Ten top tips.


Observe whenever you can!
If you can see a star, you have an opportunity to stargaze. Can you identify it? Do you know which constellation it is in? If not, note where you were, what time it was and which way you were facing, and see if you can work it out when you get home, using your charts or planetarium software. You can observe on your walk home from school/work, when you’re visiting family in other parts of the country, on holiday, anywhere there is a clear sky. It takes no time to set up, so you can observe for a few minutes if that’s all the time you have available. And you don’t have to wait until your night vision develops; night vision always helps, but you can do without it when looking at naked-eye stars and planets.


Know what to expect.
Before you go out for a planned stargazing session, have a rough idea of what you might see. Which planets will be up? Will the moon be visible? Which constellations or asterisms will you see, in which part of the sky?


Have a hitlist.
Have a hitlist of objects you would like to be able to recognise for yourself. Each time you go out, pick three or four to work on from your list, based on whether they’re in view and your plan on how you will locate them. You won’t necessarily have time for all four, but hopefully you’ll find one or two. Once you’ve found something, continue to “check in” with it whenever you go out; this will help you remember it, and will teach you its movement over the seasons. Thus, each session consists of revisiting things you already know and adding in a small number of new ones. And keep adding to your hitlist!


Use planetarium software.
Use planetarium software for planning, looking up objects you hear about and generally developing your understanding of the sky. Planetarium software is brilliant for planning a session – just a quick look before you go out to identify what might be waiting for you – and for reviewing what you have seen, which also helps reinforce your learning. You can fast forward or go back in time to watch the movements of your favourite objects. And you can of course use it to explore the skies while the clouds are keeping you indoors.

There are several phone apps that you can use to point at the sky and they’ll tell you what you’re looking at. This is handy and lots of astronomers use their phone in this way to double-check what they’re doing. Be careful though: the apps rely on GPS which is not always accurate from second to second, and in the field, they work best when combined with your knowledge and sense-checking.


Use what you know to find your way to new things. Orion is a major pointer to several objects, but you can use anything you know to plot a course to another item on your hitlist. Planetarium software is ideal for this, but you can do it with charts and diagrams in books as well.


Learn some seasonal markers.
Orion dominates the winter and early spring. The Summer Triangle takes over the sky for the high summer months and early autumn. The Leo constellation has long been associated with Spring, its bright star Denebola was said by the Arabs to mark the separation between warmth and cold. During the day, look for the approach of the equinox – the sky will change colour.


Remember some history or mythology.
Try to remember some history or mythology about some of the objects. The Arabs graded their eyesight “from Capella to Mizar” – Capella is one of the brightest objects in the sky (easy to see), and Mizar is a double-star which you can just about split with good sky and good eyesight. Don’t fret trying to make constellation stars look like their names – quite often they are named for phenomena on Earth, particularly the animals – Leo, for example, was high in the sky when the lions came to the Nile to drink in the very hot weather. These snippets help you remember them and distinguish them from similar objects. And you will impress your friends!


Keep a journal.
It doesn’t have to be elaborate, and it should be in whichever format is comfortable and easy for you: a small notebook, a spreadsheet, a word-processed document, one or more notes in Evernote or OneNote – whatever works. Some people make notes on their phone as they nearly always have it with them. Include the object, the date, time and location, and anything else you think relevant, for example could you see colours in a star, did you split a binary star? It not only reinforces your learning but will be pleasing to revisit in years to come.


Go online.
You don’t have to contribute unless you feel ready to, but “listen” to chatter on discussion boards, you’ll hear about objects that are new to you, interesting phenomena that might be available only for a day or two, and seasonal events such as meteor showers, all alongside existing members’ questions and answers. YouTube has lots of astronomy channels too.


Find other astronomers.
Beginners like yourself, a good supplier, a local club, a friendly expert. Go out with them (it’s safer for one thing). Don’t be afraid to ask questions - the only silly question is the one you wish you’d asked.

Things to start with.

Big Dipper / Plough.

Spring | Summer
(March through June)

In the UK the Plough is “circumpolar” – meaning it is always above the horizon, which makes it a very useful asterism to recognize – once you find it, you know you are facing north-ish. From its pointers you can identify North exactly by locating Polaris (North Star). If you go the other way, following the curve from its handle you’ll find Arcturus, the Guardian of the Great Bear. A big bright star of magnitude -0.05 - most cultures noted it, for example the Aborigines of Australia knew certain food was in season when they could see Arcturus.

The star second from the end of the handle is Mizar, a double-star – congratulations if you can see its companion (Alcor) with your own eyes!


Spring | Summer | Autumn | Winter
(All year but can be found high in the sky at 21:00 from October to January)

Another useful constellation to recognize, its characteristic W shape (or M, when it is the other way up!) is also circumpolar and when the Plough is not visible for some reason (perhaps behind a tree or building), you can use Cassiopeia to find Polaris.

The Moon

By far the brightest object in the sky (when full) apart from our sun, the Moon is fascinating and many astronomers focus exclusively on the Moon. It is easier to study its features when it is less than full, as it is very bright when at its most complete. Even if it does not hold your interest particularly, it is useful to be aware of its phases as this will affect what you can see – its brightness, again, might obscure objects around it, including planets. Further, it follows the ecliptic so it can help you locate the path of the planets.


Autumn | Winter
(December through March)

A major constellation visible throughout the winter, very noticeable and once seen, never forgotten. The highly distinctive Belt of three stars is recognized by most if not all cultures worldwide. Betelgeuse (his right shoulder, left as we look at it) is glorious on its own, never mind with its companions. You can find lots from Orion!

Summer Triangle

Deneb, in Cygnus, Altair, in Aquila and Vega, in Lyra, form the Summer Triangle. Despite its name, it is visible most of the year in these latitudes, in January it can be found in the early evening twilight. In late summer and autumn it comes to the fore. Vega is a beautiful blue star, you will hopefully see its blueness even without equipment. The Cygnus constellation is one of the few that looks (a bit) like its name – a swan flying across the sky. Before it reaches its zenith, Deneb and Altair point more or less due south, and after, as it descends to where it will set, Vega and Altair point southwards.

Spring Triangle

You know spring is on the way when you start to see this before midnight! Arcturus in Boötes, Denebola in Leo and Spica in Virgo form an almost equilateral triangle, visible in the UK from early February before midnight. Denebola for the Arabs marked when the cold part of the year was over. Instead of Denebola, Regulus is sometimes used as the third star in the triangle, it is in any case a good star to know as it sits almost directly on the ecliptic and will therefore help you find it. Spica is also on the ecliptic so if you can see them both, you will have a good perspective on its trajectory over the sky.

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