Roy Alexander BSc, FRAS, MInstP, is the Chair of DarkSky UK and Director of AstroVentures CIC and Battlesteads Observatory.
First of all, make sure you are dressed warmly, because even in the summer it can get chilly at night. Secondly, once you’re outside you need to give your eyes time to adjust to the darkness and although this starts straight away you need to be outside for at least fifteen minutes to begin with. After half an hour your eyes should be adapted to the dark. If you look at your phone screen, or any other lights, you will lost some of your night vision so try not to. You can use a red-light torch at night because red light does not affect your night vision.
Naked-eye astronomy is a great way to start. Try to be sitting down on a garden chair, or lying down on something like a picnic blanket or trampoline. Things to try to spot as a beginner are; the Moon, planets and well-known star patterns like the Plough or Cassiopeia. You can download a guide using the link at the end of this page.
With binoculars you should be able to spot two or three of the objects shown above, especially the double cluster, seven sisters and the Orion Nebula.
Buying Binoculars and Telescopes
Sir Patrick Moore’s advice on buying and using hand-held binoculars was to buy any that are “10×50”. This means a 10x magnification and 50mm diameter front lenses. You can spend anything from £25 to £2500 on binoculars, but if you go for a higher magnification you’ll have to buy a tripod too. Helios Fieldmaster 10×50 are very good, and Celestron have a wide range of astronomy binoculars.
There are many, Many, MANY types of telescopes and plenty of magazines and websites offering advice on which ones to buy. If you’re a beginner then your best bet is to buy the largest manual “Dobsonian” type that you can afford. One with between 5 to 8 inches aperture is a good start. (although anything with an aperture diameter larger than 10″ might be difficult to carry.) Rother Valley Optics and Tring Astronomy Centre have good online shops and are happy to chat with you if you’re not sure.
Being an astronomer in the UK requires a great deal of optimism and a good understanding of the weather. Our favourite weather website is “Clear Outside” because it gives a detailed overview of cloud cover and a couple of other things that are very useful to astronomers. Check it out, and make sure to set it to your location.
If you have a pair of binoculars, or want to buy a pair (£25-50 is a good starting price for a beginner), then you should definitely download Steve Tonkin’s free monthly binocular guide.
For ease of use at night and to protect your night vision, download and print out this guide. This stargazing guide introduces some useful apps for your phone, gives you a checklist of beginner objects and a super-simple star chat on the reverse.