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May’s Night Sky Notes: Stargazing for Beginners

By Kat Troche

Millions were able to experience the solar eclipse on April 8, 2024, inspiring folks to become amateur astronomers – hooray! Now that you’ve been ‘bitten by the bug’, and you’ve decided to join your local astronomy club, here are some stargazing tips!

The Bortle Scale

Before you can stargaze, you’ll want to find a site with dark skies. It’s helpful learn what your Bortle scale is. But what is the Bortle scale? The Bortle scale is a numeric scale from 1-9, with 1 being darkest and 9 being extremely light polluted; that rates your night sky’s darkness. For example, New York City would be a Bortle 9, whereas Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania is a Bortle 2.

The Bortle scale helps amateur astronomers and stargazers to know how much light pollution is in the sky where they observe.
Credit: International Dark Sky Association

Determining the Bortle scale of your night sky will help narrow down what you can expect to see after sunset. Of course, other factors such as weather (clouds namely) will impact seeing conditions, so plan ahead. Find Bortle ratings near you here:

No Equipment? No Problem!

There’s plenty to see with your eyes alone. Get familiar with the night sky by studying starmaps in books, or with a planisphere. These are great to begin identifying the overall shapes of constellations, and what is visible during variousmonths.

A full view of the northern hemisphere night sky inmid-May.
Credit: StellariumWeb.

Interactive skymaps, such as StellariumWeb, work well withmobile and desktop browsers, and are also great for learning the constellations in your hemisphere. There are also several astronomy apps on the market today that work with the GPS of your smartphone to give an accuratemap of the night sky.

Put On That Red Light

If you’re looking at your phone, you won’t be able to see asmuch. Our eyes take approximately 30 minutes to get dark sky adapted, and a bright light can ruin our night vision temporarily. The easiest way to stay dark sky adapted is to avoid any bright lights fromcar headlights or your smartphone. To avoid this, simply use red lights, such as a red flashlight or headlamp. The reason: white light constricts the pupils of your eyes,making it hard to see in the dark, whereas red light allows your pupils to stay dilated for longer. Most smartphones come with adaptability shortcuts that allow you to make your screen red, but if you don’t have that feature, use red cellophane on your screen and flashlight.

Up next: why binoculars can sometimes be the best starter telescope, with Night Sky Network's upcomingmid-month article through NASA's website!

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