You don't have to be a professional astronomer to enjoy the night sky. Star gazing can be done by anyone, with or without equipment. You can casually star gaze after sunset, or you can be more enthusiastic and stay up until 4:00 A.M. Either way, you can enjoy the heavens.|
Finding a place and time
Choosing the right place and time to star gaze will have a large effect on what you can see. Obviously, star gazing during the day isn't going work very well. Star gazing works best after sunset, as the sky gets darker and darker. In order to see the most stars, you should also star gaze during a new moon, but then again, you may want to look at the moon. Choosing a place to star gaze is just as important as choosing a time. Star gazing in the city can be compared to stargazing during the day. You're not going to see much. 'Light Pollution,' or the glare put off by man-made lights and objects, can obscure anything dimmer than the moon. Things like street lights and car lights can ruin you night vision, but their light can also reflect off of thin clouds and moisture in the air, making the sky glow brighter than most stars. The best places to star gaze are the most remote, and usually rather far away. You don't have to spend the entire night driving, though. If you live in a small city or the suburbs, there shouldn't be enough light pollution to bother the casual star gazer.
Star gazing equipment can range from your bare eyes to a medium size telescope. If you are just looking for constellations or observing a special event like a meteor shower, your bare eyes will work just fine. Ancient star gazers who connected the brighter stars to make constellations didn't need any telescopes, and neither do you. If you are more energetic about star gazing, and want to see dimmer stars or study the moon, a pair of binoculars will do the job. If you really want a good view, you'll need to get a telescope. Various sizes and strengths are available, along with various prices. Telescopes can cost anywhere from fifty dollars to six hundred dollars. It's up to you how much you spend, but the better telescopes are going to be more expensive. These telescopes will let you see the ice caps of Mars, the rings of Saturn, and the moons of Jupiter. The amount of money you spend should be related to how much star gazing you are going to do, and how late at night (or early in the morning) you are willing to stay up.
Using a star chart
Using a star chart is probably one of the most complicated things about star gazing. Looking up at the sky takes no skill whatsoever, but finding the right constellations requires some more time and patience. There are many different types of star charts availed, some of which are easier to use than others. The first thing you should know about star charts, however, is that they depend upon your latitude. People living in the southern hemisphere do not see the same night sky that the people living in the northern hemisphere see. Star charts also depend upon the time of day and the time of year. The earth rotates but the stars don't, so the sky will have a different orientation depending upon the time. The earth also changes its pitch as the year progresses, which can make new constellations appear and others disappear. The most useful star chart is more than just a piece of paper. These star charts work year-round at any time of day. They usually consist of a circular piece of paper with the star chart printed on it and a movable window on top of that. This allows you to rotate the window depending upon the time and season, revealing the right night sky for that time. The below image is an example star chart for the northern hemisphere in December.
A normal star chart would have more than three constellations on it, but this gives you an idea of what they look like. The fuzzy band that cuts across the chart represents the milky way. Each star in a constellation is represented by a white dot. The size of the dot represents the brightness of the star; the brighter the star, the larger the dot. The lines connecting the stars outline the shape of the constellation, and their names are located next to them. Polaris is the north star, and is always going to be on a star chart of the northern hemisphere. To find the constellation Orion in the sky, you would need to hold the star chart above you, with the arrow on the chart pointing north. The white border represents the horizon and the center of the star chart is the sky directly above you. In this position, the star chart should look exactly like the sky (without the moon) and Orion should be between south east horizon and the sky above you. With practice, you'll be able to read a star chart without lifting it above your head, and eventually you should be able to find and name constellations without a star chart. Good luck!