Let's Get Celestial: Start Using Sky Maps Tonight for Stargazing

By Helen LinLast Updated Feb 3, 2021 2:23:40 AM ET
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Photo Courtesy: John Crux Photography/Getty Images

Have you ever gazed up at the beauty of the night sky and found yourself awestruck over the scale, the incomprehensible expansiveness of it all? Seeing thousands of glimmering pinpricks twinkling against the inky sky is a breathtaking experience to be sure, but it’s also one that can spark a lifelong interest in astronomy. Whether you’re looking for an appropriately socially distant activity to enjoy during the COVID-19 pandemic or you’re fascinated with the science of space, stargazing is an ideal hobby to take up.

Although stargazing is very much what it sounds like — staring up at the night sky using your eyes, binoculars or a telescope — there are some helpful charts you’ll want to have on hand to learn more as you get started. Called sky maps, these charts plot out the placement of celestial bodies to tell you what exactly you're looking at up in space. Using these helpful guides, you'll be able to identify different stars, planets and constellations in the night sky.

These days, sky maps are available in a variety of different formats. You can get printed versions online for free, buy a planisphere to use all year round or even download apps to your smartphone that can instantly recognize everything in the sky above you. Here’s what you need to know about finding the right sky maps for your needs.

Print Your Own Sky Map for Free

Sky maps are also sometimes known as star charts, and you can print one out for free at a site called skymaps.com. Keep in mind that you'll want to make sure to print the sky map for the hemisphere you live in. There are also different star charts available for different latitudes. If you're not sure what latitude you're closest to, you can easily check on this handy latitude finder.

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Photo Courtesy: jtyler/Getty Images

Additionally, make sure that you print out the map for the current month, as your view of the sky is constantly changing due to the rotation of the earth. On the top side of the map, you'll find the best times to use your chart depending on whether it's earlier or later in the month.

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How Do You Position a Printed Sky Map?

When you look at a sky map, you’ll notice that it’s printed in a circular array with compass directions around the edge. This is to help you position the chart so that it aligns correctly with the sky directly over you.

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Photo Courtesy: Christianto Soning/EyeEm/Getty Images

Here’s an example. Say that you're facing north. You’ll rotate the sky map so that the section of the circle labeled "north" is positioned at the bottom of the map. Once you've done this, the center of the map (or zenith) should align with the part of the sky that appears directly above you. It might seem a little counterintuitive to have the north label on the map pointing backwards when you’re facing north, but there’s a reason for this: You read the map by holding it overhead, not out in front of you. So, when you lift and turn your hands so you can read the map while it’s above you, the north section of the map will then be pointing the same direction you’re facing.

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The best way to get your bearings once you have the map in the correct position is to look for either an easily recognizable constellation or a particularly bright star. The brighter the star is, the bigger the dot that represents it on the map will be. From there, you should be able to follow the map to find nearby stars, constellations and planets.

Consider a Planisphere for Year-Round Flexibility

If you don’t want to print out a new sky map each month, consider investing in a planisphere instead. What makes a planisphere helpful is that it consists of two separate dials you can adjust to show what the sky looks like at any time of the year.

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Photo Courtesy: Miller Planisphere/Amazon

One section is marked with the hours of the day, while the other is marked with the days and months of the year. When you align the inner rotating dial with the correct time and date, the planisphere will show you the part of the night sky that’s currently visible to you while blocking off the parts that aren't.

Once you have your planisphere set to the right position, it works very similarly to a sky map. Just hold it up to the night sky and you'll be able to easily identify all kinds of fascinating celestial bodies.

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No Paper or Planisphere? Go the Smartphone Route

While there's something fun about being able to read a traditional star chart, there’s also a variety of apps these days that can act as automatic sky maps for even easier stargazing. One major perk of apps like these is that they don't need you to know your latitude or the direction you're facing — the positioning systems in your device take care of that work. You only need to hold your device up to the sky while you’re running a sky map app, and it’ll use your device’s GPS to figure everything out for you.

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Photo Courtesy: GooglePlay

A star map app called Star Chart, which is available for iOS and Android, is among the most popular. Again, you only need to hold your phone up to the sky while running this app, and it’ll show you exactly what stars and planets are above you. And not only will it point out constellations, but it’ll even fill them in with artwork by Johannes Hevelius, a 17th-century astronomer.

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Another helpful perk of Star Chart is that it can show you what stars are above you even during the daytime. When you point it down at the ground, it also displays what the sky looks like on the other side of the world.

Tips for Planning a Stargazing Outing

Stargazing has a lot of perks as a hobby, including the fact that it's fun, free and a pandemic-proof, socially distant activity. While stargazing is an activity that you can technically do anywhere, you'll probably have better luck if you head to a location that's wide open and miles away from the ambient light that busy cities emit into the night sky — this can make it harder to see stars.

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Photo Courtesy: Carlos Fernandez/Getty Images

EarthSky is an astronomy website that’s developed a worldwide map you can use to identify some of the best places for stargazing near you. To find these recommendations, zoom in on your state on the map. You'll see a collection of stars you can click on in your geographical area, each of which lists a great stargazing location nearby when you click it.

Once you’re at a stargazing location, and unless you're using an app for your sky map, try to avoid looking at your phone or any lights for about 20 minutes to give your "night vision" a chance to really kick in. Your eyes will adjust to the limited light conditions, and it’ll become easier to see the stars.

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If you're having a hard time getting started or finding your place on the map, start with the sky instead. Look for a constellation you know, such as the Big Dipper. Once you find it in the sky, it can serve as a sort of guidepost to help you get your bearings and determine how to orient your sky map.

The more familiar you get with the sky, the easier it’ll become to find your way around it. Don't feel like you have to rush out and buy a telescope when you first get started. In the beginning, all you need are your eyes and a sky map. If you do want a closer look at a star cluster or planet, a pair of old binoculars will do just fine. Most importantly, remember to have fun on this engaging adventure!

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