With lockdown making our Earth-based worlds feel much smaller, it’s no wonder people have been seeking solace in the stars.
From constellations like Orion to the planet Mars, there’s a lot you can see with the naked eye.
The latest game-changing, stargazing tech is making it even easier to get involved from the comfort of your own home, and as International Dark Sky Week hoves into view (it runs from April 5 to 12), now is the perfect time to prep your tech.
As cool as the top new telescopes are (more on those later), beginners don’t need to spend a fortune on one to enjoy the wonders of the universe.
‘While tech is making stargazing much simpler and easier, there’s no need to rush out and spend hundreds of pounds straight away,’ says Abigail Beall, New Scientist stargazing columnist and author of The Art Of Urban Astronomy.
‘Before buying a telescope, the first thing I’d suggest is a stargazing app that will show you what you’re looking at.
‘There are loads of free or very cheap apps that will tell you exactly what you’re looking at just by holding your phone in front of you – it means you no longer need to memorise what the planets are doing this month or learn how to star-hop to reach a certain constellation.’
Astro apps: Stargazing made easy
Here are some of the top apps you can download right now to start your stargazing journey
Your personal planetarium – just point your phone at the sky for an interactive map of stars, constellation and planets.
You can also get notifications when SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are overhead.
Star Walk 2
Aim your phone at the night sky and this app will tell you where everything is with the aid of gorgeous visuals. Tap on a constellation and you can explore a stunning on-screen 3D model that you can zoom in on and spin around.
There’s also an ad-laden free lite version.
Sky View Lite
Easy to use, this free app identifies galaxies, stars and constellations when you point your phone at the sky, and will flag the International Space Station when it’s overhead.
A nifty night mode turns the screen red to preserve night vision.
SkySafari 6 Plus
Packed with information, this app kicks things up a notch. Not only does it act as your celestial travel guide but it can also control compatible telescopes and even let you track the path of the Apollo moon missions from the 1960s and ’70s.
‘Once you’re interested enough, get a pair of binoculars first. They’ll open your eyes to so many things in the sky, like the craters on the moon.’
If you really want to keep it simple, then the Build Your Own cardboard telescope (£19.99) is a low-cost option and ideal for young space fans.
If it’s all about Insta, the AI-powered night sight mode on the Google Pixel 4a 5G (£499, carphonewarehouse.com) ‘makes it easier to snap incredible astrophotography shots,’ says Beall.
‘All you need to do is hold the camera still while it works its celestial magic. Resting the phone on a sturdy surface, ideally a tripod, gives the best results.
The Nikon Action EX 12×50 CF binoculars (£179, amazon.co.uk), meanwhile, offer a wide field of view that’s ideal for stargazing and they’re also waterproof, which is good news for dealing with the Great British Weather.
And talking of rain…
‘It’s important to stay comfortable and warm,’ says Beall. ‘My hot water bottle is my best friend when stargazing, and camping chairs are also great.’
Who says stargazing isn’t glamorous?
The high-tech telescopic wonders
If you want to dive straight into the most hi-tech telescope on the block, then the major new arrival is the Vespera, a clever smart telescope-camera hybrid.
Created by French start-up Vaonis, the Vespera aims to make amateur astronomy and astrophotography easier than ever and has already won a best of innovation award at this year’s virtual CES tech fest. It’s even been given the thumbs up by former Nasa astronauts Scott Kelly and Terry Virts.
Sporting a cool futuristic design, the device is controlled by a smartphone app and uses GPS to pinpoint celestial objects in the night sky, which you can then snap and share on social media. Crowdfunded on Kickstarter, the Vespera is now on pre-order for €1,499 (about £1,200) for delivery later this year.
Making the whole process quick and easy is the key here.
‘Would you want to observe a galaxy if you know that you need at least 30 minutes just to prepare your equipment?’ asks Vaonis founder and CEO Cyril Dupuy.
‘Vespera is ready in less than three minutes.’
Not only does the mini exploration station’s app automatically point the device at your chosen star, constellation or galaxy, it’s also packed with fascinating details about each one – information that’s fed through to you via the app.
‘As we say among amateur astronomers, the best telescope is the one we use the most,’ says Dupuy. ‘For that, it must be simple and teach us things.’
Another option is the NexStar 8SE (£1,469, firstlightoptics.com) from established American telescope maker Celestron.
A cutting-edge update to a classic design from the 1970s, the NexStar 8SE packs an on-board computer with a database packed with stars, planets and other celestial objects. What’s more, you can control the telescope’s movement by iPhone or iPad.
For a telescope that’s (a little) more affordable, the user-friendly Celestron StarSense Explorer LT 80AZ (£179.99 johnlewis.com) is ideal for beginners.
Packing a smartphone dock, the telescope uses a dedicated iOS or Android app to easily pinpoint objects in the night sky, without the need for WiFi or a phone signal.
Is it dark enough?
You might have all the kit but is stargazing actually possible in a huge brightly lit metropolis like London or Manchester?
‘The key thing is to minimise light pollution as much as possible,’ says Beall.
‘You’re never going to get away from it fully in a city but that’s fine. You can still see amazing things in the sky – planets, meteors, satellites and the brightest stars.
If you live near a park, you could try going there if you feel safe doing so. If you live in a flat with access to a roof, that’s also a great option.
Otherwise, just go to the highest part of your house, turn all your indoor lights off and look out of your window.’
It’s important to give your eyes time to adjust to the darkness so that night vision can kick in.
If you’re using an iPhone app you can combat the screen’s glare by adding a red filter to the display using the accessibility settings. For Android users, there are apps that do the same thing. While light pollution in cities doesn’t completely block our view of the stars, it certainly doesn’t help. It can also disrupt wildlife as well as our own sleep.
The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a non-profit organisation, is tackling the problem head-on, aiming to reduce light pollution around the globe while designating Dark Sky Places – areas with very little light pollution – which are perfect for stargazing.
The UK has more of these dark sky sites, compared to its population, than anywhere else outside the US.
‘Getting out there when you can, even in highly light-polluted cities, you can find areas where you can still see some of the stars,’ says Paul Gregory, a technical committee member of the IDA’s UK arm.
‘And when you get the opportunity to go further afield and into the countryside, it’s an awesome experience’.
This article contains affiliate links. We may earn a small commission on purchases made through one of these links but this never influences our experts’ opinions. Products are tested and reviewed independently of commercial initiatives.
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