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Helping beginner and amateur stargazers understand and enjoy the night sky

Bedroom Stargazing is now a thing

In wintertime the skies are darker than ever. Less hours of sunlight gives more hours of darkened skies and horizons. It means plenty more opportunity and hours for the clouds to dance on the merry way overhead and leave a brilliantly dark clear sky above.

There is just one problem though with wintertime stargazing – the cold!

Depending on whereabouts in the US you are (or where in the world you are) the nights can be super chilly. Temperatures can plummet to 16F or lower in states such as Colorado. Sure, you can wrap up warm and take a flask of hot chocolate or coffee out to the yard or nearby dark sky spot but standing in the snow and ice at 11pm isn’t everyone’s idea of fun.

Although light pollution in nearby suburban cities can affect the quality of the sky overhead, even the heaviest light pollution in densely populated places like New York, or LA can’t completely dampen out the sky’s brightest contributors.

The new fad of bedroom window stargazing is taking off for a number of good reasons. Some people just aren’t able to venture out into the cold at night-time plus it’s safer for kids to be indoors looking up at the night sky from their rooms than outdoors.

Armed with even a small modest telescope (worth around $100 or less) it’s really surprising and fascinating what is possible to see and discover.

 

What can you see in the night sky from bedroom window stargazing?

The answer does depend a little on how dark your skies are. You’ll see more from a ranch in the middle of the plains of Texas than you will from an apartment block in Chicago for instance, but here is a list of objects you should be able to see regardless of where you are in the world:

 

The Moon

We have all at one time or another stared up at the moon in wonder. Whether the mesmerising (and optical illusional affect) of a huge moon as it’s rising or setting. The man in the moon has been the subject of many stories for centuries.

The moon can be seen regardless of the darkness of the sky – when it’s lit by the sun of course, not when it’s a New Moon (meaning the sun and moon rise together, and it’s only the far side of the moon that is illuminated by the sun, and so we can’t see it) – it’s powerful glare beating even a stadiums booming lights.

If you haven’t looked at the moon in a good pair of binoculars or even a modest telescope, you really are missing out. It’s magnificent to actually see the craters of the moon.

 

The Planets

We have 8 planets dancing round the sun (it was nine before Pluto was downgraded to a Dwarf Planet). We have the Inner Planets – Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars – and we have the Outer Planets including Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The smallest is Mercury whilst the largest is Jupiter.

The brightest planet you will see in the sky is Venus, also known as earth’s violent twin due to the turbulent and unforgiving weather system. As Venus is closer to the sun than Earth is, you will always see Venus (when it’s possible) either late evening just after the sun rises or very early morning just before the sun rises. Other than the Sun and the Moon, Venus is the next brightest object in the night sky.

Jupiter and Saturn are the two largest planets in the Solar System. Jupiter bigger and closer and so will appear brighter in the sky than Jupiter, but Saturn is easy to spot too. The easiest way to compare the brightness of the two planets was during the Great Conjunction on December 21st 2020 – also known as the Christmas Star.

This conjunction – which is when two planets, from Earth’s point of view, pass close by to on another.  The last time Jupiter and Saturn were as close as they were on 21st December 2020 was over 400 years ago!

I would wholeheartedly recommend seeing Jupiter and Saturn through a telescope. Through a telescope it’s possible to see the four main moons of Jupiter (hidden from the knowledge of man until the 1600s when Galileo invented the first telescope) and also it’s possible to see the rings of Saturn. A truly unforgettable sight.

Mars is pretty close to Earth but is much smaller. It’s pretty easy to see with the naked eye through a bedroom window. It’s pinky salmon color giving it away. Through binoculars it will like a small salmon colored sphere.

As all of the planets are circling around the Sun at different speeds, it means the planets are not like the stars. They aren’t seasonal, they do not appear in the same spot at the same time each year. As a result, they will be at different points in the sky throughout the year.

To find these you will be best placed to download a free planetarium app on to your mobile device. StarTracker, SkySafari 6 and Stellarium are all good choices. They allow you to point your mobile device up to the sky and tell you (by the magic of GPS), what you are looking at!

It’s possible to see Mercury, although its orbit is so close to the Sun it can only be seen immediately after sunset or immediately before sunrise. Uranus and Neptune can be seen using binoculars or a telescope but will look small and pretty uneventful.

 

Galaxies

If you don’t expect too much you can marvel at the fact you can see a ‘relatively’ close galaxy from a bedroom window. If you live in any type of town or city where there is at least some light pollution you will need binoculars or a small telescope at least.

The Andromeda galaxy is a prime target for almost all the US between around September and March. The best viewing times though are between November and January. It’s the closest large galaxy to our own Milky Way. Although I use the term ‘close’, by our perception of distance it’s unimaginatively far away.

To try and get our heads around the distance we have to think of the speed of light. Light travels an eye watering 186,000 miles a second! Yes, a second!

Light is so fast it can travel around the World seven times in a single second. Pretty quick.

The Andromeda galaxy is so far away that if we could travel at the speed of light it would take us over 2.5 million years to get there.

Yet despite its colossal distance not only is it the closest galaxy to our own, but also packed with millions of stars that shine so bright it is possible to see it with the naked eye in dark skies here on Earth.

If you’re not in dark skies don’t worry. You can see the Andromeda galaxy, which will look like a fuzzy whispy cloud in binoculars and telescopes.

As I said at the start, don’t expect too much. Unfortunately, the photos of Andromeda galaxy on websites, magazines, books and even on the boxes that come with telescopes and astronomy binoculars are hugely enhanced. Those photos are taken with hours upon hours of long exposure photographs, and then editing and enhancing with Photoshop.

What though is amazing is that a) you’re actually looking at a galaxy! And b) that the light you are looking at left Andromeda 2.5 million years ago. It’s taken that light 2.5million years to travel across space and reach your eye.

 

Bright Stars and Clusters

Not all stars are the same. Some are incredibly far away, and some are close – relatively speaking. Some are quite average like our own Sun, but some stars like Betelgeuse are huge. Betelgeuse is so large it is 1,000 times bigger than our own sun. It’s enormous.

Because though it is so far away (around 642 light years away compared to our Sun which is just 8 light minutes away) it of course appears much smaller in the sky than our own Sun. It’s an easy target to spot though because of it’s distinct red color, and that it sits within one of the easiest constellations to find in the winter sky – Orion.

Betelgeuse is just one example of a bright star that can be seen from a bedroom window during an indoors star gazing session. In fact, there are hundreds that can be seen using even the most modest pair of binoculars.

Get yourself a good night sky book or magazine (the UK’s BBC Sky at Night Magazine is really recommended for a US audience as the US sit’s within the Northern Hemisphere like the UK does) and each month they highlight the best things to see in the night sky.

Equally wander around the latest news and guide pages here at Lonely Spaceman and we’ll guide you through the pick of the best every month.

 

No matter your age or location – or whether you are bracing the elements outdoors, or enjoying a stargazing session in the comfort of your own home – it’s always possible to see something exciting in the night sky ….. if only those annoying clouds would disappear!

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