Astronomy 101: Starry Eyed? Try Stargazing

Lesson 6: Starry Eyed; Getting Started Star Gazing With a Sky Map

Big and Little Dippers & North Star
Big and Little Dippers & North Star. Nick Greene

OK, we know a little more about stars now. They’re just big balls of fiery gas. This lesson, Let’s spend a little time looking at them. Stargazing is many people's favorite part of astronomy.

However, a few words of advice about how to explore the sky are in order.

First, don’t rush off to the store to buy a telescope just yet. For most sky observing, you don’t need much equipment at all. You DO need some information and, perhaps, a red flashlight. Those are the main "gotta-haves" for stargazing.

Star Charts

Just like when we travel, we need a road map, when we search the skies, we need a sky map to lead us to the stars. There are many very good maps for sale at hobby shops that specialize in astronomy, or in books about astronomy. you can make them using astronomy software or apps, or use the ones printed in astronomy magazines such as Astronomy ( and Sky & Telescope (

Your Viewing Area

In order to have the best views of the sky, you should try to find a nice size field, preferably with as little light around as possible to minimize interference from light pollution. Light pollution is any light around you which prevents your eyes from adjusting to the dark, thereby making star gazing more difficult. Your back yard may work just fine.

Now, lie on your back. It doesn’t matter which direction your head is pointed as long as you know how you’re oriented and orient your sky map accordingly.  For this lesson, we'll concentrate on things that can be seen from mostly from Northern Hemisphere locations.

Next, just like when we travel, we need to find a “landmark” we can recognize. Since most people can find the Big Dipper, let’s look for it first.

Great! Now, if you think of the two stars which from the wall of the dipper connected its handle as a pointer, they aim directly at Polaris, the North Star, which in turn starts the handle of the little dipper. See, now you’re star gazing.

Orient the sky map with the N pointed towards north. Now, locate the Big Dipper and Little Dipper on the map and you’re ready to set off on your exploration. If you can get a red flashlight, or place some red cellophane over the lens of a standard flashlight, when you shine it on the map, your night vision won't be as affected as with a white light.

These instructions work fine for the northern hemisphere. If you are located south of the equator, it's possible you'll want a different landmark. Probably the most easily recognizable constellation which can be seen from the southern hemisphere is the Southern Cross. Once you locate this constellation, use it to orient yourself on the sky map.

Don't expect to see everything at once, it's a very large universe. When you've had a little experience with star gazing, you can consider buying a telescope. Talk to someone with more experience about the best telescope to buy.

Don't worry too much about identifying the objects you are viewing, just enjoy the splendor of the night sky. If curiosity does get the better of you, simply glance at your map and you should be able to recognize many of the stars and/or planets that are visible. Remember that the Earth is constantly moving, so allow for that movement as you look at the map.

Here is a listing of the 10 brightest stars. Remember that not all of these stars will be visible from where you are or at the time you are looking.

Next lesson, we’ll talk more about the stars and constellations you’re viewing.


Spend a few nights viewing the sky. Learn to quickly recognize the Big Dipper, Little Dipper, and Polaris or The Southern Cross. Check out this list of the top 10 brightest stars. Don't forget the discussion Forum.

Seventh Lesson > Playing Connect The Dots > Lesson 7, 8, 9, 10

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.