And plenty of telescopes, it turned out, were gathering dust in nearby attics. I handed over $50 and a batch of chocolate cookies for a powerful amateur version that turned the Milky Way into a twinkling swath of fairy lights.
With all trips called off, I was pursuing the sense of wonder I usually get from travel, the jolt of awe that comes with touching down in faraway places. “Looking at the skies, it makes you feel like you’ve traveled somewhere even when you haven’t,” agreed British science writer Abigail Beall, author of “The Art of Urban Astronomy: A Guide to Stargazing Wherever You Are.”
Beall, whose book will be released in the United States on Dec. 29, has spent the pandemic outside Leeds, England, tilting a pair of binoculars out of her window for a view of the sky. “When I look at the stars, I imagine how far away they are and how big space is,” Beall said. “It’s a great way to get a sense of escapism.”
It’s not easy to gauge participation in a hobby that consists, mostly, of sitting quietly in the dark. Still, I found stargazers around the world looking for solace in the skies. In London, writer Megan Eaves live-tweeted stars and planets using the hashtag #starentine, while rangers at the Grand Canyon hosted a virtual star party.
Meanwhile, telescopes joined bikes and boats as hot tickets amid the pandemic. Celestron, the world’s largest telescope brand, reported record sales. The company’s numbers were 50 percent higher than the previous year, with back-orders at all-time highs.
And while many stargazers dream of escaping cities for landscapes free from light pollution, Beall insists that getting out is rewarding wherever you are. Like many, she once assumed the opposite — when she moved to London for graduate school, Beall figured stargazing was off the table.
“That’s a big myth,” she said, recalling nights spent drinking wine and spotting stars with friends in the city. “There are still so many amazing things people can see.”
Table of Contents
Gather essential equipment (or don’t)
Even after bringing home my bartered telescope, I did much of my stargazing with binoculars, which I found more convenient. Beall approved, noting that a lack of costly (and unwieldy) equipment shouldn’t keep anyone from astronomy.
“You don’t even need binoculars,” she said. “Just go out and start looking with your eyes, and see what you can see.” If you want to upgrade, Beall said, binoculars are great, especially when steadied by a tripod or another fixed object.
What you see might surprise you. A pair of binoculars resolves the moon into a detailed topography of lava plains, craters and shadowy basalt. Magnification reveals four moons hovering around Jupiter, and on a dark night you can see Titan, the largest of Saturn’s 82 moons.
In Washington’s Rock Creek Park, it’s even possible to spot the Andromeda Galaxy, which is 2.5 million light-years away, with a pair of birding binoculars, said Guy Brandenburg of the volunteer-run National Capital Astronomers.
Still, upgrading to a telescope makes a difference. Before the pandemic, the group led monthly stargazing sessions in a field near Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium. They revealed just how much you can spot from the city when using a more powerful telescope.
When Brandenburg trained the telescope on Saturn’s spinning, icy rings, some first-time attendees refused to believe what they were seeing. “ ‘That’s not real,’ ” he recalled them saying. “ ‘You just painted that ring inside the eyepiece!’ ”
Find the perfect perch
Light pollution is unavoidable when stargazing in or near the city. You can’t do much about ambient “sky glow,” but choosing your gazing location with care mitigates the impact of direct light.
If you’re at home, start by extinguishing all the lights, then find an outside space with a view of the sky. Brandenburg, who lives in D.C., positions himself so a backyard tree blocks a light glaring in the nearby alley. Forest clearings and fields are ideal, or you can stake out a rooftop exposed to a clean sweep of unobstructed sky. (Keep your lens pointing up to avoid creeping out the neighbors.)
Learn your way around
Meanwhile, the limitations of urban stargazing offer a small bonus for novices. In cities, only the most brilliant stars are visible; learning them provides a basic map for finding your way around the sky, no matter where you gaze.
A key way point is the Big Dipper, a pattern of stars within the constellation Ursa Major. From there, you can follow the edge of the “bowl” to Polaris, the North Star. The “handle,” meanwhile, curves away to Arcturus, among the brightest stars in the sky.
Those are the basics, but first you need to get oriented. One option is the popular SkySafari app, which Brandenburg uses. A phone is portable light pollution, however: It can take 30 minutes to regain dark adaptation after a peek at the screen.
And now that everything from first dates to preschool happens virtually, there’s solid pleasure in an old-fashioned star book. Terry Trees, the coordinator of the Urban Observing Program at the Astronomical League, recommended “Norton’s Star Atlas and Reference Handbook,” a classic now in its 20th edition. (While currently out of print, it’s widely available.)
“It will show you the section of sky, but it will also say, here are the things you might want to look at in this section of sky,” he explained. Covering a flashlight with a red gel filter will minimize the impact on your night sight while checking the book.
For amateur astronomers who want a starter kit of stargazing goals, Trees’s Urban Program has compiled two lists of 100 objects — deep sky plus double and variable stars — that can be seen from light-polluted areas. (Collect them all for a nifty pin.)
Instead of collecting stars, though, I just kept an eye on the heavens with a battered copy of Peterson’s “Stars and Planets.” And in a season when time seemed to stutter and skip, I found comfort in stars that didn’t miss a beat.
The first warm evenings brought the summer triangle, a brilliant isosceles made up of the stars Vega, Deneb and Altair, to the eastern edge of my yard. The Perseid meteor shower streaked down through the middle of August. After the meteors blazed out, a full and bright corn moon swelled from the horizon in early September.
It gave the yard an autumnal glow that lingered as I carried my binoculars back into the house, where I drowned the stars in a sudden dazzle of yellow kitchen lights.