A commonly cited example of cosmic phenomenon that is rooted in Christian tradition is the sighting of the lodestar by the Magi leading them to believe a momentous occurrence was in the offing. Stargazing in the history of man goes back even earlier and can be traced to the ancient philosopher Plato’s experiments with Astronomy as a discipline circa 300 BC. Little wonder then, that Astronomy ranks among the oldest natural sciences. With the passage of time, astronomy also became linked with astrology as priests from the ancient world were the earliest professional astronomers.
Jump to the 20th century and you have “Scotty, beam us up,” the famous command line from that cult television series of 1960s ‘Star Trek’, which captured the popular imagination of millions the world over. The voyages of the spaceship the ‘Starship Enterprise’ traveling through space fueled the thought process of a global audience that must have wondered about the unknown expanse of eternity beyond the earth’s atmosphere – outer space.
Before telescopes, the only tool available to early stargazers was their naked eyes. A clear sky certainly helped make matters a little easier. The ancients or early people always thought of celestial objects or heavenly bodies as forces governing the universe. They believed that the movement of these celestial objects determined natural phenomenon on earth such as the changing of seasons and occurrence of eclipses, and also triggered changes in individual fortunes.
The 17th century changed the face of astronomy and stargazing forever with the invention of the telescope. Technological advancements over time have made telescopes affordable and have brought them into the public domain. Similarly, significant progress in the field of astronomy has made it a popular area of interest among peoples across modern civilizations.
For those new to stargazing, the Indian summer is a good time of the year to whet your new appetite for stargazing. However it helps to have some basic knowledge at the level of a primer so as to be able to identify constellations based on their unique individual shape and patterns. As constellations are seasonal, there are constellations of autumn, winter, spring and summer. Then there are the circumpolar constellations, which, unlike the seasonal constellations, are visible through the changing seasons.
Some well-known seasonal constellations include Cygnus The Swan and Pegasus The Winged Horse from the autumn constellation, Orion The Hunter and Andromeda from the winter constellation, Leo The lion, Virgo The Virgin from the spring constellation and Sagittarius The Archer and Scorpio The Scorpion from the summer Constellation. The circumpolar constellations include the Big Dipper, Perseus, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia. Constellation patterns do change but given the time they take, you can rearrange all the deck chairs on the liner Queen Mary 2 a thousand times over.
Given levels of pollution and intrusive artificial night light, stargazing in the city does not offer much promise. The countryside, by contrast, is a much better bet for some eventful stargazing. Removed from the glare of the artificial light and atmospheric pollution, the clear night sky presents a good opportunity. Acquiring a telescope is seen as a logical next step, the first being standing under the great vault by night and viewing stars with the naked eye.
A telescope certainly heightens the experience but is more for viewing the moon. For planets, galaxies, clusters and suchlike, a high-end telescope is what is needed.
Beginners should equip themselves with star charts that are maps, which help locate stars. As stars stay in fixed positions for long periods of time it becomes possible to map or document their positions with regard to one another.
For newcomers to stargazing, a good place to start is by locating the brightest stars on a particular night. Look for a pattern. Does the pattern in any way resemble the layout of some constellation? If you can get a sense of some pattern emerging, you can pat yourself on your back. You’ve tasted blood. It’s your first sighting of a constellation as a stargazer.
Signing up with a local astronomy clubs is also a good idea as you can pick up some hot tips and leads from experienced stargazers who can also offer help with the right choice of telescope or binoculars. There are some 60 local astronomy clubs in India. Find out which one’s closest to you and become a member. We’ve listed a few here to get you going –
Some astronomical trivialities –
Be warned if you wake up like a bear with a sore head. Chances are you were viewing Ursa Major the night before.
Be equally careful of snapping at people the following morning which might be understood as your obsession with Canis Major the night before.