Originally Published on August 28, 2018. Last Updated on August 7, 2023.
We spend so much time running from place to place and staring at our screens that we often neglect the simple wonders of the night sky. Reacquaint yourself with the cosmos—and introduce your youngsters to the stars—by setting up a comfortable at-home stargazing spot.
We created a guide you can use to prep your patio for a magical night of backyard stargazing with the whole family.
What is Stargazing?
Stargazing is the simple act of looking at the stars and other celestial objects in the night sky. It’s a leisurely activity humans have enjoyed for thousands of years for various reasons, from scientific research to astrological predictions—or just for fun.
Preparing for the Big Night Out(side)
Read our suggestions for ensuring your stargazing gathering goes off without a hitch.
Watch the Weather
In order to see as many stars as possible, you’ll want clear skies with little cloud cover. Plan ahead and check the weather so you can avoid an overcast evening.
Monitor the Moon Cycle
The key to an excellent stargazing experience is darkness, so coordinate your sessions around the Moon’s brightness. Check the Moon’s current phase to choose a night when you’ll get a clear view of the stars.
Use a Reputable Space Source
- NASA offers a variety of skywatching tips, ideas, and calendars—all ready and waiting to show you the best ways and times to look up.
- The American Meteor Society has a calendar dedicated to upcoming meteor showers.
- The Farmers’ Almanac is filled with guides that tell you the best times to see stars, planets, eclipses, and more.
- Browse Space.com’s aptly named Space Calendar to learn about upcoming skywatching events, rocket launches, and related happenings.
Create a Relaxing and Safe Space
Here are some safety and style tips to enhance your skywatching experience:
- Clear away clutter and tripping hazards from your backyard.
- Fill the space with chaise lounges, Adirondack chairs, and other furniture that lets you easily lean back and look at the stars.
- Use seat cushions for extra comfort so you can stay outside longer.
- Arrange the space so guests have plenty of room to move around the furniture in the dark.
- Put up barriers around gardens and swimming pools to prevent accidental dips and trampled plants.
Turn Out the Lights
Light pollution will keep you from seeing the stars, so turn off all your outdoor lights to ensure a good view. For safety, line pathways, stairs, and doors with LED strips that can be turned on and off via remote or a smartphone app.
Here’s a list of suggested things to keep on hand that will make your night viewing extra enjoyable:
- Binoculars: Binoculars provide a broader and closer view of the sky. When buying a pair, look for one with a magnification between seven and 10 and an aperture of approximately 50 millimeters.
- Telescope: Have one handy to see far-off stars and planets.
- Star charts: These help you learn the locations of stars and constellations in the night sky. Use a paper map or a smartphone app (just dim the brightness when using the latter).
- Warm clothes and blankets: Your kids won’t enjoy themselves if it’s too chilly outside, so bundle up your babies in jackets, gloves, and other cozy layers.
- Flashlights: You’ll need these for restroom breaks or grabbing more snacks inside.
- Insect repellent: Use pest-repelling plants and homemade sprays to keep uninvited guests away.
- Snacks: Serve space-themed munchies like MILKY WAY® candies, Cosmic® Brownies, freeze-dried strawberries, star fruit, and MoonPies.
Celestial Objects You Can See While Skywatching
Here’s a list of things you can see while observing the night sky.
- Moon: The closest object to us, the Moon quietly orbits Earth from a safe distance—roughly 240,000 miles away. It’s a little more than a quarter the size of our planet, and its gravitational pull is the main cause of the ocean’s low and high tides.
- Stars: A star is a huge glowing ball of gasses held together by gravity. The nearest star (other than the Sun) is Proxima Centauri, hovering 4.25 light years away. The color of a star indicates its temperature and relative age. Blue stars are young and burn the hottest, and red stars have cooled off considerably in their old age.
- Constellations: A group of stars that appears to form a recognizable shape is called a constellation. Ursa Major looks like a bear, Scorpius resembles a scorpion, Orion depicts a hunter, and so on.
- Planets: Our solar system has eight planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Most can be seen with the naked eye at certain times of the year; others require binoculars or a telescope.
- Meteor showers: When Earth passes through a comet’s tail, bits of debris (aka meteors) enter our atmosphere at high speeds. They quickly burn up, creating streaks of light across the sky. About 30 meteor showers occur annually, and you can find out when and where to look with a quick online search.
- Galaxies: A galaxy is a massive collection of stars and other objects held together by gravity. On a clear night, we can see the neighboring Andromeda Galaxy and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds with the naked eye.
- Noctilucent clouds: Also called night-shining clouds, these rare phenomena appear in the summer months after sunset. When conditions are just right, we’re treated to electric blue clouds that streak the twilit sky.
- International Space Station: This is a large space station where astronauts and cosmonauts live year-round. Their jobs are to learn how humans can live and work in space so we can find ways to explore the cosmos further. The station orbits the Earth every 90 minutes, and with NASA’s live tracker, you’ll know when you can catch it zooming overhead.
What time at night should you stargaze?
The best time to stargaze is when true darkness arrives—between one and two hours after sunset. By this time, the sun has set low enough below the horizon that twilight won’t impact your view.
What months are best for stargazing?
Astronomers will tell you that the long nights during the fall, winter, and spring months are the best for stargazing. Observation season starts in autumn when Daylight Saving Time ends, and we get that extra hour of darkness.
How can I make stargazing more fun?
Pair skywatching with these activities to double the fun:
- Go camping (at home). Plan a backyard camping trip with your kids where you can sit by the fire, tell stories, and watch for shooting stars.
- Watch an outdoor movie. Watch space-themed films like Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy in your backyard theater.
- Make a DIY telescope. Search for craft ideas that let your children build their own telescopes using household items.
- Eat like an astronaut. Give your kids a glimpse of what it’s like to live in space by having them try freeze-dried ice cream, fruits, and veggies.