How to stargaze in cities
It's not easy to observe space from the middle of a big city, but it is possible. Here's how.
You don't need to travel to a desert, a mountain or even a field to take in our solar system in all its majesty.
Getting a clear view of the stars from the middle of a city is possible with a little planning.
Ashley King, a planetary scientist based at the Museum, says, 'It's not easy to observe space from cities. The light pollution is usually too much. However, there are a few spots you can go to. The general advice is get as high above buildings as you can and minimise the light in your vicinity.'
If you're totally new to stargazing, you can start off with experiments that won't break the bank. There's no need to rush out and buy an expensive telescope.
It's easy to study the Moon with a pair of binoculars if you stay away from the worst of the street lighting and make sure you have a clear line of sight with no trees in the way. You can also see Saturn and some moons of Jupiter through binoculars.
Find the right spot
Before you go, plan ahead and choose a clear, cloudless evening. Winter evenings tend to be better, because city heat in the summer generates humidity and haze. Moonless nights also work better for seeing the stars, although gazing at a full Moon can be an enjoyable experience in itself.
When you live in a city, the trick is to find the biggest bit of sky you can, or get up as high as you can above the rooftops. A loft window, a rooftop, the windows of upper-storey flats or a local park (especially on the outskirts of a city) can work well as vantage points.
Wherever you are, make sure to wrap up warm and stay safe.
You could also take a camera and read our guide to photographing the night sky before you go.
Avoid light pollution
Allowing your eyes to adapt to the available light is fundamental to stargazing, but a city's glare of artificial light can make this easier said than done. Light pollution doesn't just mean the orange glow of an urban space - a nearby street lamp or phone screen can also interfere with your view.
If you can't turn off your phone completely, consider downloading or enabling a red light filter, which will let you see without forcing your eyes to keep readjusting to the dark.
iOS accessibility settings let you turn on colour tints on your phone, or you could even stretch old-fashioned red cellophane across the screen.
If you're in your garden, turn off outside lights.
Once you're set up, allow 10 to 15 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark, and try not to look at phone screens or torches. Patience is key.
Know what you're looking for
The Moon is generally easy to spot, or you can find out when the next meteor shower is forecast.
When it comes to stars, there are billions of them out there. You can peruse them at leisure, or there are free apps available for your phone that will help you to figure out exactly what you're looking at.
- SkyView Free uses an iPhone camera as a viewfinder, and lets you get information about objects in the sky when you click on them.
- You can also track the International Space Station on NASA's website and wave hello as it passes by. It's one of the brightest objects in the sky.
- The 88 named constellations are constantly moving across the sky, and each is visible at different times of the year. What you will be able to see will vary according to your country and the time of year, so it pays to research ahead of time.
Space on CCTV
If you're really committed to seeing a shooting star, you could set up a CCTV camera to record the night sky. There are currently many cameras all over the UK that are permanently recording the sky and searching for meteors.
The good news is that these cameras are run by amateur astronomers, and can be stationed in the middle of big cities. One is currently in Cardiff, another in central London.
They record shooting stars and fireballs over the UK, and help scientists to track the speed, orbit and location of meteors.
You could start your own meteor video detection camera anywhere in the UK. Setting up your own camera costs between £500 and £800, but there are other ways to catch a glimpse of extra-terrestrial magic.
Ideas for budding astronomers in London
- The Baker Street Irregular Astronomers meet in Regents Park to discuss the night sky. It's open to everyone, from novices to experts, and it is free to join.
- The Dark Sky Discovery website shows local places that are good for stargazing. There are three sites to consider in London: Regents Park, the WaterWorks Nature Reserve between Clapton and Stratford, and Grove Park Community Group Garden.
- The Royal Observatory Greenwich runs astronomy classes and offers advice on becoming an amateur or a professional astronomer.
- Morden Hall Park in South London is 125 acres - big enough to escape light pollution.