Give it a go: Stargazing

When’s the last time you looked up at the night sky? RNLI fundraiser and amateur astronomer Simon Perks tells us how we can all wonder at the stars above.
A long exposure night-time photograph of the Milky Way over Charmouth Beach in Dorset, UK. The horizon on the right is lit by lights on a distant stretch of coast, and on the left is a row of beach huts in pastel blues.

Photo: Dorset Scouser Photography

A Milky Way sky over Charmouth Beach in Dorset, UK

Simon Perks’s dad had a cool job at sea. As a boy, Simon was inspired by his father’s tales of astro-navigating round the world with the Merchant Navy.

These days, GPS and satellites are the popular choice of navigators, but Simon’s dad’s stories got him addicted to stargazing. In his spare time, when he’s not promoting the RNLI with his Lego lifeboat crew (see their Twitter) or fundraising at Portishead Lifeboat Station, Simon can often be found looking up at the night sky.

He explains the appeal of astronomy: ‘It sounds clichéd but it is genuinely wonder. And I love learning about different things, like physics. There’s lots we know and lots we don’t – that’s what fascinates me.’

If astrophysics and Brian Cox aren’t your thing, you can still get a lot out of stargazing. Simon enthuses: ‘It’s a very easy hobby to get involved in. You don’t need anything to get started. The best way to look at a lot of things in the night sky, such as constellations or meteor showers, is with the naked eye.’

Like his dad before him, Simon sometimes uses the stars to navigate, something humans have been doing for thousands of years: ‘When out hiking, I use the sky to orient myself – from the Pole Star and various constellations.’

Tips to get started

Be comfortable: You can get surprisingly cold keeping still for an hour or 2, so wear warm clothes. Use a chair or a sun lounger to keep your neck from hurting. Take a flask and some biscuits.

Stay safe: Be careful in the dark! If you’re on your own, don’t go anywhere too remote. Take friends or join your local astronomical society.

Get the best view: Go somewhere away from light pollution. The coast or a national park are ideal and your local park or the garden will do. Out on the water is a super place to stargaze with the naked eye, but not so good for keeping your binoculars or telescope steady!

Take your time: Wait for at least an hour after sunset. Give your eyes time to adjust – this can take up to 40 minutes.

Help is at hand: There are loads of resources and websites to help you get started. Simon recommends Astronomy Now or BBC Sky at Night magazines, skymaps.com, popastro.com, stellarium.org.

Your challenge

If it’s a clear night, why not give stargazing a go? Follow Simon’s tips above.

How many of these can you spot?

  • the constellation Orion

  • Sirius, the brightest star in our sky

  • a blue moon 

  • the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear

  • the constellations Pegasus and Andromeda – you’ll see the Andromeda Galaxy as it was when the light left it 2.5 million years ago

  • Polaris, the Pole Star or North Star.

For the gadget lover: You can pick up binoculars for around £50 (go for a pair of 10x50s if you can). A reasonable-sized telescope can cost around £150–200. Get some advice before you buy – members of your local astronomical society will help.

Planning a trip to the coast to stare at the stars? Take a look at our coastal walking tips and make sure you stay safe.