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Astronomy is the study of the universe outside Earth. Very few people get the privilege to visit space, but everyone with good eyes can see at least some of the miracles of the universe from the Earth's surface.


The Ursa Major constellation, including the Big Dipper, can be seen in the sky when you're in the Northern Hemisphere

There are many reasons to combine travelling with a look upwards. Given that you can see a different set of stars in the sky depending on the latitude you are at, if you're at all interested in astronomy and happen to travel across the Equator or even to the tropics, do take a look upwards at nighttime. More enthusiastic astronomers may even make a trip, in order to e.g. see a specific total solar eclipse that isn't visible where they live.

In modern cities, light pollution means that the starry sky is hardly visible. The far-off countryside provides an astounding view of the stars. Mountains and deserts are also better places to look at the stars than others, firstly because they usually lack the light pollution of modern civilization and secondly because air and all that's in it (primarily water) obstructs the clear view of the stars. If you are at 4,000 meters altitude, you already have a lot of the air below you. And a cloudy day is unlikelier in the Sahara than in say Oslo, making high desert areas ideal for observation of the sky, resulting in many observatories being in such places. And it should thus come as no surprise that the Atacama desert in South America which is both very dry and has high altitudes is a popular place for serious government funded observatories.

Also, astronomy is among the few sciences in which amateur scientists regularly make discoveries on their own, given that nobody can watch all the sky all the time and just having a good enough piece of equipment and looking at the right place by chance, you may discover your "own" comet, asteroid or other object.


Astrology is the superstitious belief that astronomic events interact with human life on Earth. Though dismissed by modern science, astronomy and astrology used to be the same thing in ancient times, and astrology provides a historical background to today's knowledge. While western astrology is loosely based on Graeco-Roman mythology, there are other traditions of astrology in places such as China.


Not much equipment is needed to get started with amateur astronomy. A good pair of binoculars, or even just a good pair of eyes, can get you off to a good start. However, don't look directly at solar eclipses, even full ones.

Also, consider when visiting professional observatories that large lenses or mirrors are very sensitive to temperature and thus the observatories are usually not heated.


Total solar eclipse
  • Solar eclipses might be the most spectacular phenomenon visible from Earth's surface. By a lucky coincidence, the moon is barely large enough to cover the sun. Note that looking directly at the sun can cause eye damage or blindness so always take adequate safety precautions e.g. NASA's Eye Safety During Solar Eclipses or How to View a Solar Eclipse Without Damaging Your Eyes.
  • Lunar eclipses, in which the earth is directly in between the sun and the moon, are visible from any point on Earth where the moon can be seen. In a partial lunar eclipse, you can see the earth's shadow on the moon, and in a total lunar eclipse, the moon looks red (sometimes known as a "blood moon"). You don't need eye protection to look at it (because you're not looking at the sun). NASA provides tables of past and future lunar eclipses.
  • Midnight sun
  • Northern Lights and Southern Lights are usually only visible at latitudes far from the equator.
  • Meteors are seasonally visible.
  • Comets can be observed occasionally by amateur astronomers without any specialized equipment.
  • Planets can be observed some months.
  • ISS and Iridium flares can be observed almost daily. Web sites can tell you when and where to see the Space Station and Iridium Flares, e.g. NASA's Space Station Sighting Predictions and Iridium Flare Predictions - note that that the predictions are based on your location so make sure you have told the site where you are!
  • Stars and constellations.

Light Pollution[edit]

Whilst objects like the Sun and Moon are bright (they are close to us), many astronomical objects are harder to see. Our modern lifestyle has resulted in many areas having street lighting and this night time illumination interferes with seeing many smaller dimmer objects in the night sky. And the impact of this lighting is dramatic; in a totally dark skies most people will be able to see more than 4,000 stars with their naked eye, but in a typical suburban area that number might reduce to 450 and move to a city and the number drops still further to 35.

So to see most, find a dark location. Earth monitoring satellites have allowed scientists to create light pollution maps which can help find the best places to watch the night sky; for example Dark Site Finder Light Pollution Map.

Dark Adaption[edit]

When we move from an illuminated area to a dark area our eyes take some time to adapt to be more sensitive. The time taken to fully adapt varies between individuals (e.g. with age) but for your eyes to fully dark adapt can take 30-45 minutes. During this time your eyes will be gradually becoming more and more sensitive and you will see more and more objects in the night sky. To dark adapt and to keep the dark adaption you need to stay in darkness, turn your torch on even briefly and you can lose the increased sensitivity. The difference between non adapted and fully dark adapted is "dramatic" in a dark area.

Averted Vision[edit]

Our eyes use two different types of cell to detect light called rods and cones. The cone cells provide colour vision and these cells are concentrated in the centre of the retina and are not particularly light sensitive. Rod cells are far more light sensitive but only detect back & white and are virtually all outside the centre of the retina. Thus, to see the fainter objects in the night sky people use a technique called Averted Vision where rather than looking directly at what you want to see, instead you look slightly to one side meaning the light from the faint object falls on the more sensitive rod cells in the eye. It is generally best to position the object to your nose side of the eye (as there is a "blind spot" around 15° to the temporal side). It is a difficult technique to master but can help when looking for dimmer more diffuse objects, allowing you to see objects 20x-40x dimmer than by looking directly at the object. When first trying, many find that when they 1st see the object using averted vision they immediately switch to looking directly at it which moves it to the less sensitive cells and it disappears!

Celestial navigation[edit]

Astronomy can be used for navigation, and was an important skill for seafarers until radio based systems and later satellite navigation became reliable and affordable (Gee, Loran and Decca were developed in the 1940s, Loran-c became widespread in the 1970s, GPS in the 1990s). Celestial navigation is still taught on many advanced navigation courses, and usable at least as a backup when electronics fail (and in terrible radio weather and other special conditions).

Before the chronometer (constructed in the 18th century), several celestial events were suggested for establishing the time and thus the longitude, such as eclipses of Jupiter's moons. The latitude is more easy to get, from the angle above the horizon of the sun at noon and of stars late in the evening and early in the morning (the horizon has to be visible). As one degree means a hundred kilometres, equipment is needed; the Polynesians used holes drilled through coconut shells.

On land, a coarse course can be kept by observing the sun, moon and stars (see Orienteering); the accuracy of measuring celestial angels is not good enough to be of much navigational use on land in normal situations.

Research observatories[edit]

Pre-modern observatories are usually obsolete today, and remain as museums, or sites of education.

Most modern research telescopes are enormous facilities in remote areas with favorable atmospheric conditions.


  • 1 European Space Agency's Columbus Control Centre, Münchener Straße 20,82234 Weßling (20km (12 mi) outside of Munich in Oberpfaffenhofen), +49 8153 28-2711, e-mail: . every day from 15:00-16:00 (registration required, groups limited to 30 persons) until the "Blue Dot" space mission is in space, afterwards depending on space missions. is used to control the Columbus research laboratory of the International Space Station, as well as a ground control centre for the Galileo satellite navigation system. It is located at a large research facility of the German Aerospace Centre. (DLR). German registration form free.
  • Stjerneborg observatory, Hven Island, Sweden - Tycho Brahe's observatory.
  • 2 University Observatory Vienna (Universitäts Sternwarte), Türkenschanzstraße 17, Währing, Wien, Austria. The Institute of Astronomy is part of the University of Vienna, located inside a fabulous historic building. The building and the Sternwartepark were closed for visitors up until recently. The park contains many rare trees. It has a mini observatory on the roof. Guided tours are available.
  • 3 The Royal Observatory, Blackford Hill, South Edinburgh, United Kingdom, +44 131 668-8100, fax: +44 131 668-8264. Public Evenings every Friday 19:00-20:45 - must be booked in advance. Take a tour of the dome, housing one of Europe's largest telescopes. Learn about the history of the observatory and some of the cutting edge work they are carrying out today. If the weather is clear you can observe the stars in winter or the sun (through a special telescope) in summer. On some Fridays there is a special theme - check website for details. £4.00 adults, £3.00 children.

North America[edit]

  • 4 Mt Graham International Observatory, 1651 W Discovery Park Blvd, Safford, AZ (Discovery Park Campus), +1 928-428-6260, e-mail: . May-Oct, depending on weather. Operated by the University of Arizona and situated in the Pinaleño Mountains west of Safford, this observatory offers periodic tours for the public. Reservations required, preferably two or more weeks in advance. Tours depart from the Discovery Park Campus in Safford. $40/person, includes lunch.
  • 5 Kitt Peak National Observatory, Tohono O'Odham Reservation, AZ (90 minutes southwest of Tucson), +1 520-318-8726, e-mail: . 9AM-3:45PM daily. Operates several astronomical telescopes plus a large solar telescope. Several guided tours are available, as well as a nightly observation program (reservations required). $9.75 for all three tours (adults).
  • 6 Mauna Kea Observatories, No street address (6 miles uphill from the intersection of Route 200 (Saddle Road) and the Mauna Kea Access Road), +1 808-961-2180, e-mail: . The observatories at the peak of Mauna Kea itself are off limits to anyone who has no 4-wheel drive vehicle and has not gotten permission to visit, though groups of more than 10 may make a special request at least a month in advance. However, there is a Visitor Information Station at an altitude of 9,200 feet (2,800 meters), where the local Astronomical Society assembles very good portable telescopes every night and shares them and their knowledge with visitors for free. That altitude is better for the naked eye than the peak, anyway, because at higher altitudes, the lack of oxygen starts to decrease people's ability to see. The sky at Mauna Kea is unparalleled: There is an extremely low level of light pollution at Mauna Kea because it is high up and far from cities, and also because the cities and towns on the Big Island of Hawaii use low-pressure sodium street lamps and some LED lamps with very low blue light emissions, rather than more common, light-polluting types.

South America[edit]

While the headquarters of the European Southern Observatory are in Garching near Munich, Germany, the observatories are located in northern Chile. These include the:

  • European Southern Observatory
    • New Technology Telescope, La Silla, Chile
    • Very Large Telescope, Paranal, Chile
    • Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, Llano de Chajnantor, Chile

The climate and geography in the Atacama Desert, Chile make it a great place for night sky observing; dry air and more than 300 lear nights each year. In addition to the professional research telescopes, astronomy enthusiasts can take advantage of the conditions at SPACE a specialist Astronomy tourism company and resort

See also[edit]

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