Beginner Stargazing Tips

Written by Ernie Jacobs, Lead Astronomer

You can enjoy the night sky from your own backyard. All you need is your eyes and some curiosity. The night sky has something to offer during every season – so dress for the weather and get 0ut there!

To help you get started on your stargazing adventure, print out a Sky Map ( or or use one of the many planetarium apps available for smart devices. To use a Star Chart, orient the direction (North, South, East & West) indicator on the chart for the direction you are looking down, towards the ground. This will indicate the stars in front of you. Rotate the chart accordingly when looking in a different direction. Smart Device apps often have a compass feature which will show you the view of the sky that you are pointing the phone at. Some apps have an augmented Reality (AR) feature which will use the devices camera to superimpose the night sky onto the actual view in the direction that you are pointing the device to. Most apps have a free version and offer upgrades for a fee.

A red flashlight or headlamp is a useful source of illumination for reading printed Sky Maps and navigating your surroundings. Red light is preferred over white light because it helps preserve your night vision. You can read about the effect red vs white light here: Dark Adaptation of the Human Eye and the Value of Red Flashlights. Red flashlights can be purchased online, or you can make them yourself from regular white light flashlights. Here are some ideas for DIYing your own red flashlight:

Sky Map Example

Be aware that what you can see in the night sky changes throughout the year, so be sure the Sky Map you’re referencing is for the right time of year. Pay attention to how the brightest stars appear to move within a single night, from night to night, and from season to season. Once you can find the bright stars, look for the larger patterns they form (asterisms and constellations). The bright stars, asterisms, and constellations will help you orient yourself in the night sky are the keys to finding other objects like the Moon, planets, or even the International Space Station (ISS).

To find out if an ISS pass is visible and the details for viewing the pass, I use the website Heavens Above. Put in your viewing location in the box in the upper right-hand corner of the page. Click on ISS from the list on the main page. This will provide a list of visible passes from your location. Click on pass to get further details, including a handy star chart showing the path of the ISS through the sky.

The International Space Station as of Oct. 4, 2018. Credit: NASA/Roscosmos

My advice to beginner astronomers is to identify the brightest stars visible during a given season and practice finding them. Look at your Star Chart or Planetarium App, the brightest stars are represented with the biggest dots. They are the stars will become visible first as the sky grows dark during twilight and they should punch through most light pollution. Find them with just your eyes first. After finding them by you can practice finding them with a pair of binoculars or telescope if you have them. This a foundational skill that will help you orient yourself with the night sky and find other objects. Practice whenever you go outside and the skies are clear.

In general, the week before and after New Moon is the best time for observing the night sky, unless you’re looking to observe the Moon itself, because this time frame provides the darkest skies. For observing the Moon with optical aid (telescopes and/or binoculars), the best time to look at it is when the Moon is not full. When the Moon is not full craters will have much more depth and contrast. This is especially true near the Terminator, the line between illuminated side and non-illuminated side.

Keep an eye out for meteors too! Meteors are often best viewed between midnight and dawn.

Live in a light polluted area? Try to have polite conversations with your neighbors, perhaps they will shut off an offensive light for a few hours. You can use fences or other structures to shield your eyes from nearby bright lights or try to find a nearby location that has less light pollution. When searching for a darker location, be sure not to trespass and take appropriate safety precautions. If possible, encourage friends, family, and neighbors to install dark sky friendly lighting when adding or replacing outside lights. Light fixtures should direct light downwards where it’s needed and not up towards the sky. Also, turn the lights on only when needed, motion detectors or timers can be really useful for reducing light pollution. Aside from causing reduced visibility for stargazers, light pollution has a negative impact on human health and wildlife. Contact your local Astronomy club or the International Dark Sky association for more information on light pollution.

If you’re a Western New Yorker who’s interested in learning more about astronomy, check out the Buffalo Astronomical Associations’ website for local events and outreach programming throughout the year. Can’t wait for a BAA event to learn more about the skies? This presentation also features information and pictures regarding astronomical objects.

Thinking of buying a telescope? Take a look at this guide for some advice: What Kind of Telescope Should I Get?


Computer Apps:

  • Stellarium (Free and is cross platform)

Smart Device Apps:

  • Sky Safari
  • Sky Guide (iOS only)
  • Star Walk 2
  • Star Chart
  • Sky Map (Android only)
  • Stellarium Mobile
  • Heavens Above (Android only)

Full Moon Walk

Saturday September 5, 7 pm

As the sun falls and the moon takes over the sky, Marv Jacobs will lead us around the trails of Penn Dixie. Our special guide will highlight the many uses of local plants and also explain how nature and the night sky are represented in Native American culture.

This is a FREE event and open to the public. Registration is required and space is limited. Dress for the weather. Bring flashlights, water, and bug spray. The program begins at 7 pm and ends at 9 pm; we may not be able to accommodate late arrivals so please be punctual. Guests will be notified via email if the program is cancelled due to weather. Face coverings are optional so long as social distancing — 6 feet or more between groups — is followed at all times.

=> Register Here

Hamburg seal       No Background

Thanks to the generous support of the Town of Hamburg and Southtowns Regional Chamber of Commerce, there is no charge for our evening astronomy programs.

Looking Up! Virtual Stargazing

Saturday June 6 – 8:30 pm

The Buffalo Astronomical Association, Penn Dixie Fossil Park & Nature Reserve, Explore & More – The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Children’s Museum, and Williamsville Space Lab Planetarium will be presenting another Virtual Stargazing Event on Saturday June 6th starting at 8:30 PM.

Kids: Want to participate? We’re inviting a few science enthusiasts under age 18 to join our program. To participate, email your questions in advance to . We’ll select individuals to appear on the program and ask their question directly to our astronomers. A parent or guardian must be present at the time of the event and willing to provide consent for the child to appear on the program. You’ll need Zoom and access to a computer, smartphone, or tablet with camera and microphone. One participant will be randomly selected to win a Galileoscope Telescope kit ( Please submit questions by 10 pm on Thursday June 4th.

Format: Join the Facebook livestream and pose questions in the comment section. Don’t have Facebook? Email and we’ll share a link shortly before the start time.

Penn Dixie thanks Erie County, NY, Township of Hamburg, NY, & Southtowns Regional Chamber of Commerce for their support!

Monthly Stargazing

Join us for an out-of-this-world experience! Our astronomers will map the night sky — including stars, planets, constellations, and deep space objects — for you using a variety of telescopes and specialized equipment. Guests are encouraged to bring lawn chairs, warm clothing, blankets, and food/beverages. We’ll have plenty of telescopes, but you can bring yours along, too, if you’d like some expert advice.

2019 Schedule

Saturday April 27, 7:45 pm
Saturday May 25, 8:15 pm
Saturday June 8, 8:15 pm (reschedule from May)
Saturday June 29, 8:30 pm
Saturday July 27, 8:15 pm
Saturday August 31, 7:30 pm
Saturday September 28, 6:30 pm
Saturday October 19, 6 pm

Admission (cash or credit) is $4. There is no charge for Penn Dixie members. Registration not required. Due to the uncertainty of weather, we will not offer advance ticketing for these programs. Stay tuned to our social media for updates.

Programs run for 2-3 hours depending on viewing conditions.

A solar eclipse viewed through Penn Dixie telescopes.

Thinking about purchasing a telescope? This telescope guide offers some great suggestions from Penn Dixie astronomer Ernie Jacobs. You can also download our Astronomy Night guide — also prepared by Ernie Jacobs — to learn more about our programs.

October 6: Stargazing

Saturday October 6, 6:30 to 9:30 pm

Our final astronomy program of the season brings us the two planets and the arrival of the autumn constellations. Without a moon, we’ll have a clear view of Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn, as well as deep space objects including NGC457 ET Cluster and M31 The Andromeda Galaxy. Admission is FREE to all! No registration needed.

October 6 2018

Sun & Moon:
Sunset will be at 6:46 pm
There will be no moon visible during the program

Mars rises at 4:27 pm
Jupiter sets at 8:29 pm
Saturn sets at 10:57 pm

The Summer Triangle  – Meridian (Vega, Deneb, & Altair)
The Big Dipper –NW
Cassiopeia – NE
Lyra –Meridian
Cygnus/Northern Cross – Meridian
Aquilla -Meridian
Sagittarius – SW
Hercules – W
Pegasus – E
Andromeda – E

M57 Ring Nebula
M13 The Great Globular Cluster in Hercules
NGC457 ET Cluster
M31 Andromeda Galaxy
Alcor & Mizar