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A Beginners' Guide To Stargazing In London

You don't even need a telescope.

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First things first: You don't need a fancy telescope like this one.

Matthew Tucker / BuzzFeed

All you really need to get going is a pair of binoculars. Ideally you want a pair with as large lenses as you can find. The bigger the lens, the more light it can collect – this means you can see fainter things in the sky.

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Binoculars and a tripod will see you right.

Matthew Tucker / BuzzFeed

You'll need a sturdy tripod – a camera tripod is fine – and an L plate to fix your binoculars to the tripod. A metal L plate is best.

The L plate and tripod will keep your binoculars steady so once you find where you are in the sky, you don't lose it again.

Binoculars are described using the magnification and size of lens.

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These binoculars are 10 x 50, which is ideal for a starter pair. Those numbers mean that they have a 10 times zoom – making objects appear 10 times closer – and that the lenses are 50mm in diameter.

The equipment you need is not prohibitively expensive.

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You could buy the whole set up – binoculars, L plate, and tripod – for less than £200. It's better to start with this simple set-up than buy a huge, expensive telescope that you end up not using.

You can even stargaze without any equipment.

If you're not ready to take the plunge with binoculars yet, have a go at just using your eyes. You'll still be able to see some major constellations and planets – and there's always the moon.

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The best spot is on high ground, with few trees or buildings around.

You want as clear a view of the horizon as possible. But to get going, you could just use a back garden, or your nearest green space. Don't worry too much about street lamps to start with – you can still see things even with light pollution.

However, please take care not to go by yourself in the dark at night.

Unless you're observing the moon, you probably want to avoid it.

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Look at an online calendar like this one to check which phase the moon is in.

If you're not planning on looking at the moon, choose an evening with a new moon or just a thin slither of a crescent to avoid unnecessary light pollution.

Wherever you are, you need to give your eyes time to adjust to the dark.

Once you're settled in your spot, it's going to take at least 20 to 30 minutes to adjust to the dark. And you can't pass the time checking Facebook on your phone – just glancing at a bright screen will undo all your hard work.

Don't use a normal torch to see what you're doing – it'll mean your eyes have to adjust all over again.

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But red light is fine, so get hold of a red-light torch. It'll be useful for reading a star map as well as finding things in your bag.

You don't even need to buy a new torch – just find a red see-through sweet wrapper and tape it to a normal torch.

Use constellations to anchor your vision.

Start with the North Star, also known as Polaris, to orient yourself in the night sky.

From there, what you'll be looking for will depend on what's visible at the time of year you're stargazing.

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You can use the Big Dipper to find the North Star.

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Spot a saucepan shape made of stars. That's the Big Dipper, also known as the Plough). Follow the handle down to the two stars on the left-hand side. The two stars directly opposite will point to the North Star.

To be doubly sure you've got the right one, if you have a camera that can take long exposure photographs, you can take a photograph of the sky with Polaris in the centre over 10–15 minutes. It's the only star that doesn't appear to move across the night sky, so you should see star trails all around a central dot.

Then turn the opposite direction and face south.

That's where you'll find the most interesting stuff in the sky.

In October Taurus is a good constellation to start with. Inside it you'll find the Pleiades, one of the closest young star clusters to Earth, which is visible with the naked eye. Then try the constellation of Pegasus, which is bordered by Andromeda – the nearest spiral galaxy to us – to the north and east.

In November try the Beehive Cluster in Cancer, which contains a thousand stars at different stages of evolution. Aldebaran (an orange giant star which makes up the bloodshot eye of Taurus) will be higher in the sky this month. And keep an eye out for Orion, its reddest star, Betelgeuse, and the Orion Nebula in the constellation's sword, which in reality is not a single star but a giant star factory.

December is a good time to look for Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky and part of Canis Major, the big dog. Also, Leo the lion, close to Jupiter, shouldn't be too tricky to find.

If you have a smartphone, you can use an app to check what should be visible in the night sky while you're observing.

This one is called Night Sky 2, but there are several available. Most have a night visibility mode that turns the screen red so you can look at it while you're out observing and not ruin all your hard work adjusting to the dark.

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Remember to be patient.

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It will take you at least half an hour to get used to the dark and to find your bearings. Bring a flask of hot tea and a warm coat.

Once you've found what you want to look at, focus your binoculars.

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Do this by turning the wheel at the top. Humidity in the air can make objects in the sky look blurry, so don't worry if you can't get the object looking picture-perfect.

And remember that the Earth moves under the night sky.

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So you once you're all set up looking you'll have to follow the objects you're looking at as they cross the sky.

You can use this to your advantage though, as the best time to observe an object is when it's highest in the sky.

Thanks to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and astronomer Radmila Topalovic for their help putting this guide together.

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