How to get started in Amateur Astronomy


When you look up at the darkened sky and gaze at the stars, some seem to be blinking, and you wonder why. All of a sudden, you can see a shooting star and the little dipper. The moon is in an eclipse, and a feeling of wonder overcomes you. There is so much up there to learn about and enjoy, and it is not difficult or expensive to become involved.

Read about astronomy. Merely looking up in the sky will not teach you all you need to know, so visit your local library and browse through the astronomy section. There is a variety of books which are geared toward beginners as well as the more advanced. Find one that is an introduction to astronomy, and learn about the physics of the cosmos. Surf the Internet under ‘Astronomy’ and be assured you will receive a vast array of information as well as pictures.

Visit a planetarium or observatory. Many observatories have huge, expensive telescopes and offer you an exciting as well as informative way of observing the many wonders of the sky. Check with your local science museum to see if they offer a star-gazing night open to the public. Visit the observatory at night, climb up to the tower, and observe first hand, through their powerful telescopes, what you have learned and seen up until now only in books. A planetarium uses projectors to offer an artificial view of the night sky. The chairs recline, the room becomes black, and all you see are stars in a darkened sky. This is a great way to get started because you will have access to an expert guide to answer your questions. You also will get to meet others with similar interests.

Purchase a star atlas or a star map which will enable you to determine what you are looking at while gazing at the sky. Your library will probably have one, but since maps will be an important part of your astronomical study, it is best to buy your own. If you are unable to afford one, then download free star maps from the Internet.

Find someplace dark to observe that is away from city glare. Good choices might include national and state parks. Enquire at these places about naturalist lead presentations about the night sky as well. Use your eyes. It is not necessary to buy an expensive telescope because the naked eye can see a great deal in the night sky. By observing with only your eyes you get a true feeling of how ancient astronomers practiced their craft. If you can, try to lie down on the grass and look at the sky above you. The darkened sky takes on another dimension in this position, and creates a feeling of you being totally alone in a vast universe. Locate the North Star, and follow the ‘map of the sky’. Make sure you have the correct star map to coincide with the date and location. If you have studied the books, you might be able to find the “Little Dipper” and other constellations or asterisms.
Buy a pair of binoculars. If your naked-eye observations have gotten you excited about astronomy, get a good set of binoculars and observe the night sky with them for a more close-up view. 10×50 binoculars are excellent for stargazing.

Obtain a telescope. There are several types of telescopes, with different features, uses and prices. However, you need not purchase the most expensive one in order to enjoy astronomy. The most important thing to consider is the telescope’s aperture, or the size of the light-gathering part of the telescope. The larger the aperture, the brighter your image will be. The next most important characteristic is the focal length of the ‘scope, which will determine how much of the sky you can see in the image. Magnification is much less important than quality of optics. A good way to choose a telescope is to attend star parties (see below) and ask a few of the members for permission to try theirs so you get an idea of which models you prefer. Join an astronomy club. Amateur astronomy is very popular in most cities and small towns. Search the Internet to find a club in your vicinity or get information by calling a local planetarium. Clubs give you the opportunity to learn from others who have more experience, and to meet and make new friends with other beginners who have the same interest in astronomy. Attend a star party. Star parties are outdoor meetings where amateur astronomers meet and look at the sky together. Many are already members of an astronomy club. This can be quite interesting, especially since each person might find a new area, star or planet that you might have overlooked.

Subscribe to an astronomy magazine. There are a number of periodicals which cater to amateur astronomers. Among the most popular are Sky and Telescope and Astronomy. These magazines provide monthly calendars, a wealth of sky watching tips, amazing pictures, and up-to-date information on new products and discoveries.

Subscribe to an astronomy podcast, such as What’s Up in Astronomy, StarDate, or SkyWatch. They are free and you can search for them in iTunes and many other podcast directories. Join the Astronomical League or similar organization. Membership in these large astronomy organizations will give you the opportunity to network with other astronomers and to participate in observing programs. The Astronomical League has observing programs for every age, skill, and equipment level, and by participating in a program and submitting your observation log, you can earn certificates of completion (and a wealth of new knowledge). Enjoy your new hobby. Amateur astronomy can be a lifelong pursuit, and there’s always something new to look at. What’s more, amateur astronomers actually make significant contributions to the study of astronomy, and amateurs have discovered stars, comets, and other phenomena before professionals. In astronomy, you don’t have to be a professional to make a difference.


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