January 19, 2019 4:01 pm

Getting Started with Astronomy

Today’s guest post is by Jennifer Brown, an experienced amateur astronomer who writes for Hobby Help. You can check out more of her helpful articles about astronomy, astrophotography and telescopes here.

When did you last look up at the night sky?

Time elapsed photo of star trails, taken in Chile's Atacama Desert, Credit: A. Duro/ESO [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Time elapsed photo of star trails, taken in Chile’s Atacama Desert, Credit: A. Duro/ESO [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Many of us have childhood memories of stargazing. Maybe a relative pointed out a constellation like Orion or the Big Dipper, maybe your parents dragged you out to stargaze in a field, or maybe you once had dreams of becoming an astronaut.

Often, this fascination with planets, stars, and faraway galaxies never fades. For millennia, humans have been staring at the sky, trying to understand its patterns, decipher meanings, and understand the natural world better.

Today, countless hobbyist astronomers across the world continue this tradition, observing celestial objects with their eyes and their telescopes, in the middle of the wilderness and from the comfort of their own homes.

How can you join them?

This brief guide outlines your first steps. I discuss the practical side of this hobby, from stargazing locations to necessary equipment. In addition, I suggest some fun astronomy-related activities and challenges, such as learning the basics of astrophotography. Along the way, I’ll link to helpful resources and tutorials to help you learn even more.

What will you see?

With just your eyes, you can observe the Moon and Sun, as well as numerous stars and constellations. You can also spot the brighter planets, such as Mars and Jupiter.

With a telescope or a pair of binoculars, the possibilities expand. The Moon and planets will appear in greater detail, and you may even see distant star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae.

Advice for new stargazers and astronomers

Here are some tips to help you start learning about astronomy:

  • Go outside and look up. Simply observing the night sky with curiosity, a sense of wonder, and a desire to learn more is the most basic and essential part of this hobby.
  • Head somewhere with less light pollution. If you live in or around a city, you’ll likely struggle to see any but the brightest stars. Visiting a national park or rural area on a clear night will let you appreciate the night sky in its full splendor. More on this below!
  • Observe the Moon. No matter where you are in the world, no matter how little equipment you have, you can probably see the Moon. With your own two eyes and a little internet research, you can learn all about the Moon’s phases, its relationship to Earth’s tides, its formation, and the reason for all of its craters.
  • Get a star chart (sky map). These maps outline the constellations and help you orient yourself in the vast night sky. You can use a paper map or look into astronomy apps and software such as Stellarium, StarWalk, Google Sky Map, and Exoplanet. Check out websites such as Sky Maps, which have star charts and other resources available (some for free). There are also plenty of free online resources to help you get the hang of using star charts.
  • Learn the stories of the constellations. So many constellations have incredible stories behind their names. Learning these stories is a wonderful way to connect with our stargazing ancestors. Yes, stars are cool on the basis of science alone, but historically they have also held deeper meaning and fascination for countless people and cultures.

At this point, you’ll have a better idea of whether you want to pursue astronomy further, all without investing a fortune. Still intrigued? Read on for your next steps.

Where to go

As I’ve mentioned, the best places to stargaze are those with little to no light pollution. This typically means leaving the city. So where should you go?

Here are the main considerations: First, get as far away from light sources as possible (city lights obviously, but also street lights). Second, find somewhere with a wide open horizon; a dense forest might be miles away from city lights, but its canopy will block your view. Third, aim for high elevation. Even within a city, your best bet for seeing stars is on the roof of a tall building.

Use information from the International Dark-Sky Association to locate the best spots for stargazing near you. This organization lists dark sky reserves, parks, and communities, ranging from Snowdonia National Park in Wales to NambiRand Nature Reserve in Namibia.

Even if you live in a big city and rarely get the chance to leave, don’t despair. You can still learn more about astronomy. Consult this article for some tips on making the most of a city stargazing location.

What equipment to acquire

Your equipment needs depend on your goals. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll discuss three common goals:

  • Spend time outdoors observing the night sky with the naked eye
  • Use binoculars to get better, closer-up views
  • Observe celestial bodies up close and personal with a telescope

I’ll start with stargazing by eye. In this case, you’ll need:

  • Star charts (either paper or digital). This will let you know what you are seeing.
  • Red lens headlamp. Red light allows you to see what you’re doing (say, if you’re looking for a snack) without destroying your natural night vision.
  • Folding chair. No reason to be uncomfortable! A simple camp chair can be found at most outdoors stores like REI.
  • Miscellaneous items. Imagine what you might want while outside at night in the middle of nowhere. Some warm clothes, a thermos full of coffee or hot chocolate, water, snacks, a portable power charger, and so on.

If your stargazing plans are part of a larger hiking or camping expedition, you’ll of course need equipment for those activities (tent, hiking boots, etc.).

Next up: Stargazing with a pair of binoculars. You might not automatically associate astronomy with binoculars—they’re better known as birdwatching instruments—but binoculars are an incredible asset to stargazers as well.

They’re extremely portable, easy to grab and take outside on a whim or pack along on a hiking trip. They also tend to be more affordable than telescopes.

Plus, binoculars are a very user-friendly option. It usually takes some time and effort to figure out a telescope. You may have to learn new skills, like how to collimate mirrors or use the finderscope. None of that is a problem with binoculars!

Overall, binoculars are a fantastic option if you want to view the night sky in greater detail with an instrument that is portable, easy to use, and affordable.

As above, star charts and items like a folding chair come in handy for observing the night sky with binoculars.

And finally: Observing the sky via telescope. For this, you will need:

  • A telescope, obviously. Do your research before buying! Your telescope probably comes with some eyepieces, a finder, and mount included, though over time you may decide to upgrade.
  • Star charts. Again, these maps provide crucial information.
  • Miscellaneous items. Just as up above, you will want various items to keep you comfortable during a long night of observation.

How to connect with other astronomy enthusiasts

Like many hobbies, astronomy can be a social pursuit. Corral your family and head out on astronomy-focused adventures, or recruit your friends to go on a camping trip and enjoy some stargazing.

Major events such as eclipses and meteor showers also provide an excellent excuse for social gatherings. For instance, the 2017 total solar eclipse was a remarkable sight, and it led to numerous viewing parties and events.

Search for astronomy clubs in your area. Local groups often organize stargazing events, and their more experienced members are an incredible source of advice as you learn more and perhaps consider purchasing a telescope of your own.

If you’re in the US, look into the Astronomical League, which keeps a searchable list of astronomy clubs organized by state.

Activities for astronomers        

There are endless ways to enjoy astronomy, but I’ll keep it brief and stick to just three of the possibilities.

Astrophotography

You’ve likely seen stunning photos of the night sky, perhaps a crisp shot of the Milky Way or an image with dramatic star trails. Taking your own photos like this is easier and more accessible than many think.

Astrophotography may seem intimidating, especially if you’re not already an avid photographer. If you do get serious about astrophotography, you may want to get a DSLR camera.

However, technology has advanced quickly and at this point, a smartphone camera can produce impressive images of the stars. Check out this article for simple tips and techniques, such as using a tripod to keep your phone steady and downloading a night photography app. If you have a telescope, you may also be able to use your smartphone to capture images through it!

Finding the International Space Station (ISS)

Depending on its location, you will sometimes be able to see the ISS with just the naked eye, so try spotting it! NASA even maintains a website to help you discover when it’s visible from your location.

Planetarium visits

If you live near a planetarium, you’re in luck! Stop by to take advantage of their educational programming and entertaining star shows. Many planetariums offer family-oriented programs and even summer camps as well, which are a great way to instill a sense of wonder and a love of science in children.

Conclusion

Curiosity. That’s almost certainly what sparked your interest in astronomy. Curiosity about the universe and how it works.

There are many ways to explore our universe, observe the night sky, and forge a deeper, more personal relationship with the natural world. You can stargaze in your backyard or on a camping trip. You can visit a planetarium for star shows and educational talks. You can read books and listen to shows like StarTalk. You can learn about astrophotography and create stunning images of star trails and galaxies. Or you can purchase your very own telescope to observe all sorts of celestial bodies in great detail.

As you learn more about astronomy, I hope your curiosity only continues to grow.