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Tips for Getting Started in Astronomy

How to get started with astronomy, from navigating the sky to buying your first telescope.

Written By on in Astronomy

1,342 words, estimated reading time 7 minutes.

Like most hobbies, getting started in astronomy can be quite challenging. From learning your way around the sky to the first telescope purchase, there are lots to learn. Discover everything you need to know to get started in astronomy and a little bit more.

Observational Astronomy Series
  1. Tips for Getting Started in Astronomy
  2. Dark Eye Adaption - How We See In the Dark
  3. Light Pollution
  4. Using Star Charts and Measuring Distance
  5. Constellation Guide
  6. Binocular Astronomy
  7. Moon Watching - How to Observe the Moon
  8. Buying Your First Telescope
  9. Your First Night With Your First Telescope
  10. Sky Orientation through a Telescope
  11. Polar Alignment of an Equatorial Telescope Mount
  12. Useful Astronomy Filters for Astrophotography

This series on getting started in astronomy shows you what you need to know to navigate around the night's sky, planets, and other celestial objects that populate the sky. This series will show you what you can see with amateur equipment and give tips and pointers on buying equipment and progressing to further your knowledge.

It should be noted that what you will see is not going to look like what you see on TV or media. The typical images we see are constructed from large numbers of photographic exposures using some very expensive equipment. Please try not to be disappointed when you look through a telescope at a galaxy and only see a faint blob instead of the rich, full-colour images that NASA produce.

It should also be noted that what you will be able to see in the sky will be limited by the quality of the atmosphere in your observation area. How much light pollution is there? What are the seeing and transparency like? But fear not, even if you live in a big city with terrible light pollution, it should be possible for you to pick out the more obvious objects, like Venus, the Moon, Jupiter, Orion, the Big Dipper, the Pleiades, and the North Star. Not all of these things will be visible all the time, but if you start spotting for them you will begin to notice how their positions change over the course of the year.

How To Get Started in Astronomy

You can't learn how to stargaze by just reading about it. Going outside and looking at the night sky is a must, which means you will need an observing site.

Regardless of where you live, find a spot which offers a wide view of the sky, free from obstructions such as tall buildings and trees. If that's not practical, locate a site with a decent view to the South and West, and at least a glimpse to the East and North. A view to the South lets you see objects at their highest as they swing across the sky. If your garden does not fit the bill, a nearby park or playground may do.

Light pollution is the bane of stargazers. You can't turn off a city's lights so search for somewhere that's not swamped by local illumination. If a streetlight looks like it'll ruin an otherwise perfect spot, try using a tree or fence to obscure it from sight.

Your First Night Observing

Check the local weather forecast for where you live and see if it is going to be a clear night. If it is, great! Aim to head to your observing site for around 10 pm local time.

Before observing you must give your eyes time to adjust to the darkness in a process called dark eye adaption. After 10 minutes you'll be reasonably adapted.

Big Dipper, Plough Constellation
Big Dipper, Plough Constellation

Look to the North and search above the rooftops for a pattern of seven stars called the Plough, which actually looks like a giant saucepan. It's one of the most recognisable patterns in the sky. The two bright stars on the end, opposite the handle, are called the Pointers. Mentally draw a line between them and extend it up and away from the Plough for a distance equal to five times the separation between the two stars. The star at the end of this line is Polaris, also known as the North Star or Polestar. Face Polaris and you are facing North.

What Else Can You See When Getting Started in Astronomy?

There are many billions of things to see in the night's sky, and they all fall loosely into one of these categories. Some are easily found with the naked eye, while others may require binoculars or even a telescope. All but the very distant can be visible to amateur astronomers with modest equipment.

Stars

Stars are the first thing most people notice when looking at the night sky, and for good reason - there are nearly 10,000 of them visible to the naked eye, and many million more with telescopes. Patterns of stars are called constellations.

Orion over my house
Orion over my house

Constellations

Viewing Constellations for Getting Started in Astronomy
The Great Square of Pegasus

Constellations are the first time most people look at when getting started in astronomy, and for good reason. Constellations are patterns in the sky which have been to invented and have deep mythology behind them. The sky is divided up into 88 official constellations, each of which represents an area in the sky. These areas are used to help navigate the celestial sphere. Constellations cover massive areas in the sky and as such are very easy to find.

Constellations are best views with the naked eye, anything else and you won't be able to fit them all in.

The Moon

There is nothing quite like the sight of a waxing crescent Moon hanging in the evening twilight sky - the classic Moon shape beloved of movie makers and artists alike. Luckily the moon is one of the easiest objects in the night sky to observe and is great to view with the naked eye but really comes alive using binoculars and small telescopes.

Viewing the Moon is great for getting started in astronomy
The Moon through Sigma 500mm Lens

Planets

Venus and the Moon
Venus and the Moon

The planets, although distant can also be seen with the naked eye. In late autumn early winter Venus is clearly visible in the early morning sky. It is the brightest object in the sky, save the Moon.

Although Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are visible to the naked eye, you should observe these with binoculars. Even using small power binoculars, you can make out the red of Mars, the green of Venus, the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter.

Using a telescope, you can see even more of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter and make out some surface details on Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

Asteroids and Comets

There are countless asteroids and comets which periodically are visible from Earth. Most of these require specialist equiplement to observe, but once in a while a bright comet or asteroid will be visible, even with the naked eye. They are usually visible for several days so check with the local news or astronomy calendars for encounters and head outside.

Comet Holmes
Comet Holmes

Meteor Showers

Perseid Meteor Shower
Perseid Meteor Shower

These spectacular events occur several times per year and last for several days. You need a dark observing site and patients but the rewards are often a spectacular firework display like no other. Check the meteor shower guide here for when to see some of the larger shows.

Star Clusters

Star clusters are groups of stars, consisting of anywhere between a few hundred and thousands of stars. These are visible as a faint fuzzy blob under dark skies but can be seen easily with binoculars. Star clusters range in size and brightness and there are hundreds to see. M45 in Taurus is probably one of the best known and easiest to find. It is one of the few that is visible even in light polluted skies.

M45 - The Pleiades Star Cluster
M45 - The Pleiades Star Cluster

Galaxies

M31 - The Andromeda Galaxy
M31 - The Andromeda Galaxy

Galaxies are one of the largest objects visible. Despite being quite faint, they are visible in large telescopes quite easily. Andromeda is the largest and brightest and can be seen in larger binoculars and small telescopes as a fuzzy patch. To see any real details you would ideally need to use a camera and use long exposures.

Nebulae

Nebulae are a mixture of interstellar dust, hydrogen gas, helium gas and plasma. They are the remnants of supernova and are some of the most beautiful objects to see in the night sky. They are fairly easy to locate in the sky, however, they are generally faint. Some of the larger ones are visible in binoculars and small telescopes with the fainter ones require larger telescopes.

M1 Crab Nebula
M1 Crab Nebula

Getting started in astronomy is one of the best things you can do and in the next article, we'll see how to get used to the dark to see constellations more clearly.

Last updated on: Wednesday 24th January 2018

 

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