Getting Started In Astronomy
You don’t need a lot of equipment to start enjoying astronomy tonight! With a good book, star map or planisphere it’s easy to start learning your way around the night sky and the constellations. Today, there are only 88 recognized constellations and here in the northern hemisphere we can only see about half of them. Some constellations very hard to miss, others are much more obscure. You probably already know constellations like Ursa Major (the Big Dipper), Orion (the Hunter), Gemini (the Twins) and Scorpius (the Scorpion).
Books, maps and Atlases
You can get a current star map in magazines like Sky and Telescope, Astronomy and a new publication especially for beginners, called Night Sky, from the publishers of S&T.
A small portable star map which can be used any night of the year is called a planisphere. This handy little device consists of a laminated star map which can be rotated and set to any date and time. Quality planispheres are available for as little as $10.
My favorite astronomy books are The Astronomical Calendar by Guy Ottewell and the Peterson Field Guide of the Stars and Planets by Jay M. Pasachoff. Other excellent choices are 40 Nights to Knowing the Sky by Fred Schaff and the classic The Stars by H.A. Rey.
As your skills as an amateur astronomer develop you may want to study the Moon, Planets or Deep Sky and stars more closely. There are any number of detailed maps and atlases available.
I suggest that you start your astronomy experience by observing with only a map and your own eyes. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll learn the constellations and along the way you’ll likely catch your first glimpses of planets, the phases of the Moon or transient visitors like comets, asteroids, satellites and spacecraft.
Telescopes and other observing aids
Unfortunately many newcomers to astronomy go out and purchase a $99 telescope at Wal-Mart or Costco thinking they’re getting a quality instrument. After all, the spectacular images on the box and claims of “400 power magnification” are enticing come-ons. Usually after a night or two of frustration these wonderful toys are put away in a closet and forgotten and the enthusiasm for astronomy wanes. The images at the eyepiece just don’t measure up to the exquisite pictures in the astronomy magazines and books.
The good news is that today many excellent telescopes are available to the amateur which cost only a few hundred dollars. Rather than “magnifying power” the newcomer should consider a telescope’s aperture and focal length. Other major factors are portability and simplicity of set up. If you can’t easily carry it out into the yard on nice nights or load it into the back seat of the car for an evening’s excursion away from the glare of city lights, you won’t use it much.
In my estimation the best choice for a beginner would be a Dobsonian telescope of 4.5, 6 or 8 inch aperture. Dobsonians are available from Orion, Meade, Celestron and other manufacturers and offer excellent value. Most models come complete with an altazimuth mount and a starter set of eyepieces. The price range on these telescopes would be $200 to $1,200 depending on the aperture and manufacturer. Expect to pay more for name brands like Meade and Celestron.
Sky and telescope provides a good primer on selecting at telescope on their website.
Compare the Venus transit images and learn a bit about telescopes!.
This Venus transit image was taken with an 8 inch Nexstar Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with a focal length of 2032 mm and an f ratio of 10. Both images were taken using an 18 mm Scopetronix eyepiece coupled to my Nikon camera. Magnification is calculated by dividing focal length of the objective (the telescope tube) by the focal length of the eyepiece. Magnification for the Dobsonian, therefore, is 1000/18 or 55. For the Nexstar the calculation would be 2032/18 and 112. Compare the two images and you’ll get a sense of different magnification power.
Perhaps more than any other avocation, astronomy offers many different “specialties” and areas of interest. You might discover an interest in observing variable stars, deep sky objects, double stars, phases of the Moon, the surface of the Sun, sunspots, the planets, occultations, asteroids or comets. You might even discover a comet one night! There are specialties too numerous to mention. You never know where your interests may take you!
Clubs and Societies
A great way to “get your feet wet” and learn a lot about astronomy is by attending a club meeting or “star party” with a local astronomy club or society. Find an Astronomy club near you here. The Astronomical League is a national association of astronomy clubs and societies. Light Pollution There won’t be much of the night sky to see if the present trend of using poorly designed wasteful outdoor lighting fixtures continues. In many areas more than 50% of the celestial objects, the Milky Way, deep sky objects, nebulae, comets and some planets are no longer visible due to glare from unshielded, inefficient lighting. An organization working to improve outdoor lighting is the International Dark Sky Assn.