Getting started in amateur astronomy
by Berislav Bracun and Jon Isaacs
Amateur astronomy is a wonderful hobby. There are almost no age limits.
I have personally seen a seven year old girl competing on a Messier Marathon. Or a 74 year old man grinding his first telescope mirror.
It doesn't matter if you are a parent, and your curious child wants to see the rings of Saturn, or a teenager fascinated by distant galaxies, or you got retired and finally have the time to do a little astronomy, something you wanted to do for many years and never had the opportunity...
5 tips for a good start:
1. Dark skies
To enjoy viewing Deep Sky Objects, the main, and most important asset is not a fancy telescope, nor a thick star atlas, or a set of
expensive eyepieces, it is access to clear, dark skies.
You might think, well, all I have to do is go outside and look up, and indeed that is all you need to do, but there may be few DSOs to see if you live in a city. This is because unfortunately, light pollution is getting worse and worse every day. Artificial light is making it more and more difficult to see distant, faint objects. Even a very large telescope is of limited help with the fainter objects. For most people, getting to a dark site involves a 50 km or even longer trip but it is well worth the effort.
Fortunately, there many interesting targets that can be seen from a city so there is still plenty to keep an urban backyard observer busy. Double stars and the ever changing planets are essentially unaffected by light pollution so these are favorites. Add in brighter clusters and nebulas, a cup-half full attitude and even someone in New York City can enjoy amateur astronomy.
Before Gallileo Gallilei and the year 1609., astronomers did all their observations with naked eyes only, for a simple reason, telescopes had not been invented yet.
So why does it say "binocular" instead of "telescope"?
A binocular is by far the best instrument for a novice astronomer.
It makes learning the skies much easier than with any type of telescope, because it has a wide field of view and a upright image.
Most recommended size is 10x50 (magnification x objective diameter in millimeters) but if you already own a pair of 8x40's or 9x63's , they will do just nicely. All those mentioned can be handheld, and don't need a mount like very large instruments.
Binoculars are not inferior to telescopes, they complement them. Almost all astronomers, no matter how large or expencive their telescope(s) are, use binoculars when observing. 50 mm binoculars gather 100x more light than your naked eyes.
And, technically, a binocular is a telescope too, not just one, but two side by side
A planisphere is a special star chart. It enables you to dial in the date and time, and it will show you the skies as visible right above you. This will make identifiying constellations and stars much more easier than with a conventional star atlas. Same as with binoculars and telescopes, a planisphere complements a detailed star atlas.
You don't even have to buy a planisphere, you can easily print out and make your own by downloading it for free over the Web,
Planispheres are made for different latitudes, in 10º increments. If you live at 37º or 45º North, a planisphere made for 40º North will do nicely. Southern hemisphere observers should choose a planisphere made for southern latitudes.
4. Red flashlight
Dimm, red light is doing the least damage to your dark
adaptation. To see faint objects, your pupils need to dilate as
much as possible,to be able to let as much light
into your eyes and your retina chemicaly adapts to darkness .
Even just one fraction of a second of non red light, and you
are back in "daytime mode" and blind in the dark.
Still, you need some light to be able to read your charts, and to walk arround.
You can buy a fancy adjustable LED flashlight with a known brand name written on it, or you can use your common white flashlight and cover it with 2 layers of red cellophane, its up to your choice.
Never ever use white light on a
group observing session, people will call you names and
throw things at you for sure.
so join your local astronomy club.
Astronomy clubs are in general very novice friendly, and it makes much more fun to explore the Universe with same minded people . You can learn a lot from those who are into astronomy for years, decades, or their whole life.
You should also take a look at, and look trough telescopes owned by astronomy club members.
Also, be there when those telescopes are set up, or packed. It will be very usefull later, when you decide to buy your first telescope.
Be sure to wear warm clothing when attending an observing session. It is much colder at night than in daytime. Also, bring some snacks and beverages (alcohol is not the best idea) for the night.
So, this is a perfect starter setup. Don't be tempted to buy a telescope _yet_
Computers and software :
The choice of planetariums and other astronomy related software is huge. For PCs, pocket computers, even Java mobile phones.
Although it would be quite useful to have a planetarium (a simple one for a start) on your computer , maybe it is not the best idea to use such a program on your brand new laptop or Pocket PC in the field, next to your telescope.
Most computers are not made to be water resistant, and
your equitment can dew up pretty badly at night. Low
temperatures will cause your battery to die twice as fast as it
would at room temperature. Computer screens mostly can't be
dimmed enough not to affect your dark adaptation, even when
covered in red cellophane.
There is lot of freeware available for downloading. The programs are detailed and powerfull enough even for large observatiories, but, later on you might develop special needs, and want to purchase a specific aplication. For a start, even the simplest freeware planetaruims will be more than enough. Use them to generate your detailed charts, planets, comets and asteroid positions etc. Protect the prints in transparent plastic sleeves. Ink will get smeared when the paper dews up. Black stars, objects and names on white background work best under red light in the dark.
Besides software, there are a lot of free or commercial ebooks available.
Buying your first telescope
Most novice observers buy the
completely wrong telescope, far before they are ready for
Here is how to avoid the same happen to you.
Test to be sure that you are ready!
You should have spent some time under dark skies.
Take your binocular and try to find these objects, if possible without using your planisphere (of course, presuming the objects are above horizon)
Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Polaris, Vega, Sirius, Orion nebula (M42), Andromeda galaxy (M31) Beehive cluster (M44), Double cluster (Hi&Xi in Perseus) Great cluster in Hercules (M13), Whirpool galaxy (M51)
If you found most of these (visible at the time) quickly, you can think about getting a telescope.
If not, practice some more with your
So, you are ready for a telescope. Now, which one to buy, and where?
But first, what you should NOT buy
Toy telescopes, department store telescopes, bad
This is a big NO NO!
Your binocular is optically far superior to such a telescope!
You are guaranteed to have wasted your money!
These telescopes are made especially for those enthusiastic newbie's wanting a telescope immediately and rush out to the nearest department store and buy a telescope advertised to magnify 675x !!
The package is full of colorful images of distant galaxies and nebulae, the lenses are plastic, the mount is shaky and thin as mosquito legs....
Another thing you should avoid as a novice is EBay.
Although from time to time some of the telescopes offered there are real gems, you still don't have enough experience to tell the difference from department store junk.
Look for a specialised telescope shop. If you don't have nearby, here are two trusted web shops that carry telescopes suitable for novice observers, of good quality and not costing a fortune :
Which telescope to choose?
As a novice, you will want a easy to use, universal type of telescope. It is not a good idea to buy a very specialised setup, like for example a planetary imaging setup. You still have to discover what type of objects are your favourites.
might be tempted to get a long refractor, or Maksutov for Lunar and
planetary observation, but chances are high that you will later on
turn your attention to deep sky objects. The reason is very simple.
Jupiter, Saturn , Moon and Mars (when near Earth) are the only
attractive planets for observation. Just 4 objects. There are thousands
of deep sky objects nicely visible in a 8" telescope.
chances are high you will lean towards deep sky objects (DSO).
This is why it would be
a good idea to get a universal scope for a start. It should be
powerful, but not too large nor too expensive. Setup should be easy
and using it as straightforward as possible.
It performs well on planets and on deep sky. Inexpensive, simple and effective. It fits inside almost any car. You can observe comfortably while seated. It doesn't have 20 knobs, nor 50 buttons. It can give you a happy lifetime of astronomical observing. This is the most popular amateur instrument, not without good reasons.
Does it have to be brand new?
not at all. For example, getting a used telescope in good condition can
save you a lot of money. A recommended place to look online is
There is a even better place to look. Your local astronomy club
Over the years, people accumulate a lot of gear they hardly use. Not because the equipment is bad, but simply because you cannot observe with many telescopes simultaneously. Some observers move on to a larger telescope, others develop interest for astro imaging, or other specialty. Chances are high that you will be able to find a top notch scope, either factory made, or meticulously hand figured and crafted by a skilled atm, pampered like a baby, for a very good price, and no shipping costs. You can try before you buy, too. Not only see it on the website.
Good luck in finding your dream scope, and spend many great hours under dark skies with it!
The sky is not the limit, it is the beginning :-)