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Every to-be observer often wonders, Where do I begin?. Astronomy often is the hobby of looking at very distant object with a telescope... Unfortunately, for so many people, it ends with the skinny unused telescope offered as a kid for a birthday.
Truth is, people rarely know what to look for. Yet, it can be so much simpler if you know the following: Don't start with a telescope, start with your own eyes.
Every dedicated astronomer is first and foremost a stargazer. Stargazing is the act of seeing subtle details, comparing and contrasting what you see from what you know.
What's the Appeal?[edit | edit source]
A clear sky with no prominent moon, once properly dark adapted, is a beautiful thing. Depending on the time of year, a subtle band of smoky light constitutes the outline of our galaxy and away from bright town and city lights is a showy splendor with bright spots, voids and intricate rivers of light.
Very often, it is similarity and contrast that strike our mind with beauty, and engage our imagination. A beautiful sight can merely be a crescent moon wedged between two bright planets, hovering just above the glow of twilight.
Initial experiences[edit | edit source]
Seen from the gaze of a beginner, a clear sky can seem almost chaotic and confusing with stars spread throughout the sky, often clearly in groups and elusive patterns. The stars in the sky slowly change hour by hour and season by season. The moon mystically moves throughout the sky; slowly growing in size and brightness then shrinking in size. Many prospective observers remain deeply concerned and intimidated in learning how to get around in the sky and how to find interesting things to observe.
Many people are not aware of the interesting and pleasant observations they might be able to do with little to no equipment. The awareness of the beauty of the universe comes from the famed and well published images of the mighty Hubble telescope; a very powerful telescope however in the boundary of space.
While a photo - however dramatic - will always be a photo, to actually see something with your own eyes is awe-inspiring and boggling to the imagination. With no help from an observation tool, looking at the right place under dark conditions you can see the mighty Andromeda galaxy, a distant and intricate sight so far away that it has taken its image over two million years to reach your very eye.
Thus to begin properly in this hobby, we must explain where things are in the sky, help you develop a plan to learn and use the constellations and to give you interesting sights to begin your observing career. It is important to know when beginning this hobby the five sensible guidelines for beginning astronomy.
Five rules of thumb[edit | edit source]
- Don't spend a lot of money on it, at first. The fact is having not observed you don't really know what you find interesting. You may find none of it interesting, or you may find all of it interesting but find yourself encumbered by some limitation. It is better to find some way of sampling many things; then you will know how interesting you find it and what you kind of equipment you need to do what you want.
- Learn as much as you can. Astronomy is definitely a learning hobby and the dedicated observer takes great joy to learn as much as he can about what he is seeing. In fact, knowledge of what is there will definitely help you learn how to "see" subtle features and give grandeur and scale to your observations.
- Seeing is not easy. One thing many non-observers do not appreciate is a person's tendency merely looking over (rather than really seeing) things. While 'seeing constellations' in the sky can seem difficult at first, rest assured that the everything you will see in the telescope will be, in its own way, difficult to see.
- A little social contact can make this hobby enjoyable. While to some extent stargazing (especially if done seriously) is personal, a little social contact can do wonders. Usually an experienced observer can show someone so much more (and easier) than they can describe it. Also being up late at night can have its own fatigue and a little social contact can be really welcome.
- Be comfortable. Dress warmly, don't overdo observing to the point at which you're tired and groggy, make your expectations reasonable. A beginner might observe only long enough to find Cassiopeia, Ursa Major and the North star. Perhaps only 5–10 minutes. But if they were out long enough to appreciate the beauty of the stars, see those constellations and were engaged, interested and warm, they are doing great.
Initial experiences[edit | edit source]
Having this in mind what is a sensible way of beginning astronomy. For those lucky enough to be able to connect to the amateur astronomical community; by far the best way to begin astronomy is to learn from the experts.
For the many people who aren't able to or would rather begin on there, stargazing will be explained here in details.
- For a learning course using this procedure to begin astronomy, take the course Amateur astronomy/Initial experiences
- For a list of ways other people have started this hobby and some of their limitations, have a look at the alternative ways to become an observer
Prepare to observe[edit | edit source]
So if you can't or don't want to connect with amateur astronomers but want to learn about the basics of astronomy, you should start with what the eye can see, learn the constellations and be aware of interesting astronomical sights.
You will need a dark place where you intend to observe, a chart to show you the constellations, and a plan to get your bearings. It's a good idea to time your initial observation to coincide with some interesting astronomical sight.
Each one will be discussed in detail.
Choose a location[edit | edit source]
Most people that think about observing celestial objects think of far-away skyscapes in the desert where the man-made lights are eliminated. While this might be useful later on, such a place is rarely easy to reach. Most amateur astronomers live in town; your backyard is a good enough place to start learning.
A few reminders:
- Keep all bright lights out of sight. Turn off the porch light, find some kind of shadow to get the neighbors security light out of your eyes. Use a red flashlight to read charts and make notes - if you don't have one, covering a flashlight with a red cloth will do.
- The sky should be as clear as possible. Even broken clouds will prevent you from seeing the patterns you need to see to start learning how to recognize constellations.
- You need a good horizon. You need to be able to observe most of the way to the horizon without trees or buildings. The North horizon is particularly important.
- Don't go too far. Being close to your observation spot means you can go there more often, which is a very good thing when learning.
Sometimes the backyards isn't the best place. But often a neighborhood park, river, lake shore, or overlook is great. If your nearest place is particularly dark, you will actually work a little harder. Darker skies means more stars, which will make it tough to see the basic patterns of the bright stars that form the constellations. Take heart! Any difficulty when beginning is greatly rewarded when particularly beautiful cosmic sights is in the backyard or around the corner instead of hours away.
Equipment[edit | edit source]
If you are going on a trip, one of the most important items would be a map, preferably one showing the major intersections. Similarly in the night sky, you need a map as well. Unfortunately the Earth's wobble through the season creates some definite changes in the sky over time. What happens then is that the sky rotates around a star in the north called Polaris (or the North star). You will either need a chart that rotates (called a planisphere) or you will have to use the correct chart for the year.
It is important that the chart is oriented correctly in the sky. Often this holding the chart above you as you view it. You might become disoriented and confused if you keep the chart on a table. Remember to use a red to view the chart at night. This allows you to read in the dark without spoiling your night vision when looking at the sky.
There are three general options for getting a chart.
- One of the most flexible is a planisphere; (as shown in the photo). It is resilient to dew, durable and can be set to the proper time and date. These are quite inexpensive and can be gotten from many commercial astronomical stores for around $5.
- Another option is to download a chart that shows the approximate position of the stars for about a month, just after sunset. Such a star chart can be obtained free at SkyMaps.com
- You can also use a web page to show the position of the stars from your location at a particularly time. One example can be found at fourmilab.ch
Binoculars[edit | edit source]
Main Article: Binoculars
Binoculars are very helpful when it comes to stargazing as they offer a wide field of view and a greater magnification. Many Globular clusters and Nebulae with low magnitudes are also observed with a pair of binoculars.
About the weather[edit | edit source]
You will soon find that as you decide to regularly observe the sky, weather soon comes into play as the great spoiler of many intended observations.
Of course, clear weather is very variable across the planet, with some locations nearly uninterrupted clear weather (such as deserts) and others nearly uninterrupted dismal precipitation. Regardless of location, a committed observer CAN find a way to pick up this hobby. Below are a few guidelines for dealing with weather.
- Know your seasons; Many places have better or worse seasons for clear weather. It is a good idea to seek the most frequently clear weather that your location offers while learning. You will need repetition to really know the sky.
- Clear and cloudy weather usually comes in bunches; thus a clear night is likely to be followed by a clear night. This highlights the importance of being efficient and limited in any individual observing session. You might want to do it tomorrow night (and the night after that).
- Learn when it's clear, catch up on sleep when it's cloudy. Your health is important!
- Keep notes! Bad weather might not break until you have forgotten most of what you did last time you observe. Notes both help you be a better observer and make it easier to resume where you left off.
First time in the field[edit | edit source]
Now the plan is where this all comes together. You want to get a sense of what is where and how it moves. After you have your supplies that were mentioned earlier, go to your chosen spot to stargaze. It's recommended that you bring a chair with you, or other appropriate furniture. Once you are outside, just look around for about 15 minutes to get your eyes used to the dark. Once your eyes have been adjusted, look to the north.
Why the north? The entire sky revolves around a point in the north (that is, for people in the northern hemisphere). This point is very close to a star called Polaris (also known as the North Star). If you learn the northern constellations, you will see them season after season and hour after hour. You can then more easily learn all the other constellations.
Start with the north: Finding Cassiopeia and Ursa Major