Amateur Astronomy is astronomy done by non-professionals who either recreationally observe or hope to contribute to current scientific research.
Amateur astronomy is applied astronomy and involves observing celestial objects. Amateur astronomy can be further divided by the complexity of the tools that are utilized. It is a misconception that serious observers must use expensive, complex tools and that only such observers can contribute to scientific research. Amateurs however must use the appropriate tool, however if they hope to advance professional research. With some areas of research, amateurs are now entirely unable to assist professionals as they cannot afford the appropriate tool. (With the exception of an amateur observing some kind of very unusual rare event, like the amateur that recently found a new nebula.)
What is the Appeal?
To look up in the sky on a dark night and see the immensity of space and the intricate glow of stars and clouds in the nearly incomprehensibly distant reaches of space is a special and wonderful experience.
As an amateur astronomer I still find much joy in simply looking at the stars. As I have had the opportunity to show people the sky and its beautiful sights, I would say that nearly 1/2 of all people have little interest in the night sky and probably wouldn't want to observe through a telescope.
Of the half left
- 2/10 are distinctly let down by any observing experience.
- 5/10 (of half) are people that find the view interesting, but do not find the sight mesmerizing
- 2/10 are intrigued and/or mesmerized. they welcome/ask for other things to observe.
- 1/10 people are so interested in what they see that you have problem getting them away from the telescope.
Some advice is to learn about what your looking at and carefully observe for subtle features. Are there voids, dark spots, whats its shape? Bring your imagination into play a little. Remember looking for shapes in the clouds when you were a kid? whats the shape look like to you. Sometimes these blobs are a little like art; it takes some whimsy to see the mastery of their design. Do NOT expect showy, eye catching images such as the photos taken from the Hubble or even masterful images taken from someone with a 2,000$ CCD camera. Images with appear generally in black and white and might appear blurry, smoky, or turbulent (although I caution the user that the stars should be small bright pinpricks. Blurry, smoky or distorted stars means either the scope is unfocused or has optical flaws.)
Divisions of Amateur Astronomy
- Stargazing. Observations of objects in space done with the unaided eye. Few of these observations are of assistance to professional astronomers.
- Backyard Astronomy. Visual observations of objects using telescopic instrumentation. Despite the wild popularity and definite increases in performance with imaging, there is still solid scientific contribution in ordinary visual backyard astronomy.
- Astronomical imaging. Utilizing telescoping instrumentation to create an image. The most serious observers have automated telescopes,and images nearly more expansive than their telescope.
- Internet astronomy. Innovations of imaging, internet and automated instrument have created an oddity, an astronomical observer whom never observes (that is goes out sets up equipment,and looks at the stars). Observers can now record astronomical information with no knowledge of the stars and with little aesthetic appreciation of the night sky.
What can you observe?
Although you can observe many different things you need to bear in mind that some objects require special equipment to observe them well. I will link some popular targets and recommended equipment.
Stargazing; These objects are often can be seen with the unaided eyes
- w:aurorae. Ionized gas that collect near the earth magnetic pole. Can be seen with the unaided eye, Wide-Angle w: astrophotography is useful
- w:Conjunction_(astronomy_and_astrology). Alignments of the planets can be very pleasant to watch and notice, again many people enjoy photographing them w: Landscape_photography
- w: satellite. are man-made objects that orbit the earth. They can appear very bright. (as an example one kind of satellite have giant solar panels that can reflect the sunlight shortly after sunset creating an w: satellite_flare)
- w:meteor or w:meteor showers. Small asteroids; rocks, and dust that enter the atmosphere create bright fiery streaks in the skies (popularly called falling stars). Meteors and meteor showers are best seen by the unaided eye or captured using wide angle w: astrophotography
Backyard astronomy; These objects are best seen using a telescope or other special equipment
- comets A icy object that that orbits the sun, while occasionally comets can be seen by the unaided eye. Normally there are several comets in the sky that can be seen with a telescope. Often these comets do not have an observable tail.
- w: galaxy A large group of stars and gas. Galaxies are some of the distant sights easily seen in a telescope.
- w: nebula A cloud of dust and gas. If the cloud is thick enough to reflect starlight we see a reflection nebula. If the cloud has stars near its core that ionize the cloud, then the cloud becomes w: fluorescent. This is called a emission nebula.
- w: open_cluster A gravitational bound group of stars. Stars are normally created in small groups that condense from a parent nebula. Open clusters often showing whimsical designs and great diversity.
- w: globular_cluster A tight massive groups of many stars. these groups are normally tight accumulations of thousands to millions of stars.
- w: double_star are apparently single stars that when observed in a telescope consist of two stars. They have interesting color contrast.
- planets of the solar system of the 7 planets of the solar system; three will show detail in a modest telescope; (w: Jupiter,w: Saturn,w: Mars) although mars will show details for a short while every 2 years (near its opposition).
- w: moon shows intricate in any telescope and is a very good target for telescopic observation.
- w: sun Using special adapters you can alter a telescope to be able to view the sun.
- disclaimer it is potentially very dangerous to observe the sun in any telescope, any observer must carefully ensure that his equipment will shield his eyes from blinding amounts of light.
- w: variable_stars Stars can at times in their life cycle become variable. It is useful for science to monitor and describe long term trends on any variable stars. Even Amateurs without Imagining equipment can contribute to scientific knowledge by measuring the star brightness
Imaging; Some objects are only well observed when imaged, either photographically or electronically
- w: variable_stars Stars can at times in their life cycle become variable. It is useful to science to monitor and describe long term trends on any variable stars. Of course the most precise work is done using a CCD.
- w: supernova Supernova are large explosions of a star that occurs to some stars as then reach the end of the life cycle.
- w: asteroids Asteroids are large rocks in space. Imaging the sky can detect new asteroids and refine orbital information. Scientists carefully check the skies for w: potentially_hazardous_asteroid that might strike the earth.
- See also Earth-impact_events
Society for Popular Astronomy - leading UK organisation for beginners to astronomy of all ages.
Skymania News and Guide - astronomical news plus guide to amateur astronomy and tips on choosing a telescope.
- Amateur Finds New Nebula with Small Telescope, space.com - 23 February 2004