Photo of California Nebula, courtesy of Dean Salisbury
If you are interested in astronomy or you are just beginning your involvement in astronomy – WELCOME! ORAS has advice and information to help you enjoy your experience and learn from it.
Astronomy is a subject with an almost overwhelming amount of information available. It’s important to ease into the subject before tackling the details. Some of the best advice we can give is don’t buy a telescope to start your exploration. That’s right. You do not need a telescope to enjoy astronomy. Trying to learn the basics of observing the night sky, while trying to simultaneously learn the intricacies of operating a telescope, can be a confusing and less-than-pleasant experience.
Instead, make a simple beginning. All it takes is a clear sky, a star chart, and a small, red flashlight. Star charts are easily obtained from magazines such as Astronomy or are available online from resources such as telescope.com. The small (emphasis on “small”) red flashlight allows you to read the star chart without interfering with your night vision.
Find a location from which you can observe the sky with a minimum of street lights. Locate north, south, east, and west at your location. Using this information to orient your view of the sky, start matching the bright objects in the sky to the star chart. This activity will help you learn your way around the night sky and will form the basis for future activities. Using a smart phone or a tablet with a sky mapping app can be helpful as well. Don’t move on until you feel comfortable with identifying the bright objects in the sky and you can identify 10-15 of the constellations. It will take a number of nights of observing to accomplish this activity. However, even at this point you should have a satisfying knowledge of the prominent features of the night sky.
Once you know your way around the sky, you may want to step up to a pair of binoculars. Binoculars are helpful for finding fainter objects, for observing features of the Moon, and for observing double stars. Invest in good-quality binoculars. Several binoculars feature “image stabilization” that helps produce a steady image less affected by hand shaking while hand-holding the binoculars. A stable image makes observations easier. Binoculars are a good “next step” in that they are versatile for both nighttime astronomy and daytime activities such as birding. If your interest in astronomy wanes, you can still find other uses for the binoculars. Plan to spend at least a season (or two or three) exploring the night sky with binoculars until you can confidently locate the fainter objects on the star charts.
At this point you’re not exactly a beginner anymore! If you are now considering buying a telescope (again, don’t be too hasty here…), keep these nuggets of hard-earned advice in mind:
- Buy good-quality optics. The optics are the basis of the telescope. A telescope with low-grade optics will never be satisfying and may even ruin your interest in astronomy.
- Purchase telescope aperture, not magnification power. Beware of the telescope advertised by its magnifying power. Aperture – the size of the main mirror or lens – is what collects light. Purchase by aperture in accordance with your budget and needs.
- Look for good mechanical design. Whether you choose a computer-controlled “Go To” telescope or a purely manual telescope, make sure that it is solid and easy to use.
- Ensure that you can safely handle, transport, and store the telescope before you buy it. Beware: Astronomers are susceptible to a condition known as “aperture fever.” It’s tempting, really tempting, to buy a huge telescope. Exercise caution. A large, heavy, awkward instrument can ultimately be difficult, discouraging, and even dangerous to use. Also, consider your physical abilities in the decades ahead. Choose a telescope that you can live with, use, and enjoy for many years.
Both Astronomy magazine and Sky & Telescope magazine offer their own advice to beginning astronomers:
One of the most important pieces of advice to beginners is to locate and participate in an astronomy organization. Experienced members of such organizations can be your best mentors on your journey of discovery. Star parties and other outreach activities held by organizations are great ways to learn from others and to share in their enthusiasm for astronomy. At ORAS, we WELCOME YOU to join us if you are just beginning your study of astronomy!