Thursday, June 4, 2020

How to Get Started In Astronomy

March 12, 2009 by  
Filed under Articles, Featured, Starting Out

What can you really see when you look through a telescope? We’ve all seen the amazing Hubble photos showing the Pillars of Creation and all their magnificent colors. There are also photos of galaxies and their amazing spiral arm structure.

Can you see colors in the night sky? Not really. There are a couple of things that may show a slight hint of green like the Orion Nebula, but that is the exception.  The planets and the moon are always amazing to look at. Yes Mars be a little red speck but you can see the rings of Saturn and some of its moons with a small telescope. You can also see cloud divisions on Jupiter and even the Great Red Spot.  Venus can be seen as a crescent and Uranus can be seen as a bluish disk. There are many star clusters to view that show tens and hundreds, and sometimes thousands of stars grouped closely together. And let’s not forget our closest neighbor: the moon. Even with just binoculars there’s plenty to see: craters, ridges and great shadow detail. But no, even with the highest powered telescope on earth, you will not be able to see where the Apollo landed.

So how do you find all the cool things to look at? A good way is to first learn the North Star Polaris.  Once you find that you can use it as a guide to find other stars. That is called star hopping. You find one star that you know and hop to the other. Soon you’ll learn a few constellations and then you’ll know your way around the heavens.

To help guide you on your way I recommend some tools. My booksfavorite book is probably “Nightwatch” by Terence Dickinson. It’s a great book that has easy to find targets with big seasonal charts that are easy to read in the dark with a red flashlight. The book can be used with or without a telescope and or binoculars. Also check out the free monthly sky maps found at You can download and print maps that will show you where and when to look for the major events in the sky for the current month. Another handy tool is a planisphere. It’s pretty much just a disc that you spin around to tell you where the constellations are each night at specific times for your location. You will however need to get one with your geographic latitude.

So what other things do you need to get started? I mentioned a book, and I mentioned a red flashlight (preserves your night vision while providing light). Another easy to use and not so expensive instrument are binoculars. With them you can view lots of detail on the moon and start hunting the Messier objects. The Messier objects are a collection of some of the best astronomical items to view, and most can be found with binoculars, and of course dark skies help.

astrochairSo where do you go to see all these things? Well first you can look in your own backyard. Even if you live in a light polluted area, there are tons of things to view and learn: the moon, constellations, and planets. This is the best place to practice and learn the basics. But when you are ready to view fainter objects you’ll want to try to find darker skies. The mountains and dessert parks are usually great places. Just beware that campfires can hinder your vision. You’ll also want to try to go out during a new moon. The new moon is when the moon is not visible at night. This happens for about 1 week each month. A good guide to a decent dark sky is if you can see the Milky Way. That’s the faint band of light going from one side of the sky to the other.  By the way that’s our galaxy you are in and looking at!

Going out to a dark sky site alone is usually not fun, and is usually creepy. Of course it’s always safer to go with a group. Find your local astronomy club to find places where you can safely view. Astronomy magazine has a good search tool that helps find local clubs. The astronomy clubs will usually have public outreaches where they invite the local public to view the sky though their telescopes. Most astronomy clubs also have a club site that is usually outside of town in an area that is dark enough to view most celestial objects.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions at the outreaches and the “star parties.” As you’ll soon realize there are many things to learn; not just where things are at, but how to use your equipment. It’s seriously a never ending mission.


2 Responses to “How to Get Started In Astronomy”
  1. Jim Ruehlin says:

    Nice summary of how to get started – it’s helpful to a newb like me. I especially like the cerveza as an integral part of astronomy gear. Most “getting started” columns miss that.


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