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Getting Started:
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Getting started

Folks who are interested in amateur astronomy invariably ask as one of their first questions:  "What telescope should I get?"  The answer is easy:  Your first telescope should be a pair of binoculars.   That's right -- start with a pair of decent binos and some books (no, don't spend $2,500 on Swarovski or Leitz binos, a $129.95 pair of Nikons will do fine -- you can even see a lot with a pair of $39.95 Wal-Mart Bushnells) .

Why binos?  Because -- a telescope, even at low magnification, shows only a tiny slice of the sky.  If you don't know what you are looking for and where to look, you will be quite frustrated with your new telescope.  So, get yourself a decent pair of binos and spend A YEAR learning the sky.  Why a year?  Because as Earth moves through space over the course of a year the entire universe comes into view, a bit at a time -- the stars you see in the summer are not the stars you see in the winter.  You want to use your binos and your naked eyes to study the sky to the point where you can step outside summer, spring, winter, or fall and point out almost a dozen objects -- constellations, individual stars, nebulae, and the like.

Here is -- in my opinion -- what you need to do to start amateur astronomy as a hobby.

  • Buy binos, books, and a planisphere.
  • Be able to find north, south, east, and west from wherever you are (add a compass to your shopping list).
  • Study the sky 2-3 nights each week.
  • Spend time on the sci.astro.amateur newsgroup.
  • Find, join, and participate in a local astronomy club.

Here are the details.

Purchase the following:

  • Nikon 10x50 binoculars ($129.95 at Ritz Camera). 

    • Here is what the numbers on binoculars mean. 
      • The first number is the magnification power -- 10X binos magnify the object you are viewing by 10 times over the naked eye view.  7X is 7 times magnification.  You will hear magnification referred to as "power" or "X" -- magnification of 7 times is called "7 power" or "7 X."
      • The second number is the "aperture."  You know, of course, that one end of the bino has a glass lens that is much bigger than the other end -- you point the big end at your target and the amount of light gathered by the bino is dependent on the size of that opening.  You want to get as much aperture as possible.
      • Now, you can buy some really big binos -- 20X80 or larger -- BUT -- the higher the magnification and the larger the aperture, the bigger the binos.  20X80 binos require at least a big tripod and are best with a specialized mount -- don't even think about these monsters for a beginner.  10X binos are about the highest power you can hold steady without a tripod.
      • READ THIS CAREFULLY:  DO NOT BUY ZOOM BINOCULARS.  Do not even think about buying zoom binoculars.  If someone tells you to buy zoom binos, ignore them -- they don't know what they are talking about.  DO NOT BUY ZOOM BINOS.
    • While I recommend 10X50, you may want to look at a pair of 7X35 or 7X50.  I own a pair of Meade 9X63 binos   -- these are big but not too big to handhold -- they cost over $150.00 and could be a little much for your first pair of binos; I bought these from the binocularss4less website).  I also own a pair of Nikon 10X50 that I purchased at Ritz Camera -- I am perfectly pleased with both pair. 

Purchase a planisphere.  This photo will do a better job of describing a planisphere than I can.

planishpere.jpg (16211 bytes)

There are different types of planishperes on the market.  Get a big one -- minimum 14-inches across.  Be certain to get one for your latitude -- I am at 36 deg 35 min NORTH latitude so I purchased a 40 degree latitude planisphere.  The planisphere consists of at least two wheels with the same axis so they rotate around each other.   One wheel will have the days of the year around its edge and the other has the time of day.  Set the current time opposite the current date and the planisphere shows you where the stars are -- take it outside and use it as a roadmap.  Remember to orient the planisphere with North to North, West to West, etc. -- you'll probably have to hold it overhead -- which is where the stars are.

Be able to find north

If you know where north is, you can figure out east, west, and south.  You need to be able to find north without a lot of chasing around.  Best way to do this -- buy a simple compass and keep it with your astronomy stuff.  You can pick up a perfectly respectable compass at Wal-Mart for under $5.00, or, you can go for a Bruton or a Silva.

Now, remember, north is not always north.  The compass points to the north magnetic pole -- magnetic north.  Celestial north -- which is what you are concerned about -- is where the north star, Polaris, is located.  There is a bit of difference -- after you find magnetic north with your compass, you can find Polaris because there is only a few degrees of difference.

Study the sky 2-3 nights each week

Get outside and study the sky.  And now you have a problem -- well, two problems.

  • Problem #1.  You will get tired of standing there with your binos pointed upward, craning your neck to see the sky.  Get yourself something on which you can recline while studying the sky.  I bought a plain, aluminum-frame folding chaise lounge.  If I am looking at objects overhead, I lay it out flat; if I'm looking at objects close to the horizon, I raise the back almost to a sitting position.
  • Problem #2.  Light pollution.  If you are one of these lucky people who lives way, far out in the boondocks, you are lucky because you will likely be able to see zillions and zillions of stars, including the Milky Way.  The descriptions in the astronomy books will make a lot of sense to you.  If you are like the rest of us and live in the suburbs or in a city, you will learn to curse security lights, parking lot lights, mall lights -- they destroy your "seeing."  I live in a light-polluted small city.   When I go to a dark sky site way out in the country, I see -- literally, really -- thousands of stars I do not see from home.  So -- if you live in the suburbs or the city, you will not see objects in the sky as they are shown in your books -- in each constellation you will see only the brightest stars and such "naked eye" objects as the Andromeda Galaxy will be visible only with your binos (and then it will be only a dim smudge).

Problem #1 is solvable; you'll just have to learn to live with problem #2.

Now, go out and study the sky.  Consult your planisphere and the skycharts in your books. 

  • Pick out one or two constellations that are readily visible and concentrate on them.   Learn the shape and the stars that make up these two constellations.  After studying these two constellations for a week or so, pick out two more -- and on and on and on. 
  • Look also for deep sky objects --  under suburban light pollution, you will find only a handful of them but you need to know about them:  Messier Objects (designated by a M and a number -- the Andromeda Galaxy is M31);  Caldwell Objects -- read about them in your astronomy books; New General Catalog (NGC) objects.   Look also for the planets -- they roam around the sky at odd intervals. 
  • And, don't forget the moon.  You will find that the best time to study the moon is NOT at full moon -- when studying the moon you want to look at the area along the line separating the dark part of the moon from the light -- the terminator line.  The shadows cast by the sun hitting the moon at an angle cause craters and other surface features to stand out clearly, even through binos.

Your objective is to be able to look at the sky, unaided, and pick out 8 - 10 of the constellations in view, point out a few prominent or not-so-prominent stars, identify one or two planets, and point out three or four deep sky objects (or, where they should be if you can't see them because of light pollution).

Spend time on the sci.astro.amateur newsgroup.

Locate this newsgroup on your news reader and read the articles posted there.   It's a real education.  And, don't be afraid to ask questions, even beginner questions. 

Join your local astronomy club and participate

By participating in your local astronomy club you'll get to try out all different types of telescopes and hear every opinion about every scope.  While this will seem confusing at first, the experience will help you select your first scope.

Subscribe to or purchase one or two astronomy magazines

The two major astronomy magazines in the US are:

Find them at a newsstand or bookstore, or, subscribe.  ALSO -- before you subscribe, see if your astronomy club is affiliated with Sky & Telescope (S&T);   if so, you can subscribe at a discount.

Here's another link -- this one contains links to a LOT of astronomy resources -- such as:  Astronomical Research; Institutions, Organizations and Observatories; Astronomy as a Hobby.  There's also a section that explains the phases of the moon.  Check it out!!


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