Beginner's Guide to Astronomy

The Basics

Astronomy is a wonderful hobby for all; young and old. It's potentially very easy to get into, the only essential skills are a fair bit of patience, a whole lot of curiosity and a clear, dark sky.

The best way to start looking at the night skies is simply with your naked eye. Getting set up at a truly dark site, letting your eyes acclimatise and finding the stars, constellations and other objects, with the help of a star chart, is perfect for learning to find your way around the sky. It's a great little taster of what's out there. Remember to take some warm clothes out with you though; sitting still under a clear night sky can get rather cold.

To the uninitiated astronomy can seem like a very complicated business, but a lot of this can be attributed to the specialist jargon associated with it. Get the hang of some of the lingo and everything will start making a whole lot more sense.

*Coordinates: from an astronomer's viewpoint celestial objects are positioned on what is known as the celestial sphere (imagine looking at the interior of a globe). The coordinate system is very similar to that used on a conventional globe except in astronomy latitude is known as declination and longitude is right ascension. Declination is measured in degrees, arc-minutes and arc-seconds, but right ascension is measured in hours, minutes and seconds.

Angular measure: this is the distance from one object to another perpendicular to an observer's line of sight. Measured in degrees, arc-minutes and arc-seconds this represents the angle that would be made between lines drawn from the observer to one celestial object and then to the other.

Magnitude: this is a scale that represents how bright an object appears to the observer. The more positive the number of magnitude, the dimmer the object will appear and vice versa. It's possible to see down to objects with a magnitude of 9 with binoculars, to 13th magnitude with a good amateur telescope and to 30th magnitude with the Hubble Space Telescope, just to give you an idea of what the numbers mean.

Of course, you don't necessarily need to know all the jargon to enjoy the night skies, but a lot of people do enjoy learning the specialised knowledge that goes hand in hand with stargazing. Whether it's learning more about the physical processes behind the beautiful objects on display or engaging in a little research into how the skies change throughout the night and over the course of a year.

Holiday Options

One of the great things about astronomy is that you can choose how committed you want to be to it and how much time and money you want to spend in pursuing it.

An astronomy focused holiday can be as simple as finding a dark field just beyond the lights of where you live and setting up camp there for the night. This is a great way, particularly, to introduce children to astronomy; how easy it is and what amazing sights there are just around the corner if they only look up.

For those who want to become part of the global amateur astronomy community and for whom stargazing is very much a social thing, there are amateur organisations listed across the world open for new members. Many of these organisations run annual events known as 'Star Parties' where members meet up, share stories, observe, swap hints and listen to lectures. There are many star parties dotted across the United States and Australia throughout the year and a few can be found in Europe's darker sites too.

For those astronomers who want a chance to view the best skies and celestial events visible from Earth there are many travel companies that organise astronomy focused holidays, trips and tours. Its possible to find tours where you can experience the aurora, polar skies, professional standard telescopes, meteor showers, eclipses and much more. These tours can get expensive but for those determined enough anything is possible.

Kit

Star charts are an essential for the amateur astronomer, they can be easily found and are often available for download from the web. Once you get the hang of the celestial coordinates you'll be able to find your way to any object in the visible sky. Keep an eye on the weather forecasts as you plan observing though. No matter how well prepared you are, if the sky is cloudy you won't be seeing anything.

As a next step, a pair of binoculars is a great way to get a slightly closer look. They're more portable and cheaper than a telescope (you may well have a pair already tucked away in the back of a drawer at home!), and their wide field of view makes them much easier than a telescope to navigate the skies with and find the objects you want. A good pair of binoculars can improve on what you see with the naked eye as much as a decent amateur telescope will in turn improve upon what you see through the binoculars, so its well worth a look.

Once you decide it's time to invest in a telescope it's important that you make sure you find a model thats right for your specifications. There is a bewildering amount of choice out there, but don't panic. Just be really clear about what you want to get out of your observing sessions, there are plenty of guides out there to help you do just that if you're unsure. Amateur telescopes can sell for hundreds or thousands of pounds depending on the model, but it's worth not skimping on a telescope as it's a piece of equipment which should be with you for a good long while and will provide many nights of enjoyment. Compromises can be reached as different models will have different strengths and weaknesses and this is where your personal specifications become important. The two things to always insist on in a telescope are high quality optics and a smooth steady mount. Most places selling telescopes will have comprehensive guides and tips for first time or unsure buyers.

If you want to try before buying, and experience observing through a telescope before you commit to one of your own, many observatories run open nights where members of the public can use the telescopes. Amateur organisations will also often hire out or loan equipment to members.

Resources

From complete beginners to those with more experience. Includes tips for observing with the naked eye, binoculars and telescopes: *skyandtelescope.com

List and contact details of amateur astronomy organisations across the world: *astronomyclubs.com

Comprehensive list of the main constellations; what to look out for and when and where it will appear: *domeofthesky.com

Downloadable starcharts: *skymaps.com

Calendar of astronomical events to look out for up till December 2008. Includes eclipses and meteor showers: *home.att.net

Nasa eclipse homepage - lists solar eclipses until 2050, detailing the path of the shadow across the world: *sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov

Aurora Borealis site including activity forecasts, information on how the lights are created and tips on viewing: *sec.noaa.gov

Site showing worldwide and local maps of light pollution and stellar visibility to help point you in the direction of a really dark sight for stargazing: *lightpollution.it.dmsp

Worldwide weather forecasts and information: *intellicast.com

Worldwide weather forecasts including satellite maps: *bbc.co.uk/weather/world

See all about astronomy

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