Astronomy 101

Written by  Anna Dejardin

Astronomy is a wonderful hobby and 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 with the naked eye. Finding a really dark spot, letting your eyes acclimatise and spotting the stars, constellations and other objects, with the help of a star chart, is perfect for finding your way around the sky. It's a great little taster of what's out there. 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. 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 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 they can see 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. It’s 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.

More Adventures in Astronomy

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