Star Gazers Guide to Amateur Astronomy

For as long as there have been people, they have looked up at the night sky with wonderment, and sometimes fear. They sought to understand what they saw, and often made stories and based mythologies on them, trying to make patterns out of the seemingly random stars spread throughout the night sky.

Some things about us never change. The night sky still holds an almost supernatural allure and hold on our imaginations. Now, however, through improved tools and scientific knowledge, we can look with ever more confidence in what it is we are seeing. However, rather than lessen the sense of wonderment, if anything it has increased it, for me at least. I find it amazing to think that when I look up, I see the exact same stars that Isaac Newton saw. I see the same stars Edmund Halley saw. Going further back, I can see the stars as they appeared to Leif Ericson as he sailed to Vinland. I see the same stars as the ancient Mayans, as evidenced by their amazingly accurate calendars and astronomical observations. And so on.

That state of constancy is, to me, an almost religious experience, and it is even more so when you take into account the vast distances of interstellar space, and it’s effect on time. When I look up at night and see the star Vega, I don’t see the way it looks today. I see the way it looked 25 years ago, because it took the light from that star that long to make it to my eyeball. And Vega is one of the close ones! Consider instead our galaxy’s next-door neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, barely visible to the naked eye on a clear night as a tiny fuzzy patch. This galaxy appears to us as it looked 2,300,000 years ago.

Now that you can get an idea of the allure of astronomy, the natural question is “how would a beginner get started?” The good news is that it is easy, and, if you prefer, completely free (at least until you get really hooked!) Go outside on the next clear night you can find, and look at the moon. No, REALLY look at the moon. Have you ever noticed the light and dark spots, and thought about why they are like that?

The internet has several sites that offer free star charts. They are not too hard to use, as long as you have a basic idea of directions where you are standing. If you’d prefer one on paper, you can find cheap ones in book stores, or you could buy an astronomy magazine like “Sky and Telescope” and have a look at a star chart in there. Since the sky changes seasonally (due to the different locations of the earth in it’s annual journey around the sun, it’s dark side will point at different stars each time), it’s important to get the right month.

A better approach (albeit slightly more expensive) is to get a good book on amateur astronomy. One that I highly recommend has been a personal favorite of mine for years. I used to check it out of the library when I was a little kid, and now I own my own copy (Mine is now the 4th Edition). It’s called “Starwatch” by Terence Dickinson, and I can’t say enough good things about this book.

Beyond just the basic star charts, which it has, it has tons of simple, practical advice for beginners on how they can get the most out of their experience. It gives the complete beginner tips on finding his way around the basic constellations; the Big and Little Dippers, the North Star, Orion, and so on. Using a few of these basic starting points, it shows you easy ways to find other places of interest. The idea is to slowly build your way out from these guide points, as you gradually familiarize yourself with more and more of the night sky. You don’t need any equipment outside just that book for a while, as you slowly just familiarize yourself with the night sky.

The next step up would be to pull out a pair of binoculars. Most people own a pair, or know someone who does that they could borrow. Looking at the night sky through binoculars can really be an eye-opening experience if you’ve never done it before. Point them at the moon, again. Now instead of just like and dark patches, you should be able to see shadows in craters, mountains, valleys, bright rays of light coming from big impact craters, and all kinds of neat stuff. You’ll never look at the moon the same way again after you’ve really seen it like that.

Most people would suspect that looking at the full moon would be best for this sort of exercise, but actually I’d recommend looking at a smaller phase, for two main reasons. One is that a full moon is so bright that it will drown out a lot of the detail, and second (and more importantly), the most fun place to look at the moon in phase is at the “terminus”, the line between night and day. That’s where the detail stands out the best!

Get up to date planetary information, and you can point your binocs at them as well. If you are in a dark enough location, and have good enough binoculars and a really steady hand, you should be able to just pick out Saturn’s rings, still one of my favorites. Jupiter is also a great binocular target, you should be able to see some of it’s moons in orbit around it (up to 4). Watch it over a series of 4 or 5 nights in a row, and watch the little moons change positions around it. The first person to ever see those was Galileo, and he charted their dance for years. They are now called the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymeade, and Callisto.

Turn your binoculars to Orion’s belt in the wintertime, and just below it you might see a faint pinkish “cotton ball” puff. That’s the Orion Nebula, one of the more famous and brightest nebulae in the sky. Nebulae are dust clouds which are the birthplaces of stars, as the dust condenses upon itself until there’s enough mass to start a nuclear reaction. In nearby Taurus, look for the Pleiades, the “Seven Sisters” star cluster, also visible to the naked eye but MUCH more astounding in binoculars. Remember that Andromeda Galaxy I mentioned? It is notably more visible in good binoculars as well.

Now that you’ve gotten yourself fully and truly hooked on the night sky, though, the binoculars just aren’t enough, are they? It’s hard to hold your arms steady, and the magnification just isn’t enough for you. The next step up is to take the plunge and buy yourself a good backyard telescope. Which scope is right for you? Well, that’s outside the realm of this article, that’s a whole subject in and of itself. However, once you do, revisit the targets I’ve just mentioned. If you get a good scope, Jupiter may reveal it’s Great Red Spot to you, not just those moons. Saturn’s rings will REALLY come alive, and a good backyard scope might even give you a glimpse of the small gap in the ring called the Cassini Division. The nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters become more impressive still. And do NOT forget to revisit our old friend, the moon. The moon when viewed through a telescope really is a sight you will never forget.

An inquisitive nature is at the heart of the human spirit, and that nature extends itself into a natural wonderment at the beauty and awesome majesty that is the night sky. Too few people really appreciate what sits outside their windows every clear night. If you are one of those who do, or wish to start, don’t let yourself be scared away by cost or by apprehension of it’s apparent complexity. Even free and simple backyard astronomy holds the promise for those who are willing to look!