A stargazers guide to amateur astronomy needs no better introduction than the stunningly beautiful sight of an inky black sky sparkling with crystals, especially on a frosty night. Since man first gazed skywards, society has been transfixed by this compelling and hypnotic mystery of nature – and how best to unravel it’s secrets! Here’s a guide to the easiest ways to start with amateur astronomy – and some of the most educational and simplest objects to look out for first!
For most beginners, including little ones, a curiosity about stars and amateur astronomy first begins with the naked eye. So that is a good place to start to nurture, develop and inform those first curious moments of wonderment. Later there will be time for binoculars, telescopes and other equipment – provided the first spark of interest is productively and correctly challenged to inspire further investigation rather than boredom or frustration.
The best subjects to start with in astronomy for beginners are those that can be observed fairly easily. The Orion and Big Dipper constellations have exciting beautiful names and lots of shimmering stars, meaning their shapes are always easy pretty simple for identification purposes. These offer a point of orientation for other heavenly bodies too, so the amateur astronomer can soon begin to learn their way around.
For example, planetary wonders Venus and Jupiter glow brighter than the stars and are also quite simple to pick out. Quick learners will soon want to move on to more challenging investigations however, so the the faint objects like the mysterious clusters of stars or winking galaxies will begin to beckon – at this point a visit to the library or the internet will quickly educate with resources such as beginners sky maps and guides.
When stargazing with the naked eye, it’s always a good idea to start with the constellations as this helps to acclimatize eyes to the dark that is needed for clear sky study. It is important to choose a location that doesn’t suffer from light pollution. Their beauty and shapes will inspire the beginner to keep studying and enquire further. In amateur astronomy, orientation is vital, just as it is with a map on the ground, and the constellations serve as a guide. Studying the ecliptic will guide the beginner in telling whether there are any planets worth seeing over head.
Casual observers who become curious enough to want to learn more are verging on becoming amateur astronomers and will be soon toying with the idea of moving up to binocular-using standard! They will wonder what the benefits might be. It is true that a good pair of binoculars will magnify the Milky Way into individually visible stars. The craters of the moon will be visible, as will the four biggest satellites of the planet Jupiter, and many further distant galaxies. So for committed students of the heavens, binoculars are a good investment.
To locate the Milky Way, amateur astronomers should scan the night sky, watching for a cloudy haze covering much of the darkness with a large double V shape of stars circling Polaris. A This constellation is called Cassiopeia and from here, the Milky Way is easy to spot as it crosses through the middle of it. The effect of cloudiness is actually myriads of tiny-looking stars. The majority of our galaxy’s stars are can be found in the hazy approaches to the Milky Way. The Moon also is a fascinating ever-changing heavenly body to study and is also useful for locating any planets that happen to appear to be near it on any given night. Night Sky notes are invaluable here, for explaining to amateur astronomers about which notable events and objects are worth looking out for on a particular night. Star-gazers can have fun studying the best events whilst learning all the while about amateur astronomy.
If working with young people, try to remember what first attracted you about astronomy study with the naked eye, and build slowly and gently on that. It was probably the Night Sky – a dazzling array of diamond lights, some arranged in fascinating patterns, against a midnight-black sky, perhaps bitingly cold and glitteringly frosty. Was it the unusually gigantic size of a moon that seemed to be made of liquid cream one particular night? Perhaps it made you wonder why it looked so different sometimes to others. Try to share your own wonder and enthusiasm with the beginner and gently point them in the direction of great information and the facts behind the beautiful heavenly bodies.
Many celebrated and expert astronomers were first attracted by one thing. It might even be the same thing that attracts the regular guy, the layman the kid, the beginner. That essence was – Romance. We must try not to lose this in our endeavours to get started with astronomy, otherwise it will become a matter of dry calculations and endless waiting around. Many of our most beautiful constellations for example, can be viewed with the naked eye. If beginners are interested in a particular twinkle, heavenly body, milky patch, or animal pattern, the simplest thing to do is to find out what it is – the easy way.
If the beginner is a child, the fastest and most exciting way to help them is to do the background reading (from the most basic book you can find in the library) yourself! Absorb the information, then dilute it to their level in an exciting and picturesque way. Do not forget legends, folklore and music and biography. For example, informative back-stories can be set with resources such as the legend of Hercules, The Planets by Holst, The Life-story of Stephen Hawking, the background to the werewolf myth.
A Night Sky Event Calendar is a great asset. Beginners will enjoy the fulfilment of being able to predict the nightly happenings, and soon even to recognise them when they occur – all because they have a picture of what they are looking for!
A Sky Map showing two halves, the Northern Hemisphere and the South can be pinned up in the kitchen and discussed every day. Turn it around the right way so it is easier to read! It could even be stuck on the ceiling, to be more realistic. CDs and DVDs can be useful but take longer to plough through than a quick flick into a book to find a star reference. Perhaps try a quick search on the Internet for instant background on a constellation. Nasa.com is a comprehensive website with many resources for adults and games for the kids.
After a few months of sky-watching which has been fun not frustration, beginners might be sufficiently interested and motivated to move on a little. Now is the time to invest in some binoculars. The benefit of these is that although more can now be seen, and more closely, many people are used to these already. Particularly in the case of children, they are easier and more manageable than a fiddly telescope and they do not have to have reached the stage of development when they can keep one eye closed! Believe me, such an age exists! Try it!
A trip to a planetarium is a good motivator if it is the right one, and if you keep visits short and frequent. Let the beginner follow their own interests, rather than slavishly following a set formula and making darn sure to read every entry! Images and atmosphere and exciting experiences here are just as important as detail and fact.
Beginners can join interactive websites with supervision if they need it. Here they can post questions, view exciting stellar images and even keep up with developments at NASA. Keep the momentum going with little treats. For example, some websites even have an opportunity to buy Astronaut Food for a couple of dollars.
A lovely bright addition to any bedroom is an illuminated Night Sky Globe lamp. With a simple, clear and well-laid out identification book kept nearby, this can be a very educational and informative reference tool, as well as being pretty and useful. The constellations and planets will soon start to look familiar.
Another little treat of course is to positively plaster your ceiling with pretty, glowing, starry night ceiling stars. Maybe one day soon you will be able to name them all! THEN you are ready to buy an expensive telescope!
Useful resources with high value content:
Book – Seasonal Star Charts And Glow-in-the-Dark Star Finder (Hubbard Scientific Company)