Star Gazers Guide to Amateur Astronomy

Back in 1995, I came across an article in Discover magazine about how all matter in the universe is moving toward an unknown point called “The Great Attractor”. Since then, I’ve been fascinated with the nighttime sky, especially deep space objects like star clusters, nebulae and galaxies.

After my initial exposure to astronomy, my first move was to purchase a standard pair of binoculars to familiarize myself with the stars and constellations. I still have that binocular set, a 10 x 50 item produced by Bushnell. With that set of binoculars, I could get a closeup view of any naked-eye object. I could also view fainter objects down to 8th magnitude on a clear night with no moon present. I clearly remember looking out my bedroom window and being able to see the globular star cluster M4 in Scorpius. Having that first set of binoculars really laid the foundation for my skygazing future.

I learned all of the major constellations and brightest stars. I learned that the north star is not the brightest star in the sky, but is very near the northern celestial pole, and always stays more or less in the same spot in the sky. Knowing where the pole star (Polaris) is located can help in finding the other bright stars on any given night. Once I was familiar with the stars, I turned my attention to the deep sky objects, especially the brilliant star clusters in Hercules (M13)and Serpens (M5).

A couple of months later, after some intensive research, I purchased my first (and only) telescope. I spent $400 on a dobsonian telescope (a very basic type of reflecting scope). It was 45″ long, had a 10″ mirror at its base, and allowed me to see where no binoculars ever could. I highly recommend the dobsonian for those who are chiefly interested in deep sky objects, as its light-gathering capability is supreme. For planetary viewing, a refractor scope is probably best.

Though my telescope, I have seen many of the Messier objects (comet-like objects catalogued by a French astronomer). I have viewed galaxies down to 12th magnitude, which is many times fainter than the human eye can see unaided. It takes very dark skies to see objects that are so faint. If a person wants to plan their amatuer astronomy career, they need to consider what level of light pollution they will be dealing with.

It definitely helps to have great resource materials when stargazing. I always carry a flashlight (pen lights work great) with me when I go observing. I also take one or two starmaps with me that show the positions of the stars for the current month. I highly recommend a year-long subscription to an Astronomy magazine. That will help the astronomer keep up with any current events in the night sky.

Finally, it’s good to join a local Astronomy club. You can quickly learn a lot from people who have been observing for years. You will also get to try out different telescopes to see which ones suit your needs the best.