Understanding Amateur Astronomy

It takes next to nothing to get started with amateur astronomy. Some may think that it is a very expensive hobby to get into, and indeed a person can spend a great deal if they want to, but all that is needed to be an amateur astronomer is a sincere interest in the night sky, and the ability to observe it.

Of course, the more knowledge you have about astronomy, the more likely you are to find things of interest, and that will keep you enticed. There are a great many books available at your local library that can get you started with this, and if you choose to, you can spend the money to get your own. Do not dismiss books just because they are old and were written long ago…many of the scientific principles still hold true, and they can spur your own imagination.

You might ask, “What about a telescope? They cost a lot of money.” Actually, a passable telescope or pair of field binoculars don’t cost all that much. But even this is not necessary, if you have reasonably good eyesight, clarity of thought, and a good interest. However, if you choose to get some binoculars or a telescope, there are a few things you should know.

The most important is that a telescope is *not* a magnifying device, it is a light gathering device. At night, our eyes are not able to gather enough light from far away objects to be able to see them. Further, when it starts becoming dark, the first thing that “goes” is the color range of our vision. In other words, we see in black and white. Binoculars or a telescope can help with this, because they can concentrate the light, enabling us to see it. The amount a pair of binoculars or a telescope magnifies is far less important than how much light it gathers. This is where the aperture (the side facing the sky) becomes important. As a general rule, the larger the aperture, the more light is gathered.

Light conditions are also extremely important. If you are living in a city, that has many neon lights, incandescent bulbs, carbide lights, and so on, you are liable to encounter “light pollution”. That is, the lights around you overwhelm the dim light coming from the stars or reflected from the planets. It is then vital to do your best star gazing in a place with a minimum of light.

Along these lines, when you go out to look at the stars, give your eyes time to adjust. On average, it takes 20 minutes for your eyes, exposed to a light source, to adjust to the darkness. Don’t expect to walk out of your house, look into the telescope, and make a discovery.

Keep a note pad handy, and record your observations. This will help you find the same features again, and at the same time, if you do find a discovery, it will make it far easier for a professional astronomer to confirm your findings. If you do see something that is out of the ordinary, by all means contact an astronomer at the nearest observatory, but prepared to give your name, what you observed, what makes it different, where it is at, and similar information the astronomer may wish to ask about.

Do you think that you have nothing to offer as an amateur astronomer? That is hogwash. More comets have been found, and are found every year, by amateur astronomers than by professional astronomers. Many of these use very weak and small telescopes, or no telescopes at all. The best professional astronomers, in fact, rely heavily on information given to them by the amateurs.

So if you have a love of the night sky, stars and planets, and astronomy in general, this is a great hobby that can help others in their endeavors. Don’t be afraid to try it, and don’t ever think that you don’t have the tools needed to make a worthwhile contribution.