Some quick tips for getting started in Astronomy
I was a young lad when getting started in Astronomy. My first real telescope was a 4.5in reflector on a low tech equatorial mount. My parents had bought it for me after showing an interest in astronomy. I remember many clear nights out under the stars in our backyard with that telescope, looking at the Moon and planets. As the years passed I upgraded to bigger telescopes as my interest and curiosity grew in astronomy. My 8in reflector was homemade as well as my 14.5 reflector. I had also bought a Meade 10″ LX50 SCT telescope at the time. I even dabbled in astrophotography as a teenager although it was nothing like it is today with computers, CCD cameras and autoguiders!
But what if you’re completely new to astronomy? Where do you start as a beginner? Well, here are few basic tips that I hope will be helpful in getting you started.
You don’t need a telescope
You don’t need a telescope to get started. Before my first telescope I used binoculars. I wrote an article on this topic here entitled “Astronomy Binoculars, the best Telescope?. There’s a lot to see with the naked eye as well. Learning the constellations is a first step and important. You can also learn a lot about how to view the night sky by reading The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide A set of binoculars can be a great asset. If you have or get a pair, I recommend 2019 Guide to the Night Sky: A Month-by-Month Guide to Exploring the Skies Above North America (available on Amazon!) to help you figure out what to look for and where.
Join an Astronomy Club
This is perhaps the most important piece of advice I can offer. While books and the internet can be great sources of information, there’s no replacement for advice from someone with more experience. That’s how I learned, especially with Astrophotography in later years. I’ve learned a lot from other members of the RASC (Royal Astronomical Society of Canada). If you live in Canada you can find a local club center near you on the RASC website. If you’re in or near Toronto, the RASC TO center holds numerous public sessions, found on their events page. If you’re outside of Canada, there are numerous local astronomy clubs out there and active. Try a Google search like “astronomy club in your city” (replace “your city” with the name of the city you live in or perhaps the nearest major city). Astronomy club members are a great group of people, always willing to help. Many local astronomy clubs have meetings once a month you can most likely attend as a newcomer to the hobby without having to become a member before hand. They most likely also have public star parties which will allow you see and look through a variety of telescopes as well as talk to people in the hobby.
Go to Star Parties, Observatories
As mentioned above, astronomy clubs often host “star parties” that you may be able to attend. You typically get to look at various celestial objects through a variety of telescopes – all without having to learn where to look. This can be a great opportunity to talk to others about their equipment while you’re deciding what you may want to get. For star parties occurring check out the Skynews page. (Note: Not all are open to the public).
Another way to get a closer look at the heavens without your own equipment is to go to a public observatory. In Ontario the David Dunlop Observatory holds regular events that allow you to look through the 74in telescope housed there! For other public observatories in Canada or internationally, a good place to start would be your nearest College or University and inquire with their astronomy or science department.
Get Planetarium Software
Planetarium software can be incredibly useful for finding out what is visible from your location. It also helps teach you the constellations, how they appear and where the planets are currently. Stellarium is a free planetarium software you can download and install. When you venture out on a clear night there are also a number of useful planetarium apps for smartphones. Google Sky Map app is free and one example – just hold the device up and it can identify what you’re looking at.
Buy a Telescope (and accessories like a Telrad finder!)
Eventually, you’re going to want a telescope. Take your time before you make a decision. If you’ve attended a few star parties or club observing sessions, you have probably taken a look through a variety of scopes. Another source I recommend is the extensive information in NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer or Star Ware: The Amateur Astronomer’s Guide to Choosing, Buying, and Using Telescopes and Accessories.
What to Observe
The Moon is a great place to start – Never hard to find, it offers lots of interesting detail. Then look for the planets: Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s moons and the crescent of Venus all offer excitement. Your planetarium software you downloaded (remember Stellarium above?) will be an excellent resource for telling you which planets are visible and where to look. As you start hunting for deep-sky objects, you’ll want a book to guide you. I like Turn Left at Orion: Hundreds of Night Sky Objects to See in a Home Telescope – and How to Find Them and Star Watch: The Amateur Astronomer’s Guide to Finding, Observing, and Learning about Over 125 Celestial Objects. For a quick list of what to look for on a particular night, I also like In The Sky.org.
I hope this helps you get started on your astronomy adventure. Happy Observing and Clear Skies!