The backyard astronomer looks out at the night sky with the same anticipation as one might salivate over a piece of chocolate cake. The impelling force is about the same. But as in the pursuit of chocolate cake, before the beginner flings himself madly into the cosmos, there are many things to consider. This is a hobby that can grow as the hobbyist does; what starts with simply observing the night sky can become a contribution to the science of astronomy and professional astronomers. The beginner, however, must start by first learning the basics of astronomy, learning how to make observations, discovering what equipment is needed for the newbie and what can wait, and finally, knowing when and where to seek information or ask questions.
Learning the Basics
Start with two books, the first is a textbook and the second is self-instructional: “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Astronomy” by Christopher DePree and Alan Axelrod and “Astronomy: A Self-Teaching Guide” by Dinah Moche. Both are available on Amazon.com and neither will break the bank. Another source for the beginner is to subscribe to amateur astronomy magazines such as “Astronomy, Sky and Telescope”, “Astronomy Now” or “Night Sky.” These magazines have articles on theoretical astronomy, particularly defined by computer and analytical models. Within the beginner’s local community should be at least one astronomy club. Members talk to other members about all the varied aspects of amateur astronomy such as types of equipment, observations and how to approach them, as well as theoretical astronomy. With membership, there are sub-groups to join and beginner’s courses to attend. There any number of Internet discussion groups on backyard astronomy. Here the beginner can post messages, ask questions, research links. Some of the best are Mike Boschat’s Astronomy Page, Mel Bartel’s Amateur Astronomy pages and AstronomyLINKS.com. Finally, there are many amateur astronomical societies which serve as an introduction for those interested in the subject. If the beginner is close to one of these societies, he or she may be able to attend meetings, hear speakers and see presentations. If not, there are usually some very instructive websites sponsored by these societies. For instance, wander through Internet sites such as The Astronomical League, The Society for Popular Astronomy, and most importantly, NASA. So now, our beginner or newby or whatever has the path outlined for learning the basics to his newly chosen hobby. The next step is learning how to make observations.
Learning to Observe
Amateur astronomy usually begins with stargazing, watching the constellations and generally thinking about one’s own place in the universe. When the hobby progresses past these activities, it may be time to get a planisphere or a rotating star finder, just be sure that it is for the right latitude. This instrument helps one identify stars and constellations as well as, on occasion, some deep-sky objects, but there will be more on that later. Use the planisphere in conjunction with a beginner’s book on observation for best results. Two of the best books are “Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe” by Terence Dickinson and “A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets” by Jay M. Pasaschoff and Wil Tirion. Again, either can be purchased for less than $20 on Amazon.com. Along with the planisphere and one of these books, a red LED flashlight is required. This permits the observer to preserve his or her dark adaptation as well as helps with reading in the dark. Mr. or Ms. Beginning Astronomer now has the tools to recognize constellations, planets, comets, asteroids, stars and, here it is again, the deep sky. Just to clarify matters, “deep sky” is a term used mostly by our backyard astronomers to indicate those objects that can be seen with either the naked eye or a telescope, objects such as galaxies, nebulae or star clusters. This is not a term one encounters in the scientific annals of astronomy. There are some other sources of information that are helpful. For instance, on the website for “Sky and Telescope” there is a how to section where there are many articles about basic astronomy and visually watching the night sky. While learning the art of observation, the beginner may be tempted to expand his equipment inventory unnecessarily. So what is really needed?
Needed Equipment or Not
The best advice on equipment starts with gathering information and reading just about everything in sight on the subject. Most beginners know little if anything about telescopes or optics, but there are a number of books available to help correct that deficiency. “The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide” by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer is one. There are also several Internet sites that provide articles on astronomy equipment such as “The Belmont Society” which offers tutorials on telescopes, filters and eyepieces for the beginner. Next is Todd Gross’s astronomy page at www.weatherman.com; here he offers comprehensive reviews of all types of telescopes and binoculars. Another exceptional site is www.scopereviews.com hosted by Ed Ting where many variations of astro-products are reviewed along with some most astute advice for beginners. Finally, there is Cloudy Nights Telescope Reviews which provides a special beginner’s equipment forum. Follow up reading by joining a couple of groups on Yahoo. The first is “Talking Telescopes” which promotes discussions on various astronomical equipment such as telescopes binoculars, eyepieces and pertinent software. The second is “Yahoo! Groups: Binocular Astronomy” which concentrates strictly on using binoculars for observations. Along with all the reading and group participation, advice for the rank beginner on equipment usually goes something like this: binoculars are an excellent starting point because a fairly good pair can usually be bought for $100 or so; they are easy to use; and they are lighter and smaller than a telescope. They have a wide field of view which helps the beginner to find his or her way around the sky. As the hobby expands so will the need to see objects with greater clarity; therefore, a telescope will be needed. This can get very expensive since a telescope may not be limited to a few hundred dollars, but rather increase in cost to several thousand. The amateur’s pocketbook may be the best guide in procuring this pricey little item. As the hobby continues to grow other accessories may be required; for example, eye pieces that allow choices in magnification, or finders that aid in finding specific objects or special telescope mounts that permit the stargazer’s hands to be free. Maybe the ultimate in equipment is a digital camera used through the telescope. A Charge-Coupled Device (CCD) camera uses light-sensitive silicon chips to detect very faint objects. And this wonderful hobby just keeps stretching into unanticipated corners no doubt generating many questions along the way.
In each of the above sections, Internet sites and groups have been recommended. These sites and groups are excellent places to participate with other beginners, asking questions, reading answers, blogging with other learners. There are others not mentioned that may be of help. Try Backyard Astronomy.com with several blogs and opinion boards. There is the online “Amateur Astronomy Magazine” which offers several interactive sites for beginners and finally, there is “Astronomy” which provides online as well as hard-copy access to information for all levels participating in this most excellent of hobbies.
What is the goal?
Although, scientific investigation is not normally what the amateur hopes to achieve, it is possible to successfully furnish information to the professionals. This is usually in the form of data collection from large numbers of amateurs with their small telescopes as opposed to information from just a few large telescopes used by scientists. Sometimes those astronomers located in backyards all over the globe can monitor changes in variable stars or supernovae, or they can assist in tracking asteroids. If the amateur has fairly sophisticated equipment, measurements of the light spectrum given off of astronomical objects can be performed. This must be done carefully under very close parameters, but it is now recognized by the scientific community that these measurements are useful. Here, then, are goals that the beginner might aspire to once that new hobby has swallowed his life. It seems that obsession may be a guarantee.