Young and coffee in varying degrees, Kat also says stuff @ThoroughlyMode
Published October 1st 2010
Astronomy is one of the world's oldest sciences: examining familiar constellations like Orion and Ursa Minor, exploring distant, mysterious galaxies, and explaining the excitement of meteor showers and the transcendental beauty of the cosmos. But it's also a hobby that's really easy to get into. All it really requires is a bit of patience, a lot of curiosity and a clear, dark sky.
The results will fascinate, and hopefully inspire. While at the same time putting you in your place as one single person in this vast universe...
The best way to start out is to get yourself a local star map, find a really dark spot then let your eyes acclimatise... Suddenly stars, constellations, galaxies and other astral objects will start pinging into vision. Once you've pinpointed a particularly bright or shapely spot you can compare it to your star map, and start finding your way around the night sky.
There are a few ways you can enhance your astronomic studies beyond backyard astronomy, and the obvious one is to get yourself a telescope. It doesn't have to be a big step, because there are inexpensive models out there, but there are a few pointers that will help you make the right choice.
Lots of people begin with the misconception that the more magnification the better, but that's not true. Most star gazing takes place at magnifications of around x50, because the main way a telescope assists you is by making the sky's treasures brighter, which is what makes them easier to see. More magnification is useful if you want to look closely at the moon or planets, because they're close enough to see detail, but far off objects will just become fuzzy blobs if you enlarge them. What's worth paying for is a good tripod or mount and good optics – which means as much 'aperture' or 'objective diameter' as you can afford, and usually equates to the size of the telescope. Just don't forget that you want to get something you can carry comfortably as well. Some reliable brands to look out for are Tasco, at the cheaper end of the scale, and Meade and Celestron.
One of other ways to further your celestial hobby is to learn some of the jargon:
Magnitude: represents how bright an object will appear to the observer. But in this case it's not the bigger the better – the lower the number is the dimmer the object is. For a point of reference a good pair of binoculars will allow you to see to a magnitude of nine, a good amateur telescope will allow you to see objects of a magnitude of 13 and the Hubble Space Telescope sees to magnitude of 30.
Coordinates: like those on earth, but this time in the celestial sphere, coordinates will help you locate heavenly bodies. Latitude is called declination and longitude is called right ascension.
Angular measure: is the distance from one object to another perpendicular to the line of sight of the observer. This is another way to work out where to look for particular objects – but as a beginner you'll get enough information from a simple star map.
The main thing when it comes to best astronomical results is location, location, location. If there's a lot of light pollution where you live you might consider a camping trip to improve your chances. There are lots of internationally renowned places to stargaze, a smattering of them are: Scotland's Galloway National Park, around Tromso, Norway, the Antarctic, the Australian desert around Uluru, the Kimberly and the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary, Utah's Monument National Park, Philadelphia's Cherry Springs State Park, Yosemite, Hawaii's Mauna Kea, South Africa's Karoo National Park, Chile's La Serena, the Sahara, the Yucatan peninsular and remote parts of the Algarve.
If you become enthralled with the night sky one of the best ways to pursue your hobby is by joining an amateur astronomy community. Your local organisation will be able to help you navigate around your own piece of night sky, but will also host lectures and be a place to swap hints and tips, get some advice and share stories.
If you get really serious you can plan some astronomical travel - meaning trips to experience the northern lights, the polar skies, meteor showers, comet passings and eclipses. But don't ever forget that there's a lot of sky to see right over your own head.