Astronomy Tips, Do's and Don'ts for Beginners
Many people just starting out with astronomy could use a few tips to shorten the learning curve and reduce the challenges of a new hobby. Skills increase faster with a few basics in your toolkit. Here’s a handful to get you started.
Learn the Constellations
Make sure you can find the major constellations. It's the way we move around to find objects in the sky. Practice every time you go out to observe. Practice even when you're not "doing astronomy"; when you're out shopping in the evening, when you're walking the dog. Practice under varying conditions of light pollution. If you observe only in the evening, notice how they rotate during the year. If you observe all night long, notice how they change during the night.
Be sure you can recognize the big seasonal asterisms too. Know the "Summer Triangle" the autumn "Great Square of Pegasus", the "Winter Octagon". What is distinctive about the spring sky? Study it yourself to find the one key pattern that can become the reference frame that helps you find everything else in the sky.
A great, fun first book for learning the sky is Find the Constellations by H.A.Rey. That's the same author who wrote the Curious George books, so it will give you a sense of the charm of this book. Very fun!
Next, get yourself an accurate Star Atlas. This gives a bit more detail and is what every amateur astronomer takes with them when observing. The one I take every time is the Pocket Sky Atlas. There are plenty of choices. Here's my sky atlas recommendations.
It's cold at night and you won't be moving around a lot when observing the sky. Wear layers, multiple layers, and put them on before you feel cold. It's easy to take them off, but difficult to get warm after you start to chill. Wear a warm hat and, less obviously, protect your neck. Both are places your body can lose a lot of heat. You don’t want your astronomy sessions cut short because you felt too cold. Be ready by bundling up as the sun sets.
Practice with Binoculars
The best first telescope for any new astronomer is a pair of binoculars. Sounds silly but it’s really true. First, they are relatively inexpensive compared to a decent telescope. They are easier to carry and require virtually no setup. They get you out observing much more often. Second, they are easy to point at anything in the sky. Just look up and put them in front of your eyes. Plus, they have dual use in that you can use them for other activities such as watching sports or birding. Even with a big scope, I still bring my binoculars to every viewing session. They are that useful. Here are some recommendations for binoculars for astronomy.
Bundle up, sit in a reclining lawn chair and -slowly- move your binoculars between two bright stars to see what you can discover. A good place to start is the imaginary lines that make the summer triangle. Start at Aquila and move towards Vega. If you haven't done this, you're in for some fun surprises. Try it!
Practice looking directly at a planet or fuzzy blob you can see without optical aid and bring the binoculars in front of your eyes. Can you still see that object? Are you sure? Try the Pleiades or the sword on Orion’s Belt for good practice looking at interesting sights.
Watch the moon of Jupiter move over a few nights. Galileo did it with a telescope that wasn't as good as your binoculars. Practice holding the binoculars still so you can get a good long look at interesting objects to see the details. A binocular favorite is the "Double Cluster".
Get a Stable Telescope with a Red-dot Finder
An inexpensive "high power" telescope isn't necessarily a bad scope, but the cheap mount makes it terrible. That's what kills the usefulness of your new telescope right off the bat. It’s much better to start with a low power telescope that is on a very stable mount. The mount is really, really important. A photographic tripod is not a good way to mount a telescope. A "Dobson" mount is wonderful for both beginners and experts. They are very inexpensive to buy, popular and perfect for your first telescope.
Finding stuff with the telescope is difficult without the help of a "finder". Typically, a finder scope is small telescope, with the power of your binoculars, attached to your main telescope and aligned to look at the same place in the sky. They are somewhat helpful but what is truly the cat's meow is a red-dot finder that doesn't magnify the stars at all. This tool shows a red-dot when you look through a small viewing window. By putting the red dot on a star, it helps you find objects quickly and with far less frustration than using just your telescope or even the finder scope. There are different models and most are quite inexpensive. An advanced model is the Telrad finder. I have all three types of finders, the small telescope, the red-dot finder and the Telrad, on my main telescope and I use the simple, inexpensive red-dot finder most often. Here's some telescope finder recommendations.
Pick the Correct Eyepiece
Once you have found an object with the finder, don't move directly to your high power eyepiece. Even with great alignment, it's likely you won't see what you're looking for until you scan around a bit. Use you low power eyepiece first, then zoom in with the high power eyepiece.
In fact, your high power eyepiece isn’t always the best way to view objects. High power causes objects to move out of the field of view rather quickly. This is frustrating if you are still learning how to move your telescope. High power also decreases the contrast between the darkness of the sky and dim objects such as galaxies and nebulae, actually making them harder to see. Often, it’s best to stick with the lower power unless you have near perfect conditions.
Set Observing Goals
Create two big observing goals that will help you become skilled as astronomy and greatly increase your enjoyment.
First, make a long term goal to find every object on an observing list. This gives a measured way to grow your skills. You will be learning how to find objects and to truly observe what you are seeing. Good beginner lists from the Astronomical League include: Binocular Double Stars, Messier and Universe Sampler.
Second, make a target list for each observing night. Have an idea what is observable on the night you plan to be out observing. Know what constellations are up. Make a list of objects on long term observing list that is viewable on your planned night. Find out what special event is occurring. Check www.Heavens-Above.com to check for bright satellites and Iridium flares. Do this to prevent yourself from returning to the same short list of objects every time you go out observing. Have a list longer than you can possible observe in one night. This gives lots of options and makes the most of your observing time.
Use a Simulator to Practice Finding Stuff
There’s some terrific sky simulation software available. Also known as Planetarium Software. Some at low cost, some expensive and several are simply free.
One favorite open source program is Stellarium. The interface is a bit clunky and hard to learn, but it is possible given the time effort to learn it.
The system I use is Starry Night Pro. Besides the 16 Million stars in its catalog, it has the ability to connect to my main telescope and show exactly what I am seeing in the eyepiece view. This is great for confirming objects. It has 100 Interactive Tutorials that make learning astronomy enjoyable even on a cloudy night. Here are some recommendations for software for astronomy.
Use the software like you would if you were out observing. Don’t use the “Find” feature built into the program. Using your list goal objects, practice finding the constellations then zoom in to find the targets. Turn off the labels and try to find them by star hopping. If you really want to get good at finding stuff, configure it so it displays stars based on what you can see from your usual observing site. Then configure the program to only show the sky as if you are looking through your telescope’s eyepieces.
Find an Astronomy Club
Astronomy is often considered a solitary hobby but sharing with others can really enhance your enjoyment. There’s the simple fact you will have a community of like-minded individuals to talk about the challenges and your accomplishments. Next, you will have people to ask advice. Most amateur astronomers are wonderfully generous with help, information and talent. They can be generous with their equipment too. It’s a pretty rare astronomer who doesn’t enjoy sharing the view through his or her big scope or helping beginners know what to look for next. By networking with fellow amateurs you can learn about nearby dark sky locations or star parties where you can meet more people and see more varieties of telescopes than you ever thought possible. Looking at the sky without light pollution is a sight to behold! Looking at it though someone else’s expensive telescope is priceless.
Anywhere you live, find local clubs and events using the Night Sky Network website. Almost anywhere you live or travel, you'll find a friendly astronomy club ready to welcome a visitor.
Get Out There and Enjoy the Sky
That’s just a few tips that will help you improve you’re learning, reduce frustration and make the amateur astronomy experience more enjoyable. Get out often and practice. That’s the simple way to enjoy this hobby best!
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