For the Beginner

Tips for Getting Started in Amateur Astronomy


Introduction

Welcome to the great hobby of amateur astronomy. Most people own, or at least know someone who owns, a telescope. Typically the only object they have ever looked at is the moon. While the moon is fascinating with its craters, mountains, and canyons, there is just so much more out there. I must say that this ignorance is mainly due to the presence of huge amounts of light pollution which makes everything else less obvious. It's not completely their fault. Running out and buying a telescope at WalMart is the worst way to start off.

This page was created for that reason, to show newcomers what I believe is the best way to get into astronomy. For additional information: How to Start Right in Astronomy.

A Warning

I'm not going to B.S. around, this isn't a hobby for those with little patience. Thousands of dollars can be spent on equipment used to spend countless nighttime hours freezing our butts off while looking at faint, fuzzy blobs in the sky. If you intend to immerse yourself in the wonders of the night sky, you must know that it requires lots of patience, lots of reading, and sometimes lots of money. Actually, it doesn't have to cost anything. Your eyes are all you really need to begin exploring the night sky, but it can easily be very costly if you jump in too fast and buy the wrong equipment and/or quickly lose interest. Most of what you see through a telescope looks nothing like those photographs seen in books and magazines. There is little color, and you see the exquisite structure in only the largest and brightest objects. Using relatively simple observing skills and a little imagination, anyone can see a wealth of detail, even in a faint fuzzy blob.

Read, Read, Read, Read, READ. And when in doubt, read some more.

I cannot possibly emphasize this any more. The number of publications available geared toward the beginner can be astounding. Magazines like Sky & Telescope and Astronomy are excellent sources of information for amateur astronomers of all levels. Everything from equipment reviews, to current sky charts is available to anyone interested. I have been interested in astronomy ever since I was 8 years old, but only became familiar with it as a hobby when I purchased the April '94 issue of Astronomy Magazine.

I know you may want a scope, if you haven't purchased one yet, but a scope will do you no good if you can't find anything with it or don't know how to use it. By reading any of the astronomy publications out there, you will eventually become familiar with the night sky; the locations of different objects, stars, and constellations, and make thing more enjoyable. Just looking at the moon or your neighbors sometimes just doesn't cut it. I spent years scouring magazines and books absorbing information before I actually bought myself a good scope.

Peruse the Internet

If you're reading this, you've obviously done so. There are so many resources on the Internet it's mind boggling. Even if you've been an amateur for many years, you may still enjoy reading other websites geard towards beginners, and still learning from them. You will eventually lose touch if you stop learning about the hobby, it's a non-stop cycle. Most astronomy sites include the same information as this one and maybe a little more. When starting out, it's always a good idea to get a second, or even a third opinion, opinions from those which probably know more than I do. Each new amateur contributes a little to this great hobby, and later on you may be able to contribute back.

Join a Local Club

What better way to begin a new hobby than to be with those most familiar and experienced in it. Most areas of the world have some kind of organization nearby dedicated to amateur astronomers and their hobby. Some organizations are for aspects of the hobby like planetary observing, light pollution awareness, or just all of the above. Most, if not all, have monthly meetings available for anyone to attend with lectures by local astrophotographers, telescope makers, and even scientists working on big projects you may read about in the news. Nearly all clubs host local star parties for the general public to attend. It's every amateur astronomers obligation to share the wonders of this great hobby to others interested in order to broaden its reach. At these meetings or star parties you can talk to anyone to get more information, that's what they're there for. They're always glad to accommodate beginners.

Attend a few Star Parties

This is the fun part. The final step before you go out and buy a scope is to see things for yourself. Attending a star party allows you to experience what it's like to be an amateur astronomer, sitting under the night sky, freezing your butt off while looking at fuzzy blobs. Most astronomers who regularly attend star parties are more than happy to welcome those who are new and allow them to view objects through their own telescopes, I know I enjoy doing so. Please be courteous though. This equipment is delicate, and sometimes VERY expensive. Ask before you touch, and touch only that which is necessary. Most astrophotographers are relectant to do this though, they have the most expensive equipment and may not want anyone messing around with it. Plus, they're there to take pictures, a time consuming process requiring precision and patience. One nudge of the scope, no matter how minor, can ruin a very long exposure. Your best bet will most likely be with an owner of a large dobsonian reflector that will make your jaw drop. These guys, and gals of course, will sometimes go completely out of their way to help you. Some will actually chase you down to show you what they've got.

This experience will also help you out when you go shopping for a scope. You can try out different optical designs, apertures, and mountings to you hearts content. Just don't be too much of a scope hog. Another word of warning, anyone shining a white light around is libel to be shot, hehe. Bring a flashlight with some kind of red filter element in front of it. Red light preserves night vision. By now if you leave a star party complaining, you might want to rethink your involvement in astronomy.

Purchasing Your First Scope

Please read my page on Tools of the Trade once you have finished reading this.

AH HA!!! Getting eager are you? The absolute best thing for a beginner is a pair of binoculars. Good binoculars can be purchased for less than $100-$150 and will give the beginner the absolute best bang for the buck. No astronomer, I don't care what level they're at, should be without a pair. Touring the sky with a some 7x50's is the absolute best way to learn how to find objects printed on star charts. This is how I learned, and now am quite good at it.

Purchasing your first scope is one of the biggest steps you can ever take. Before doing so, you need to figure out what you want to do, what you need to do it, where you intend to do it, and what you can afford in time, space, and money. Also realize that each scope, mount, and accessory choice is a compromise in size, weight, price, and performance. One point, the only thing astronomers love more than a new toy is showing it off.

Astrophotography

Astrophotography is easily the most seductive aspect of astronomy. We all see those pretty, colorful photos of galaxies and nebulae in magazines and want to shoot our own. Not only is it expensive, it is extremely difficult to acheive excellent results. Photography requires good optics, very stable mounts, and tons of patience.

Buying a scope with the assumption that it will be a good one to use for photogrpahy later may only lead to heartbreak. Smaller refractors make great scopes for beginning astrophotography but for a newbie they don't provide very bright images visually. On the other hand, high-quality refractors are very expensive. Larger reflectors are great visually, simple to use, and cheap to build. Problem is that the mounts they typically come with (especially on SCT models) are not stable enough to provide a consistenly rigid platform for long exposures.

My advice to beginners, put the thought of taking pictures way in the back of your mind. First concentrate on learning the sky as much as possible using a basic setup of binoculars, a 6 to 8-inch newtonian reflector, and a few eyepieces. This will cost you around $600-$800. It will also give you much needed time to learn and save your pennies for that really nice astrophotography rig. If you cannot help yourself, try a few rolls of film using a tripod mounted camera. Good results aren't difficult to get using this simple method.

What is it you want to do with your scope. Do you know the night sky well? Do you intend to take pictures or just look (see box at right)? Do you like the planets more, or larger deep-sky objects? How often will you be observing, many times a week, monthly stints, or only occasionally when you can get away from the kids? All these play a factor in what you should choose as your enjoyment in astronomy may very well depend on it.

We all want that HUGE scope with all the bells and whistles, but is this what you really need for what you intend to do? Some scopes are good for sharp, high-power views of the planets. Some are good for deep sky objects. Still, some have a large field of view, and others have longer focal lengths with narrow fields. Good refractors are easily the best design in erms of image quality, yet they cost by far the most per inch of aperture. Newtonian reflectors are the least expensive, and are usually the best for wide fields and faint objects. SCT's are very compact with long focal lengths. They also do suffer from less contrast and sharpness due to a large central obstruction making planetary views only mediocre. Catadiopterics also have problems with dew forming on the corrector plate. If you live in a humid area be ready for this. A Dobsonian mount is extremely simple to use and easy to set up (larger truss designs require some assembly). Smaller dobs also take up little space in your house improving the spouse approval factor. Equatorial mounts allow you to track objects at very high powers but take more time to put together and transport. Remember that those with a drive also require a power source.

Where do you intend to use your scope. A dark site, your backyard in the city? Large aperture shows more at dark sites, yet show little more in heavily light-polluted areas. Larger aperture are also reveal more atmospheric turbulence which is more of a nuesance near a city. If you have to travel to your observing site, how large is your vehicle? Large scopes require large cars, not always but it sometimes makes things easier. Also realize that a scope needs accessories like eyepieces, finders, motor drives, etc. Some come with these, some don't, and they do cost money. A dark-sky site is usually very cold. You may need to invest in cold-weather clothing and some camping gear. The more comfortable you are, the more enjoyable it can be. If you take things slow, much of this extra equipment may be purchased over time relieving you of financial burden. Like said before, we astronomers like gadgets.

To sum it all up (Note: The opinions below are based on logic and personal experience and should be taken as such. Please do not hesitate to obtain a second opinion)

If you really want a recommendation for a great entry-level scope at a good price, check out Orion's Sky Quest dobs. They're by far the best beginner scope for the money that I know of. The optics are quite good, come with good eypieces, a very nice focuser, and have very smooth movement on both axes. Most impressive for a commercial unit at this price.


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