Looking Up: How to get started in astronomy
Appreciating the stars above should never seem so complicated that we hesitate to bother looking up at them. Science articles and documentaries dazzle us with talk of parallel universes, black holes, Big Bang suppositions and fluctuations in the space-time continuum. On the other hand, there’s finding the Big Dipper and noting how its front stars always point to the North Star.
No matter how deeply involved we may get into the subject, whether using advanced digital camera techniques in our imposing backyard observatory to capture sky-breaking images once only the province of professionals, or with our hard-earned Ph.D. contemplate cosmological theories, the simple love of the stars keeps us going.
All share with the casual stargazer, who as his or her forefathers and foremothers have for untold generations, simply look up with amazement and awe.
Learning the very basics is not just for children. Indeed, all of us may need to humble ourselves as little children. That may not be so hard to do when we realize how vast is the cosmos. Despite our fragile existence on this wonderful green, white and blue speck of call Earth, we are alive and still here; unlike all other creatures, we have a heart to look up in appreciation and curiosity. Some ask, can it all be by chance? The answers vary, but again, all share in this cosmic ride and interest in the wonders above remains universal.
What are some basics in exploring the night sky? You need not rush out and buy a large telescope. If you have friends sharing the interest to help you along, it may be fine to invest in a good telescope early. It is a shame, though, to buy a large telescope only to keep it inside collecting dust out of frustration with what to do with it.
It might be better to first rely on your eyes, the best instruments of all. All you need are you eyes to trace the constellations, watch for meteors and take in the rare display of Northern Lights. Like the ancients, with eyes alone, you can keep track of the shifting sky, the march of the heavens as the world turns and orbits the sun. You can follow the progress of the bright planets and the changing face of the moon. You can witness how the moon lines up and sometimes covers the planets and brighter stars in its path.
Find an astronomy book at the public library that has monthly star charts. These will depict the changing evening sky and allow you to learn the constellations. Gradually they will become like old friends, familiar star patterns that return to your view on schedule every year. Eventually you will become intimately familiar with placement of even the fainter stars. Since antiquity, keen-eyed observers without a telescope have noticed a strange star, that without warning appears on the scene as a nova or extremely rare supernova.
There are many fine books being published to enhance your understanding of the cosmos, and magazines such as Sky and Telescope and Astronomy are sold at newsstands. These have articles every month appealing to a wide range of interests.
Binoculars, which you might have sitting about already, are a big help. With them, you can see craters on the moon, the moons of Jupiter, break up the Milky Way Band into a myriad of stars, discern many double stars, more quickly find newly announced comets, and reveal numerous star clusters and colorful stars. The galactic nature of the celestial realm can be appreciated as you scan across the sky with a humble pair of field glasses.
Department-store telescopes are often not highly recommended for their quality. Still, you can see lunar craters, the rings of Saturn and a lot more. A telescope, however, should have good optics and a sturdy mount, or else it would more likely end up as an indoor decoration. Good-quality beginner telescopes are offered at several major telescope companies advertised in the mentioned magazines.
Enjoy the sky! Your reports, questions and comments are welcome. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
New moon is on May 24, and first-quarter moon is on May 30.
Keep looking up!