By Kandy Rathinasamy
I got started with astronomy about a year ago, so I’m a relative newbie. Here are some tips that I hope will help you get started.
You don’t need a telescope
You don’t need a telescope to get started. There’s a lot to see with the naked eye. Learn about the constellations by reading H. A. Rey’s The Stars. The Tonight section of EarthSky.org always has interesting information, tailored to the beginning observer. A set of binoculars can be a great asset. If you have or get a pair, I recommend Gary Seronik’s Binocular Highlights to help you figure out what to look for and where.
Join an Astronomy Club
This is perhaps the most important advice I can offer. While books and the Internet can be great sources of information, there’s no replacement for advice from someone with more experience. I’ve learned a lot from other members of the NSAAC. This is a great group of people, always willing to lend a helping hand. You can join us for observing any clear Friday night at Veasey Memorial Park and you’re bound to learn a lot. You can search for other astronomy clubs on the Nasa Night Sky Network.
Go to Star Parties, Observatories
Astronomy clubs often host “star parties” that you may be able to attend. You typically get to look at various celestial objects through a variety of telescopes – all without having to learn where to look. This can be a great opportunity to talk to others about their equipment while you’re deciding what you may want to get. For star parties hosted by the NSAAC, see the NSAAC Event Calendar (Note: Not all are open to the public).
Another way to get a closer look at the heavens without your own equipment is to go to a public observatory. The NSAAC hosts public viewing sessions at Merrimack College and Salem State most weeks (weather/clouds permitting).
Get Planetarium Software
Planetarium software can be incredibly useful as you try to find things in the night sky. I like to take a look at Stellarium before I take my scope into the backyard. There are several options that run on your smartphone – just hold the device up and it can identify what you’re looking at.
Buy a Telescope (and accessories)
Eventually, you’re going to want a telescope. Take your time before you make a decision. If you’ve attended a few star parties or club observing sessions, you have probably taken a look through a variety of scopes. I can’t do justice to this topic, but NSAAC member Chris Nicholl has written a very good article on Buying Your First Telescope. Another source I recommend is the extensive information in The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer.
What to Observe
The moon is a great place to start – Never hard to find, it offers lots of interesting detail. Then look for the planets: Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s moons and the crescent of Venus all offer excitement. EarthSky.org’s Tonight section often has articles telling you which planets are visible and where to look. Or use planetarium software (see above). As you start hunting for deep-sky objects, you’ll want a book to guide you. I like Turn Left at Orion and Star Watch. For a quick list of what to look for on a particular night, I also like Calsky’s Calendar.
I hope that helps you get started. Happy Observing and Clear Skies!