Amateur astronomy is a fascinating field for folks interested in science. Since ancient times astronomers have marveled at the night sky and how it changes over time.
Even today, amateur astronomers make significant contributions and many are highly respected by professional astronomers. Some of the most famous astronomers were amateurs, including Sir Edmund Hershel, who discovered Uranus, John Dobson, who invented the Dobsonian telescope design, and David Levy, who has discovered many comets.
The first step is to read up on amateur astronomy. There are wonderful online guides and excellent books available. If you can find a local astronomy club, their members will be glad to mentor a newbie and introduce you to the universe. Many astronomy clubs have public exhibits and “star parties”. The best events are all-day all-night affairs. During the day there are presentations, workshops, and specially equipped telescopes which can safely view the sun.
The real fun starts after dark when everybody shows off their telescopes. At first there will be lots of people hanging around and light sources from the vendors and others in the area. After a couple of hours most of the crowds will disappear and the die-hard astronomers will hang around and really enjoy the views of the night skies. Remember that star parties are primarily public outreach events at easy to reach central locations and the night skies at the regular viewing sites favored by astronomers generally have an even lower level of background light.
Start simple, not fancy. The first time you went swimming you didn’t jump off of the high diving platform; the first time you use a telescope you shouldn’t expect to see (or take an image of) the amazing views of the skies which appear on astronomical image websites.
Watch the International Space Station as it passes over your location. Look at Jupiter’s moons or the moon’s craters through binoculars. See if you can see Mizar and Alcor, the double star in the middle of the handle of the Big Dipper with your naked eyes. (A classic Native American eye test we were told in elementary school). Then look at it through binoculars and see if it looks any different. It’s actually six separate stars, although some of them require high power telescopes and sophisticated spectrographs to detect.
Telescope or Binoculars?
Never ever start with a high performance telescope. High quality precision telescopes are designed for experienced amateur astronomers – not beginners. High magnifying power does not mean better! Cheap toy telescopes aren’t even worth mentioning. Many experienced amateur astronomers do not own telescopes because there are other activities that have piqued their interest.
The same thing applies to high priced binoculars. Start with a medium priced pair of binoculars (say $50 to $100) – you will see things that will amaze you, everything from local objects inside the solar system to distant galaxies. The next step is a tripod mount for the binoculars. (You can make one yourself out of an old camera tripod and some clamps). Only after you have gotten some experience with binoculars should you ever consider anything with more power.
One of the most important – and cheapest – tools is a planetarium simulator. There are amazing computer programs which simulate the night sky. You can move to different locations and different times to view major astronomical events. Google Sky Map for Android and Stellarium (open source and available on many platforms) are free (as in truly free – no ads or spyware) and excellent for both beginners and experts.
If you are into electronics and like modifying things, look into webcam astronomy. Many amateur astronomers have modified webcams to make them compatible with telescopes and old camera zoom lenses to produce some incredible images. Excellent software exists that takes multiple webcam images and “adds” them together to increase the signal to noise ratio, and the results are impressive.
I took a $10 webcam and modified it to replace the eyepiece of a telescope. I modified another webcam to work with a telephoto lens from an old 35-mm camera – now I’ve got a mini-telescope that takes amazing images of the moon’s craters.
What NOT to do
Never EVER “buy” a star or real estate on another body. It’s bogus. You might as well buy a topographic map of Colorado and declare that a peak is named after you. No legitimate astronomical organization has ever recognized any star naming company. You are not contributing to astronomy or science when you purchase a certificate – just putting money into a con man’s pocket. If you do want a fancy certificate declaring that you own a star then print it yourself – it will be just as valid.
The only named stars are the ones named in ancient times and some unusual ones named for professional astronomers who studied them. The vast majority of stars are just referred to by their catalog numbers or coordinates. There are very strong rules about what can be named after whom and under what circumstances. It’s important to note that the names NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory gives to objects of interest on Mars, Saturn, and other places its satellites and rovers have explored are unofficial names for the convenience of the scientists, not official names submitted to the International Astronomical Union (IAU).
If you are the astronomer who finds an asteroid (not necessarily the first person to see it) AND plots out its orbit you can name it (within certain restrictions) and the astronomy community recognizes those names.
If you are going to a star-gazing party, get a cheap thermos and fill it with your favorite soup, hot chocolate, or coffee. What is even more important, depending on your observation location and the weather, is industrial strength insect repellent. Many bugs are out at night and love to munch on people.
Astronomy without telescopes
There are many forms of astronomy where you never look at the sky – your computer is your “telescope”. The European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA operate a solar spacecraft designed to monitor what is happening on the Sun. SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) monitors the Sun’s outbursts in a wide variety of wavelengths (colors) invisible from the Earth’s surface. One of SOHO’s instruments, the Naval Research Laboratory’s LASCO (Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph Experiment), monitors the sun’s outer atmosphere (corona).
LASCO has a nice secondary function; sun-grazing comets pass through its field of view on a regular basis. Some amateur astronomers go through the publicly available data to search for comets. LASCO is the greatest comet discoverer in history, with over 1,950 comet discoveries to date. That’s more comet discoveries than every other discoverer throughout history, combined!
After you have gotten your feet wet and decide that you really enjoy amateur astronomy, then you can think about buying a telescope.
Author Philip Chien is the proud owner of one of the original Apple II computers built in Steve Wozniak's garage (serial number 1041). He has been writing about geek topics professionally since 1982. He can be reached through his website - http://www.neatinformation.com.
- Published 02/11/13