Ten Steps to Success in Backyard Astronomy – AstroGear Today
Volunteers from the Calgary Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and staff from TELUS Spark helped present the stars to the public. Credit: Alan Dyer

Here are my Top Ten Tips for getting into astronomy AND staying in the hobby!

I recommend getting into astronomy one step at a time. Leap too far too fast and you will face frustration trying to use complex gear that you will soon want to sell.

STEP 1: Get to know the sky — with simple sky charts.

Don’t buy a telescope! What most beginners take to be the first step should actually be one of the last in any “Top 10” list — certainly my list — of tips to get started. You will get far more out of any telescope if you first know how to find your way around the night sky.

And for that, all you need are simple star charts (found in beginner guidebooks like Nightwatch by Terence Dickinson) or an aid such as a planisphere. Apps on your mobile device can help as well (I like SkySafari, shown here).

A well rounded amateur astronomer uses lo tech, hi tech, and everything in between. Credit: Alan Dyer

Start by identifying the brightest stars, as well as Polaris, and obvious patterns such as the Big Dipper (usually visible all year), Cassiopeia (autumn), Orion (winter), Leo (spring) and Cygnus (summer) from your backyard, even in the city. With just naked eye sessions, you’ll discover how the sky moves through a night and how the constellations change through the year. That’s a big step!

STEP 2: Learn about coming sky events — at magazine websites.

Special sky events inspire us all to get outside and look up. Many sights don’t need anything more than unaided eyes or binoculars to enjoy. Planetary conjunctions, meteor showers, eclipses, special full Moons, or a bright comet — all are best seen without a telescope. Check the websites of astronomy magazines (astronomy.com, skyandtelescope.org/observing/, skynews.ca, skyatnightmagazine.com) for accurate (not sensationalized!) news of sky events.

STEP 3: Use binoculars — to find the sky’s best targets.

Binoculars may not seem as glamorous as a big shiny telescope, but they can offer a much more pleasing and intuitive view of the night sky. Credit: Alan Dyer

Buy binoculars (this website has plenty of reviews). Or dust off the pair you already own. They can show you a lot up there! Compared to a telescope, binoculars are much easier to use, as their views are right side up, and their wide field makes them easy to aim.

You can see details on the Moon and pick out the moons of Jupiter. Bright star clusters and nebulae (like the Orion Nebula) are easy, even under suburban skies, as is the Andromeda Galaxy, on everyone’s “must see” list. But to find star clusters, nebulas and galaxies, you need a guide. I recommend the spiral-bound Binocular Highlights by Gary Seronik. But there are many other fine guides in print.

STEP 4: Find a local astronomy club — to learn from others.

While stargazing can be a lone pursuit, you’ll get much more out of the hobby in the company of others, either in person, or through a local club’s website, social media pages, and online lectures.

Club meetings can be a great source of inspiration and learning, as members present their astrophotos and local astronomers talk about their research. You get to talk to fellow stargazers in person (or you will, post-COVID)!

A composite showing me (on the right lit in green) and fellow Calgary RASC astronomy club members pointing at Polaris with green laser pointers at a public star party July 27, 2019 at the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory. Credit: Alan Dyer

STEP 5: Buy a book — to learn from experts.

The usual question beginners ask is, “Is there a website where I can learn all I need to know?” The answer? No. At least I’ve never found one. Yes, the internet is great for news and reviews. Facebook and forums can be sources of helpful advice. Just be warned, asking “What telescope should I buy?” is bound to elicit reams of contradictory answers. When seeking advice on-line, make your queries as specific as possible, perhaps about one model of telescope.

However, instead of endlessly web browsing, I suggest buying a good astronomy book. Or two! They can provide much more helpful and detailed instruction than can Facebook or websites.

Some of the books recommended by the author. Credit: Alan Dyer

STEP 6: Attend an urban starnight — to look through telescopes.

Find out when your local astronomy club might be hosting a public stargazing event. Or check with your local planetarium, nature center, or university observatory. An observing night, even in the city, is a great opportunity to learn the sky, as host astronomers point out what’s up, and provide opportunities to look through telescopes. You can see how telescopes perform and ask the owners what they like, and don’t like, about their scopes. Again, all post-COVID.

STEP 7: Attend a rural star party — to explore a darker sky.

An observer gazes skyward with his Dobsonian reflector telescope at the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party on August 9, 2018. Credit: Alan Dyer

You could buy a telescope at this point, but attending a “star party,” typically a weekend event at a rural park or campground, will provide you with even more experience with what telescopes can show under darker skies.

While the Moon and planets show up well from any location, dark skies provide better views of fainter objects, like those star clusters, nebulas and galaxies you’ve seen photos of. You might be so taken with the views through big scopes under dark skies that the experience will change your life! It could change your choice of telescope to buy.

STEP 8: Buy a telescope — but keep it portable.

Now you are ready to buy a telescope. In your research you’ll soon learn that the diameter of the telescope’s lens or mirror — its aperture — is key. Bigger scopes show more.

But don’t get greedy! I find more people give up the hobby for buying too much telescope, than from buying too small a scope. Portability and ease of use are paramount. The best scope is the one you will use most often. Massive dream telescopes that get used only on rare perfect weekend nights at dark sites are the scopes that soon get put up for sale.

The best telescope is the one that gets used. Credit: Alan Dyer

STEP 9: Look at the Moon. Find a planet. Buy a star atlas.

The Moon never fails to impress first time scope users. The planets are more challenging. People expect them to look like the images from spacecraft. Sorry! Even at 150 power, they will look small. But you will see Saturn’s rings and the cloud belts on Jupiter, maybe the Great Red Spot.

To hunt down fainter “deep-sky objects”, even with a computerized “Go To” scope that can point automatically, I suggest it’s still a good idea to buy a guidebook or star atlas. It will help you select what objects are best to aim at. Then, as you might have already discovered at star parties, expect objects to look black-and-white. Your eyes can’t see the colors revealed in long exposure photos.

STEP 10: Forget photography — for now!

Many beginners want to leap into the deep end of the hobby by taking pictures through their telescopes right away. Yes, you can grab good shots of the Moon with your phone camera aimed into a telescope eyepiece. But getting those colorful images of nebulas and galaxies is much more difficult. Such images require specialized telescopes and tracking mounts that might not be the best choices for just looking at objects in the sky, and will cost well north of $2,500 for an entry-level astrophoto outfit, such as the rig shown here.

Beware the dreaded Gear Acquisition Syndrome or G.A.S. Credit: Alan Dyer

Forget photography. Start by just enjoying looking at and learning about the sky using your eyes, a pair of binoculars, or a simple telescope that is quick and easy to set up.

Clear skies!

About Alan Dyer

Alan Dyer is an astrophotographer and astronomy author based in Alberta, Canada. His website at www.amazingsky.com has galleries of his images, plus links to his product review blog posts, video tutorials, and ebooks on astrophotography.

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