Beginner’s Guide To Astronomy

In this beginner’s guide to astronomy we offer some advice for getting started and buying your first telescope. It’s always easy, with the rush of enthusiasm that accompanies a new hobby, to spend more than is necessary, so we hope this short guide will put you on the right track and save you some unnecesseary expense.

Astronomy is a fascinating field of study that can be pursued at any age. The whole family can get together to stargaze, and your participation can vary from unaided view of constellations to using high-powered telescopes for a more up close and personal view of the planets and the Moon.

Beginner's Guide To Astronomy

Beginner’s Guide To Astronomy

The easiest way to get started with your astronomy study is by spotting constellations. A simple book or online guide to show what constellations are easily visible at the current time of year in your country is enough to get you underway. Start with the easier constellations, such as Ursa Major or Orion, then move on to some that are a bit more difficult to pick out. A seasonal study of how the constellations move in the sky from summer to winter will add a deeper dimension to your astronomical knowledge.

Studying the phases of the moon will also increase your awareness of the night sky and how it changes from day to day and season to season. These kinds of exercises can be particularly meaningful for children as they learn the various patterns of the seasons.

Viewing the Moon and planets

It’s possible to get a good look at the moon and some of the nearer planets using binoculars rather than investing in a telescope. If you want to venture into a more detailed examination of our nearer neighbours, but aren’t quite ready to purchase a telescope, use binoculars to get a look at the details of the surface of the moon in particular.

Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn can be easily viewed with the naked eye or with binoculars. With binoculars and a little work, you can generally find Uranus and Neptune. Pluto, however, requires use of a telescope due to its distance and small size.

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Collins Stargazing: Beginners guide to astronomy (Royal Observatory Greenwich)
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Buying a telescope

As your study of astronomy continues, you’ll eventually want to invest in a telescope. While telescopes are expensive, there are several models that are reasonably priced enough to make them a good investment in your education. Even a low or medium power telescope can greatly increase your enjoyment of your astronomy hobby. Be sure to do plenty of research, though, and be sure you purchase a telescope that will work well and that will last. With the right telescope added to your repertoire, your enjoyment of astronomy will continue growing for years to come.

Buying within your budget

Depending on the size of your budget, the depth of your curiosity, and the seriousness of your habit, there are several key attributes to consider when buying your first telescope: portability, aperture size, and steadiness. There are three principal types of telescope; the refractor, the reflector, and the cassegrain. All telescopes work by taking the available light through what is known as the aperture and reflecting that light and image back to the eyepiece.

The refractor’s aperture is usually smaller than the reflector’s aperture; therefore, a refractor allows you to see the moon and the planets, while a reflector will allow you to look deeper into the cosmos. The diameter of the mirror in the reflector, usually measured in millimeters, will tell you how large the aperture is; in this case, the larger, the better. The cassegrain utilizes two mirrors and a correcting lens, and is often used by intermediate to advanced amateur astronomers.

Magnification, surprisingly, is not nearly as important as aperture size. In fact, magnification is generally better at lower rates due to the amount of light coming in to the telescope; with a weak light source a higher magnification will appear dim and blurry, whereas a lower magnification with the same light source will render the object with more clarity and precision. A magnification between 32x and 50x is generally best. Any higher than this, and in typical nighttime viewing conditions, you will spend more time viewing earth-bound refracted heat waves from the day’s sun than anything in the night sky.

Portability plays an important role in choosing a telescope. If you have a dedicated space in your home for your telescope, then portability and set-up do not play that great of a factor. If, however, you do not wish to store the telescope in a permanent space, portability will play a larger role in determining what telescope to buy. Reflecting telescopes are generally easily portable up to about an 4” mirror, at which point they become increasingly difficult to move. Most refractor telescopes are extremely portable.

Additionally, the tripod on which the telescope rests is of vital importance. A cheap, flimsy tripod will make viewing difficult, if not impossible. A steady foundation is the key to a worthwhile viewing experience.

To enhance your experience, a basic knowledge of the position of notable celestial features is recommended. Most medium-budget telescopes come with something known as a ‘Finderscope.’ Mounted on top of the telescope, the German Equatorial mount version of the Finderscope automatically aligns the telescope to celestial north, a point on the sky designated in celestial maps.

The other type of Finderscope mount is the alt-azimuth version, which allows 360 degree movement on the horizontal plane. Depending on the size of your budget, you can purchase other more specialized computerized finders, such as a “GoTo” scope, which has a pre-set list of celestial points of interest that one can select from a keypad. This “GoTo” feature is usually found in conjunction with the cassegrain telescope, and is not necessarily recommended for the first-time buyer, unless you do not mind investing significant time in the initial set-up.

For tips on where to buy your telescope, there are a few excellent print/online resources. Depending on your geographical location, the U.K.’s Astronomy Now offers a list of specialized telescope merchants, while the United States equivalent is Sky and Telescope. Finding a local astronomy club is also a great way to get first-hand recommendations for telescope vendors. Ultimately, spending time on research will help you to wisely spend money on your first telescope.

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Last update on 2021-08-01 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API