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Astronomy For Beginners

Astronomy is an amazing hobby. It is quite fascinating to view the details of the moon, the rings of Saturn, and the moons of Jupiter. It also is stunning to look at deep sky objects such as M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, and contemplate -  it took an amazing 3 million years for the light of that object to reach your eyes. And that’s one of the closer galaxies!

Galaxy M31

Galaxy M31

Anytime I talk to someone who wants to get into astronomy, I like to suggest a few tips to get them going in the right direction -

Don’t Buy a Telescope Yet

The first thing you do should not be to run out to a department store and buy the first telescope you see. Why? First of all, most of the telescopes you can buy at regular stores are complete crap. A $200 2″ refractor telescope that you buy at Best Buy or Walmart is garbage. You can tell it’s garbage because they market it with phrase such as ‘Up to 1000X Magnification!” So what? 1000X magnification in such a little scope is beyond worthless. Magnification is only of slight interest in anything but the largest telescope.

The only telescopes that can be used at a magnification above 300X or so are large, expensive scopes with a lot of aperture. Aperture is the diameter of the end of the telescope pointing at the sky – the bigger the diameter, the more light the telescope gathers. This is the key number, not magnification. I’ll get into aperture more below when I discuss your first telescope.

The other reason to not buy a telescope yet is you don’t know enough yet to even use it properly. There are other things you need to do first. Such as -

Find a Local Astronomy Club

club

An astronomy club in Arizona

The best way to get introduced to astronomy is to talk to experienced amateur astronomers. Most cities and towns across America have astronomy clubs that you can join for little to no cost. Attend the group’s meetings and observation settings. The club members can help you get to know the night sky. In addition to the camaraderie that you enjoy with like-minded people, this is a great way to try out a variety of different telescopes. These clubs frequently have viewing parties in dark sky locations. You can join in and try observing many night sky objects with lots of shapes and sizes of telescopes.

Get to Know the Sky

saturn

Saturn, as seen with the Hubble Space Telescope

Try to get out to a dark location and get to know the basic constellations. Star with the Big and Little Dipper, then move on to Cassiopeia, Orion the Hunter, Pegasus, Sagittarius, Gemini, Taurus, Cepheus and many others. Familiarize yourself with the phases of the moon, as well as with the ecliptic, which is the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun. It is the path that the sun and moon travel, and also is the part of the sky where you will find the planets, as well.

 

Time for Your First Purchase

binocs

 A good pair of binoculars should be your first purchase.

That’s right. The first thing that you should purchase before a telescope is a decent pair of binoculars. Binoculars are great for astronomy because they are low power and have a wide field of view. They do wonderfully for getting a glimpse of galaxies, nebulae and star clusters. They also are useful for looking at the moon, and you can usually make out the 4 brightest moons of Jupiter with them. I usually recommend a pair of 10X50 binoculars, which give you a better field of view than 7X35s. Your binoculars also will be very helpful for you throughout the years after you buy your telescope. Even with a nice scope, it’s very helpful to have a pair of binoculars handy to get a wide angle view of the sky from time to time.

You’ll also learn to time your viewing sessions with the phase of the moon. When it is near full, it’s more difficult to view faint objects. And as far as looking at the Moon, I advise looking when the moon is no more than 1/2 full (first or last quarter). Much more full than that and the details of the craters and mountain ranges are washed out.

Your First Telescope

refractor reflector

Refractor Telescope                                                            Reflector Telescope

Well, about time, right? You finally get to buy your telescope! Before you buy, let’s discuss the basic types of telescope:

  • Refractor: This telescope (above left) is the one most people picture when they think of a telescope. It focuses light through a series of lenses, and the observer stands at the back and views the image through an eyepiece.
  • Reflector: Also known as a Newtonian reflector (above right), as it was invented by Sir Isaac Newton. A reflector focuses light by a parabolic mirror at the bottom of the telescope tube. The light is reflected back to the front of the tube, where a secondary mirror in the middle of the tube bounces the image to the viewer and eyepiece on the side of the scope.

As you can imagine, both types have advantages and disadvantages. Refractors have very high image quality and resolution of detail, because the tube is not partially obstructed with a mirror. However, refractors are very expensive in anything but small sizes. The most important aspect of a telescope is its aperture – the diameter of the telescope’s mirror or lenses at the front of the telescope. A refractor with a 4-5″ aperture can easily cost $3,000 or more.

This is why I generally recommend that you start with a 4-6″ reflector telescope as your first buy. Reflectors offer the most aperture for the least cost. The more aperture you have, the fainter the objects you can see. It’s true that reflectors do not resolve images as well as refractors, but aperture beats everything else. You can easily buy a 6″ reflector for $$600 or so. And a 4″ can be had for $300 or less.

Hopefully, by following these beginner astronomy tips, you have a good start to the amazing world of amateur astronomy.

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