Getting into astronomy

Getting into Astronomy

Astronomy / December 23, 2016

"DEAR SKY & TELESCOPE, " the letter began. "I am 20 years old and new to astronomy. I have always been fascinated with the stars and universe. What would you suggest my first step be to get into the hobby, so that I might get the most enjoyment out of it?"

It's a good question, one that deserves better answers than most beginners find. Many newcomers to astronomy call us in exasperation after blundering down some wrong trail that leaves them lost and frustrated. Such experiences, widely shared, create a general public impression that astronomy is a tough hobby to get into. But this impression is altogether wrong and unnecessary.

Many other hobbies that have magazines, conventions, and vigorous club scenes have developed effective ways to welcome and orient beginners. Why can't we? For starters, novice astronomers would have more success if a few simple, well-chosen direction signs were posted for them at the beginning of the trail.

What advice would help beginners the most? Sky & Telescope editors brainstormed this question. Pooling thoughts from more than 200 years of collective experience answering the phone and mail, we came up with a number of pointers to help newcomers past the pitfalls and onto the straightest route to success.

1. Ransack your public library. Astronomy is a learning hobby. Its joys come from intellectual discovery and knowledge of the cryptic night sky. But unless you live near an especially large and active astronomy club, you have to make these discoveries, and gain this knowledge, by yourself. In other words, you need to become self-taught.

The public library is the beginner's most important astronomical tool. Maybe you found Sky & Telescope there. Comb through the astronomy shelf for beginner's guides. Look for aids to learning the stars you see in the evening sky. One of the best is the big two-page sky map that appears near the center of every month's Sky & Telescope, which the library should have. When a topic interests you, follow it up in further books.

Many people's first impulse, judging from the phone calls, is to look for someone else to handle their education - an evening course offering, a planetarium, or some other third party. These can be stimulating and helpful. But almost never do they present what you need to know right now, and you waste an enormous amount of time commuting when you should be observing. Self-education is something you do yourself, with books, using the library.

2. Learn the sky with the naked eye. Astronomy is an outdoor nature hobby. Go into the night and learn the starry names and patterns overhead. Sky & Telescope will always have its big, round all-sky map for evening star-finding. Other books and materials will fill in the lore and mythology of the constellations the map shows, and how the stars change through the night and the seasons. Even if you go no further, the ability to look up and say "There's Arcturus!" will provide pleasure, and perhaps a sense of place in the cosmos, for the rest of your life.

3. Don't rush to buy a telescope. Many hobbies require a big cash outlay up front. But astronomy, being a learning hobby, has no such entrance fee. Conversely, paying a fee will not buy your way in.

Thinking otherwise is the most common beginner's mistake. Half the people who call for help ask, "How do I see anything with this %@&*# telescope?!" They assumed that making a big purchase was the essential first step.

It doesn't work that way. To put a telescope to rewarding use, you first need to know the constellations as seen with the naked eye, be able to find things among them with sky charts, know something of what a telescope...