First steps in Astronomy
by Maarten de Vries
The great thing about astronomy is that you don't need to buy expensive equipment to enjoy it. A lot of astronomy happens without even looking at the sky. Depending on what your interests are, astronomy offers such a wide range of possible topics that it is impossible to mention them all here, and we strongly suggest you start with learning a bit about the heavens before embarking upon any kind of speciality.
Go out and look
Learning about the heavens is even easier than reading about them. Just go out on a clear dark night and look up! It is not essential to know the names of the stars to enjoy the view. It is actually generally accepted as the best way to learn how to observe the skies.
You will quickly find that the less light pollution there is, and the longer you let your eyes adapt to the dark, the more you will see. Relax, even sit in a deck chair, and take in the view. Within a short time you will start to see lots of interesting things, and you will find that your eyes are behaving ‘oddly’ when trying to look at stars that seem to be just too faint to see. They appear brighter when not looking straight at them! This is known as averted vision. The more you experiment with it, the better you will learn to use it and will become an important technique when observing with telescopes.
On a very dark night and after about ½ hour in the dark, you will begin to see the most wonderful things. The Milky Way will become clear and you will start to see dark streaks and intricate whorls of brightness within it. You may even glimpse some small smudges of light here and there, which are just bright enough to spot with averted vision. You will also notice that the stars are different colours. Most appear white but others are orange, or even a deep red, and others appear blue. M31, the Andromeda Galaxy (picture 1) can be seen with the naked eye as a hazy patch of light. You're looking more than 2 million years back in time!
Joining a society
If you are hooked by now (and you may very well be), you may want to learn more. By far the best way to do that is by joining a local astronomy society. Here you will find many people with the same interests and a wide variety of skills and knowledge, which they will be very willing to share with you.
Most societies meet regularly and joining them doesn't usually cost very much. To find out which societies are nearest to you, please click here for more information.
Once a member of a society, you will very quickly learn a lot about astronomy. You will also be able to learn about certain specific interests within the field of astronomy. Your society may have a library which gives you access to books which otherwise may be too costly to own. Most societies usually also have at least one, but often more than one, telescope. This provides you with a chance to have a closer look at one of those hazy patches you spotted the other night.
Learning the stars
No matter what you are planning to do next to progress, there is usually no other way than to learn about the stars. Once you have gone out and observed a few times, you will start to recognise some distinct patterns in the brightest of stars. The ancient Greeks were fascinated by these patterns and saw all sorts of shapes in them, giving them the names of the mythical people, beasts or items they resembled.
Modern amateur and professional astronomers alike are still using these so called constellations for the purpose of finding their way around the heavens. It is therefore of great importance to learn these constellations and be able to find them in the sky. One way to do this is to buy a good star guide. Usually in the form of a book or a planisphere, it will describe the constellations using images and you will then need to go out and try to find them in the night sky. If you find that too difficult, ask at your society and there will always be someone willing to come out some dark night and point them out for you – and don’t be embarrassed about asking, we all had to do it when we started! Most societies organise regular star parties (picture 2) where you will learn a lot about the skies and the stars in a very short time.
During your travels through the sky, you will find that things change over the year. This is due to the fact that the Earth orbits the Sun. It is therefore important that you try to learn which constellations you will be able to see in which season.
Your first optical aid
Once you start to learn a bit more about the constellations, you may well want to see some of their features more closely. To do so, the best way is to pick up a pair of binoculars. The best ones are those of low magnification but with quite large lenses. The standard 7 x 50s or 8 x 50s are fine for this purpose.
When you let your eyes adapt to the dark and you have identified an area you want to see more closely, take your binoculars and look. You will find the effect stunning. Not only will you see the stars much brighter, their colours will become even more vivid than with the naked eye. You will see many more stars and some of the hazy patches will turn into spectacular clouds of hundreds of tiny stars. By scanning the skies with your binos, you will start to see even more hazy patches.
When you look at the brightest of the stars, you may find that they turn into tiny disks of light rather than the usual pinpoints. The chances are that you are looking at one of the large planets. If so, you may even glimpse Jupiter's 4 largest moons!
At your local society, there will always be someone willing to show you what these planets look like through a fine telescope, and if you are ready to buy such a telescope yourself, you will have had a chance to try different types before deciding which one would suit your needs best.