Astronomy can be a lifelong joy . . . or a disappointing fizzle. Which one it will be for you often depends on how you start out.
Starting out right can lead you to the myriad pleasures that come from seeing with your own eyes once-in-a-lifetime sights that have traveled from the far corners of the Universe.
Starting out wrong can lead to frustration, disappointment, and wasted money. Starting out wrong, for example, means buying the biggest and most expensive telescope on the block before you know what you want to see, or how to find it, or whether you can even see it at all. Starting out wrong means expecting the Universe to give up its secrets easily, or expecting to see more through your telescope than our turbulent atmosphere and the laws of optics will allow.
Luckily, starting out right in astronomy is not all that difficult. Here are a few tips to help you start your journey to the stars on the right foot.
Start by simply using your bare eyes and a basic star chart, like those published monthly in Astronomy and Sky & Telescope magazines, to become familiar with the constellations that march across the nighttime sky. Being able to recognize old friends like Orion, Cassiopeia, or Sagittarius at a glance is one of the pleasures of astronomy.
Next, expand your vision with binoculars. You don’t have to spend big bucks on giant astronomical binoculars to get started. Even those inexpensive old binos collecting dust in your closet can start you stargazing. That old pair of 7 x 35mm binoculars you take to football games, or those 8 x 42mm binos you use for birdwatching and vacations, will have a wide field of view that will make it easy for you to star-hop around the sky to find many deep space gems – the Andromeda Galaxy, the Pleiades, the Great Nebula in Orion, the Double Cluster in Perseus, and many more.
Becoming a regular reader of the monthly sky guides in Astronomy or Sky & Telescope will keep you alert to the transient sights that are visible in binoculars – things like comets, the hour by hour changing positions of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons, the phases of Venus, the brightening and dimming of variable stars, and more.
There are also a number of iPhone, Smartphone, iPad, and tablet apps that can identify celestial sights like these by simply holding your device up to the sky. These apps can also be used as a star chart while indoors.
And don’t forget the Moon. There’s a surprising amount of lunar detail to be seen with a steady pair of binoculars. Learn how to find your way around the sky with your bare eyes and a pair of binoculars can keep you stargazing for a lifetime.
As your interests grow, get a more detailed set of star charts and a guidebook or two from the selection we list online in the Star Charts and Atlases section of this website. Using a more detailed star chart than the simple monthly charts in the magazines will let you locate hundreds of deep space objects with your binoculars (and eventually your telescope). Guidebooks will describe those objects for you, help you find them, and give you a feel for what they look like through eyeball, binocular, or telescope. The skills you develop navigating the sky with binoculars, using star charts and guidebooks, will stand you in good stead when you move up to a telescope.
Seek out other astronomers. Solitary stargazing can be restful and fulfilling, but observing with others will open your eyes to many more starry wonders and increase your observing skills. Join an astronomy club, even if you don’t yet own a telescope. Many clubs have telescopes for their scope-less club members to borrow. Attend the club’s monthly star parties and look through as many different telescopes there as you can, to get a feel for what telescope types best suit your needs and your budget.
However, if you are impatient to get started, there are many computerized go-to telescopes available (many of them quite inexpensive). These have built-in and easy-to-use computers that already know the sky and are always willing to find thousands of celestial highlights for you at the touch of a button or two on their hand control keypad.
When you’re ready for a telescope, use the information in our next few How to Pick sections to help you choose the scope that’s right for you. When you do get your scope, read the instruction manual before you start assembling it (you can download many of them in advance from this web site). The manual usually will answer many of the questions that are bound to come up. If it doesn't, give us a call and we’ll be happy to help.
Don’t go overboard buying accessories at first. The greater the number of new gadgets that you have to learn how to use all at once, the more easily you can get frustrated. Take astronomy one step at a time.
To compute or not to compute, that is the question. Some people like to divide backyard astronomers into hunters and gatherers. Hunters are those who delight in tracking down their astronomical quarry all by themselves – star-hopping from object to object, using just a star chart and a completely manual Dobsonian reflector or altazimuth mount refractor. For the hunters, looking for is as much fun as looking at.
On the other hand, gatherers are those astronomers whose busy life doesn't allow them much time for hunting down sights in the sky. They may only have a half hour or so to observe, so gatherers want a scope that takes the time and work out astronomy . . . a scope that quickly gathers the sights for them automatically, so they don’t have to spend their short observing time hunting for them.
For the gatherers, a computerized telescope is the ideal solution. A computerized scope takes the work out of setting up each night and aligning your scope on the sky. With some scopes, setting up to observe is as easy as just flipping one switch and letting the telescope do all the work. Most computerized scopes will take you on guided tours of the sky, automatically gathering the night’s best sights for you to see. And computerized do-it-all scopes are becoming more affordable every day.
Whether a computerized scope is right for you is no longer a matter of cost, but more often than not simply a question of how much time do you have to observe and how easy do you want your observing life to be?
Once you have your scope, keep in mind that you have to meet the Universe on its terms, not yours. There is nothing you can do about clouds blocking your view, or missing the timing of a long-anticipated event, or the extreme distance and faintness of an object you want to see. Patience and persistence are as much a part of an astronomer’s observing kit as a set of eyepieces.
Remember that most objects within reach of any telescope are barely within reach. Much of the time you'll be hunting for objects that are very dim, very small, or both. The challenge of finding them is one of the lures of amateur astronomy. No telescope, large or small, can ever show you everything you want to see, nor can it show you the amount of detail and the vivid colors that you see in long exposure photos taken with large observatory telescopes.
So, relax and accept the limitations and imperfections of the seeing conditions, your optics, and your own eyes. You may not see faint deep space objects as well as the Hubble Space Telescope, but you will be able to take great pleasure in those wonders you can see.