Guide to becoming a Backyard Astronomer!
There's nothing like looking up at the sky on a dark, clear night! Here are some steps to make sky observing enjoyable!
- Get a star chart: Star Charts can show you what stars, planets, and other objects are in your sky. Make sure you have one for your hemisphere and time of year. Download a free star chart from: SkyMaps.com.
- Use Astronomy Software: Star charts are the most basic way to find your way across the sky, but they can be difficult to use. By using an astronomy software program on your computer you can see what the sky looks like real time and in much more detail! There are a number of free software programs on the internet. Download an excellent and free astronomy program from: Stellarium
- Go outside and look up! Forget about telescopes and binoculars. Go outside and try to spot different stars and constellations with the naked eye. Bring a print out of a star chart or have your computer close by. Try to spot some planets. Venus and Jupiter tend to be really bright in the night sky and easy to locate. The planets you will be able to see depends on where you located and when you are looking. Enjoy the beauty of the night sky! Try to remember the names of the constellations. If you do this throughout the year you will notice that the constellations will change with the seasons!
- Meet other amateur astronomers! If you are serious about getting into astronomy, do not just go buy a telescope. Instead, find out where you can meet other astronomers. A) A lot of clubs offer: star parties, guest speakers, observing nights, and public events. Check this site and find an astronomy club near you: Astronomy.com - Astronomy Club Listings. B) If you live near a college that has an Astronomy department most likely they will have free public viewing/ outreach events! C) Go to a telescope store and ask if they have any public viewing nights. Most likely they will be very happy to invite you to any observing events.
- Learn! There are lots of magazines, books, podcasts, and websites devoted to Astronomy. One of my favorite resources is a free audio podcast called Astronomy Cast. They have over 100 episodes that start at the basics and work up. Each episode is about 20 mins and it is very accessible for lots of ages and abilities. Every episode is very interesting and entertaining. It is the perfect thing for on your way to work, or out for a run! I have learned so much listening to Astronomy Cast!
- Still Interested? Time for a telescope? Ok, if you have followed the first five steps and are still pumped for astronomy, then there is a good chance you will get life long use out of a telescope. There are many different kinds of telescopes. I recommend starting off with a small, easy to use telescope. Here are some reasons why: a) These telescopes are very easy to carry and operate by yourself (you can literally be out, looking at the sky in a couple mintues). b) These telescopes tend to have a wider field of view making it easier to find objects. c) Because they are so small, and take up little room, you will tend to leave it setup in the house, and therefore, tend to use it a lot more! Here is a good article of What you need to know before buying a telescope.
- Once you get a telescope or binoculars, get outside as much as possible! Have fun enjoying the beautiful stars, planets, nebulas, and galaxies! Show your friends, have fun, and keep learning! Once again, it's a lot easier if you have some more experienced astronomers to show you around the sky! But, if you can't find anyone, a computer program is a good backup!
Current Night Sky Site from Harvard that tells the current planets you can see in the sky.
Learn about Constellations This site has an FAQ about constellations.
Star Hoping Learn how to navigate from star to star to find dim objects in the sky.
Video: How to Observe Deep-Sky Objects Excellent online video on how to explore deep space objects!