How to Start Right in Astronomy
By Alan MacRobert
"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 nearly 100 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 will and will not do, and know enough about the objects you're seeking to recognize and appreciate them.
The most successful, lifelong amateur astronomers are often the ones who began with the least equipment. What they lacked in gear they had to make up for in study, sky knowledge, map use, and fine-tuning their observing eyes. These skills stood them in good stead when the gear came later.
Is there a shortcut? In recent years computerized, robotic scopes have come on the market that point at astronomical objects automatically. They represent an enormous change. No longer do you need to know the sky.
Once fully set up, a computerized scope is a lot faster than the old way of learning the sky and using a map -- assuming you know what's worth telling the computer to point at. But they're expensive, and opinions about them are divided. For beginners, at least, there's some consensus that a computerized scope can be a crutch that prevents you from learning to get around by yourself and will leave you helpless if anything goes wrong. Moreover, you miss out on the pleasures of making your own journeys through the heavens.
At star parties beneath gorgeous black, star-sprinkled skies, we have seen beginners struggling for hours with electronics when they should have been sweeping the heavens overhead. Is this just the carping of old fogeys? The jury is still out.
4. Start with binoculars
A pair of binoculars is the ideal "first telescope," for several reasons. Binoculars show you a wide field, making it easy to find your way around; a higher-power telescope magnifies only a tiny, hard-to-locate spot of sky. Binoculars give you a view that's right-side up and straight in front of you, making it easy to see where you're pointing. An astronomical telescope's view is upside down, sometimes mirror-imaged, and usually presented at right angles to the line of sight. Binoculars are also fairly inexpensive, widely available, and a breeze to carry and store.
And their performance is surprisingly respectable. Ordinary 7- to 10-power binoculars improve on the naked-eye view about as much as a good amateur telescope improves on the binoculars. In other words they get you halfway there for something like a tenth to a quarter of the price -- an excellent cost-benefit ratio.
For astronomy, the larger the front lenses are the better. High optical quality is important too. But any binocular that's already knocking around the back of your closet is enough to launch an amateur-astronomy career.
5. Get serious about maps and guidebooks
Once you have the binoculars, what do you do with them? You can have fun looking at the Moon and sweeping the star fields of the Milky Way, but that will wear thin after a while. However, if you've learned the constellations and obtained detailed sky maps, binoculars can keep you busy for a lifetime.
They'll reveal most of the 110 "M objects," the star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae cataloged by Charles Messier in the late 18th century. Binoculars will show the ever-changing positions of Jupiter's satellites and the crescent phase of Venus. On the Moon you can learn dozens of craters, plains, and mountain ranges by name. You can split scores of colorful double stars and spend years following the fadings and brightenings of variable stars. If you know what to look for.
A sailor of the seas needs top-notch charts, and so does a sailor of the stars. Fine maps bring the fascination of hunting out faint secrets in hidden sky realms. Many reference books describe what's to be hunted and the nature of the objects you find. Moreover, the skills you'll develop using maps and reference books with binoculars are exactly the skills you'll need to put a telescope to good use.
6. Find other amateurs
Self-education is fine as far as it goes, but there's nothing like sharing an interest with others. There are more than 400 astronomy clubs in North America alone -- see Sky & Telescope's Astronomical Directory right here on the Sky & Telescope Web site. Call the clubs near you. Maybe you'll get invited to monthly meetings or nighttime star parties and make a lot of new friends. Clubs range from tiny to huge, from moribund to vital. But none would have published a phone number unless they hoped you would call.
Computer networks offer another way to contact other amateurs. CompuServe, GEnie, America Online, and the Internet all have active astronomy areas. These present a constant flow of interesting news and chatter by amateurs who are quick to offer help, opinions, and advice.
7. When it's time for a telescope, plunge in deep
Eventually you'll know you're ready. You'll have spent hours poring over books and ad brochures. You'll know the different kinds of telescopes, what you can expect of them, and what you'll do with the one you pick.
This is no time to scrimp on quality; shun the flimsy, semi-toy "department store" scopes that may have caught your eye. The telescope you want has two essentials. One is a solid, steady, smoothly working mount. The other is high-quality optics -- "diffraction-limited" or better. You may also want large aperture (size), but don't forget portability and convenience. The telescope shouldn't be so heavy that you can't tote it outdoors, set it up, and take it down reasonably easily. The old saying is true: "The best telescope for you is the one you'll use the most.
Can't afford it? Save up until you can. Another year of using binoculars while building a savings account will be time you'll never regret. It's foolish to blow half-accumulated telescope money on something second rate that will disappoint. Or consider building the scope yourself, an activity that many clubs support.
8. Lose your ego
Astronomy teaches patience and humility -- and you'd better be prepared to learn them. There's nothing you can do about the clouds blocking your view, the extreme distance and faintness of the objects you desire most, or the timing of the long-anticipated event for which you got all set up one minute late. The universe will not bend to your wishes; you must take it on its own terms.
Most of the objects within reach of any telescope, no matter how large or small it is, are barely within its reach. Most of the time you'll be hunting for things that appear very dim, small, or both. If flashy visuals are what you're after, go watch TV.
"Worthiness" is the term entering the amateur language for the humble perseverance that brings the rewards in this hobby. The term was coined by Ken Fulton, author of The Light-Hearted Astronomer (1984) -- a book describing the hobby as a jungle full of snares, quicksand, and wild beasts that only those with the spiritual skills of a martial artist can traverse unmauled. It's really not that bad -- but there are definitely times when a Zen calmness will help you through.
9. Relax and have fun
Part of losing your ego is not getting upset at your telescope because it's less than perfect. Perfection doesn't exist, no matter what you paid. Don't be compulsive about things like cleaning lenses and mirrors or the organization of your observing notebook.
And don't feel compelled to do "useful work" right away. Ultimately, the most rewarding branches of amateur astronomy involve scientific data collecting -- venturing into the nightly wilderness to bring home a few bits of data that will advance humanity's knowledge of the universe in some tiny but real way. Such a project often marks the transformation from "beginner" to "advanced amateur," from casual sightseer to cosmic fanatic. But it only works for some people, and only when they're good and ready.
Amateur astronomy should be calming and fun. If you find yourself getting wound up over your eyepiece's aberrations or Pluto's invisibility, take a deep breath and remember that you're doing this because you enjoy it. Take it only as fast or as slow, as intense or as easy, as is right for you.