Observing – getting started

The following thoughts and suggestions on astronomy as a hobby have been adapted from an  article by Alan McRobert (1994) in Sky & Telescope.

Read, read, read! “Astronomy is a learning hobby … self-education is something you do yourself, with books, using the library.” And remember, Google is your friend, too! There are many good sites on the Internet to learn from – our list of web resources is a good place to browse.

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.” A great tool for learning the layout of the night sky and constellations is the Southern Star Wheel planisphere, a free download to print out and assemble.

Don’t rush to buy a telescope. “To put a telescope to rewarding use, you first need to know the sky as seen with the naked eye, be able to find things among the stars 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.”

Start with binoculars. Ease of use, cost and performance make binoculars the ideal ‘first telescope’. Read our guidelines on choosing binoculars to get started.

Get serious about map and guidebooks. “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.” On the Star Charts page you can download several free resources to get you started, including the Discover! constellation workbook and the more detailed ConCards charts.

Find other amateurs. “Self-education is fine as far as it goes, but there’s nothing like sharing an interest with others.” If you’re not a member of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa (ASSA) yet, join us now. Or find other astronomy clubs in southern Africa.

When it’s time for a telescope, plunge in deep. Don’t skimp on quality. “The telescope you want has two essentials. One is a solid, steady, smoothly working mount. The other is high-quality optics … You may also want large aperture (size), but don’t forget portability and convenience.” Read more about equipment in general and telescopes and accessories in particular.

Lose your ego. “Astronomy teaches patience and humility – and you’d better be prepared to learn them … The universe will not bend to your wishes; you must take it on its own terms. … Most objects within reach of any telescope, no matter how large or small it is, are barely within 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.”

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 cleaning lenses and mirrors or the organization of your observing notebook … 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 as fast or as slow, as intense or as easy, as is right for you.”

Further reading

— Byrd D (1993) “Exploring the South Polar Sky”, Astronomy, September, 68. [Journey with us to the Southern Hemisphere where you’ll meet the biggest and best galaxies, the brightest clusters and nebulae, and starfields galore]

— Eicher D J (1993) “Deep-sky Summer: The Milky Way” Astronomy, August, 70. [Step right up and meet some of the most glorious sights in the summer sky]

— Ling A (1994) “Taking the Deep-Sky Plunge” Astronomy, March 58. [Are you ready to dive into the depths of space? Here’s how to do it the easy way]

— Ling A (1993) Cool Sharp Nights. Astronomy, October, 70. [Deep sky observing with a small refractor]

— Skiff B A (1993) “M Is For Messier” [Naming deep-sky objects] Sky & Telescope, April, 38.

 “If the hours we spend under the stars are precious, an observing log helps us remember them. Relying on memory alone just isn’t good enough; as years pass, details fade away until events might as well not have happened.” — David H. Levy

External links