As a beginner, you will likely need advice and assistance to build up your skills in this potentially complex hobby. There are many ways to get such advice, not all of them good. Here are some thoughts and recommendations.
The best thing you can do as a beginner to astronomy is locate and visit a local astronomy club. Depending on how organized the club is, there may be regular meetings with formal presentations on astronomy, or it may be just a collection of amateur astronomers who like to meet to chat and observe. In either case it will be your opportunity to contact other amateur astronomers who will likely be pleased to advise and assist you.
More important, contacting a local club will allow you attend star parties: organized events where a number of astronomers set up their equipment to observe together, usually in a context where you will be welcome to have a look through their gear. This is your opportunity to try telescopes of different types and sizes, and chat with their owners, to get an idea of what suits your own interests, before you buy something. Then, after you buy something, attending a star party with your own gear is fun and will also provide you the opportunity to get coaching and assistance on how to operate your gear and on how to find objects to observe.
A caution, however. There are different kinds of star parties. Some are designed as “outreach” or “sidewalk astronomy”, mainly aimed at letting the public try looking through a telescope. Other parties may be focused on coaching beginners, giving club members time to observe themselves, or providing ideal and uninterrupted conditions for serious astrophotographers. You will likely be welcome at any kind of star party, but you should not expect members to ignore their own interests and coach you at a star party focused on serious observations.
Finally, there are important rules of etiquette for star parties, which vary with the club and the degree of seriousness. Sidewalk Astronomy is often conducted in brightly-lit and busy parking lots, and the only rule is to chat and have fun. But serious-observer parties are usually at dark sites, and there will be strict rules, especially about the use of any form of lights. The club you contact will have a set of published rules of etiquette — just read them and, if in doubt, ask.
If you don’t remember anything else, remember this: no lights.
Google on “star party etiquette” will give you hundreds of articles. Here are some that I like:
- Nineplanets gives a good summary of typical rules, and links a number of other sites.
- Amateur Astronomy magazine has a good list.
- Space.Com’s etiquette article.
Finding a Local Club
Google will find you many organizations, but finding local ones may be a problem, and there is also a risk of finding extinct, or highly informal, groups that aren’t really the type of support you’re looking for.
A better place to start would be with a large and organized national astronomy organization, like the Royal Astronomical Society in Canada, or the Astronomical League in the United States. They have lists of local chapters that will lead you to stable, well-organized groups.
Major astronomy magazines also tend to keep good lists of local clubs. Astronomy and Sky and Telescope both have such lists (I am not linking directly to the lists since they constantly reorganize their web site structure, but they are easy to find from the home pages).
Other Amateur Astronomers
Individual amateur astronomers are great contacts too, of course.
Like any personal interest, however, there are some dangers in relying too heavily on the opinions of one individual, especially a stranger.
- Not everyone has the gift of explaining things clearly and at an appropriate level of detail.
- Many individuals will give you advice based on what they are doing now, or wish they could do, which may be far beyond what is appropriate for you as a beginner. (e.g. you’ll find someone advising you that a 20″ Dobsonian is an ideal beginner telescope, because they have one or wish they did.)
An ideal astro-buddy would be:
- Available. They live in your neighbourhood, don’t mind visiting you, and don’t mind you visiting them. You want someone who will help you enjoy your telescope in your backyard, not convince you that you should buy a mountaintop observatory like theirs.
- Willing. They enjoy helping beginners. Some people really do; others may tolerate it but you’ll feel like you’re imposing.
- Clear. Capable of explaining complex things at an appropriate level of detail, neither making you dizzy nor making you feel like a child.
- Equipped. An ideal buddy would have the same general kind of scope as you, and experience in this and other styles, so they can help you operate your equipment and understand what it is capable of.
There are hundreds of good astronomy books, many of which are intended for beginners. The following recommendations are some books I actually own and think are appropriate. They are roughly in increasing order of complexity.
The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer. Firefly Books, 2002. This is a great book to buy first, before you buy equipment. It outlines the hobby, explains the different equipment types, helps you choose the right gear, and gives good introductory instructions to start learning your way around the sky. It has an accompanying web site.
Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe. Terence Dickinson. Firefly Books. This is one of the best introductory level books on observing, with excellent charts, and seasonal suggestions on what to look at.
Turn Left at Orion: A Hundred Night Sky Objects to See in a Small Telescope — and How to Find Them. Guy Consolmagno, Dan Davis, et. al., Cambridge University Press, 2004. This is the standard handbook for learning “star hopping” — the technique of finding astronomical objects by using easy-to-see stars as signposts to guide you to the dim object. It is also an excellent source of suggested targets, sorted by season.
Observer’s Handbook [current year]. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. This book is published each year by RASC and is included in the price of membership. It contains a wealth of information, from the basic to the very technical, including a “what’s happening” chapter for each month of the year, telling you of interesting events in the sky, the position of the planets, etc.
Norton’s Star Atlas. Ian Ridpath (editor). Pi Press. Getting technical. Not for beginners, but eventually you’ll want a good star atlas, and this is the original, worth having for the historical value as well as for the excellent maps.
Universe. R. Freedman and W. Kaufmann III. 2002. Freeman & Company, New York. Every now and then someone asks about a recommendation for a more technical and theoretical book, to understand more about “what’s going on behind the scenes”, and this is the one I recommend. It’s a 1st- or 2nd- year University level text covering the entire range of Astronomy: Solar System, Stars, Galaxies, and Cosmology. It’s well illustrated and well written. While it’s technical and uses math, it starts from a relatively simple level and anyone with good high school math (algebra, exponents, and graphs; no calculus) will be able to understand it. It’s supported by a CD and a web site.
There are many monthly magazines in this field, some highly specialized. I’ll offer suggestions based on the ones I have read and like:
Sky and Telescope. My favourite. Similar to Astronomy, S&T has traditionally been considered slightly the “deeper” of the two. Both are suitable for beginners and experienced amateurs alike.
Astronomy. Similar to Sky and Telescope, traditionally slightly more consumer-oriented, although in recent years the difference has been negligible. I let my subscription to Astronomy expire when they started publishing multiple full-page ads for a pseudoscience “textbook” (Null Physics by T. Witt) that passes all of the normal rule-of-thumb tests for crank science, and which has been thoroughly debunked and discredited in other forums. These ads made me wonder whether they had any standards for other things they publish, and whether I could trust what I read. So, I no longer recommend it, and I no longer leave old copies out at star parties for people to take away. (They may have come to their senses and re-introduced editorial standards in recent years – I haven’t checked.)
Skynews. A Canadian magazine of astronomy, edited by well-known Astronomy author Terence Dickinson. Suitable for an American audience too (it’s the same sky, only the latitude differs). It’s included in the membership fee of the Royal Astronomical Society, or can be separately subscribed.
Ciel et Espace. French-language astronomy magazine. Français de France, comparable à Sky and Telescope. (Les évaluations et les publicités donnent les prix en Euros.)
The Internet is a great source of good information, and also a prolific source of bad information. Good sites, usually associated with magazines, vendors, or large clubs, can give excellent, balanced information. The millions of informal and amateur sites tend to be very mixed in quality, and are rich with personal rants, equipment biases, and spam. Suggestions:
- Cloudy Nights is an excellent collection of articles and equipment reviews, and their moderated discussion forums are a rich source of advice.
- Stargazers’ Lounge is a UK-based forum and excellent source of advice.
- The web sites for magazines Astronomy and Sky and Telescope both have good free content.