Setting Expectations for Astronomy Beginners
Ideally, you should arrive at this page by reading the “diary of a disappointed beginner” and then the brief analysis of what went wrong. Here, we give a summary of the kind of reasonable and unreasonable expectations that may have shaped our beginner’s experience, or could have improved it.
What Not to Expect
Astronomy is an extremely rich and rewarding hobby. But there’s a price: it’s not easy. If it was easy it probably wouldn’t be so rewarding. Even modern electronically-assisted telescopes, while they can be an aide and time saver, don’t make something that is inherently challenging easy. You will need to take the time, and have the patience, to develop some skills and build up your understanding of what is going on out there to fully appreciate what you see.
If you are buying a telescope with the expectation of quickly seeing the complex swirling lights and colours of galaxies and nebulae like you’ve seen in magazine and Internet photos, you will be disappointed. Some objects (e.g. planets and clusters) will look as you expect them to look right away, but others like galaxies are actually quite difficult to see. You will learn to see some of the fascinating detail and structure in these objects but, for example, you will never see them in colour with your eye at an eyepiece.
Another thing you should understand is that an astronomical telescope is a very specialized instrument, and it is not very suitable for terrestrial use, such as looking at birds or other distant earth-bound objects. Depending on the design of your telescope, things may appear upside down or backward. In space, who cares? Things don’t have a meaningful top and bottom anyway. On earth, you probably want the bird’s head on top and feet on the bottom.
What You’ll See
Certain objects are ideal targets for beginners, while others are more challenging.
You will easily see the Moon and the bright planets Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. You will see star clusters with interesting shapes and colours, and you may find looking at double stars interesting, especially those with contrasting colours or brightness. Certain bright nebulae are also easy to see and beautiful.
Other objects like most nebulae and most galaxies are very dim, hard to find, and hard to see. A big part of the hobby is learning to find these, and you will eventually see them, usually as dim wisps of light affectionately known as “faint fuzzies”.
What You’ll Do
You’ll spend a lot of time outdoors, observing. You may stay with the easy-to-find planets, but more likely you will become familiar with star maps and charts, and the techniques for finding challenging objects by hopping from better-known stars to lesser-known.
If you have a “go-to“-equipped telescope, you’ll learn to align it, and you’ll learn its strengths and weaknesses. It can be a great assistance, but can also be a distraction if you expect too much.
You’ll spend time assembling, aligning, disassembling, moving, and maintaining your equipment. Hopefully you will also spend time with other astronomers by attending meetings or public “star parties”.
And you will become an obsessive observer of the weather and sky conditions, always knowing whether it’s supposed to be cloudy or clear tonight, the humidity, and the phase of the moon.
What You’ll Learn
This educational hobby will teach you about Science and Nature. You’ll learn your way around the night sky, including being able to find and name many constellations and many of the brighter stars and planets. You’ll also pick up some of the basic theory of Astronomy, such as what causes the behaviours of the moon and planets, how far away various objects are, and how they may have been formed.
To avoid disappointment or frustration, you should also be aware of some of the potential negative sides of this hobby.
- It’s done at night. That means you’ll be working in the dark, you’ll be going to bed late, and you’ll be coming in the house and disturbing your family at odd hours.
- It can be physical. You will be moving potentially heavy telescopes, batteries, and other gear around, possibly in and out of your garage or your car.
- It’s cold. It’s cold being outside at night even in the summer, but standing still for several hours on a winter night can be extremely uncomfortable. You will gain a whole new appreciation for warm clothing.
- When it’s not cold, it’s buggy. Mosquitoes, black flies, and June bugs will drive you crazy on those nights when you’re not shivering.
- It’s wet. Your metal and glass equipment, standing exposed in the cool night air, will drip with dew, which will interfere with your viewing, and with your grip when you try to put it away.
Why do we do it, with all these negatives? It’s great fun. Really.
How to Manage Expectations
To give this hobby a fair chance, you should set your expectations based on the thoughts above. Start slowly, learn a little bit at a time, and give yourself the time it will take to build up the necessary skills.
Read a lot, ideally before you buy your first telescope. There are excellent books, magazines, and web sites available to help you select equipment that best matches your interests. Read them before you buy, not after.
Get help. The best thing you could do is find a local Astronomy club. Attend some meetings, and especially attend some “star parties” where members will be pleased to let you try a variety of kinds of equipment. And take some names of people who would be willing to help you as you start working on your own skills with your own gear.