Interested in amateur astronomy? What are the first steps?

Astronomy is not just for professionals – the sky belongs to everyone! Amateur astronomy is a fascinating hobby, running from the simple pleasure of gazing at the night sky, to learning to appreciate the phenomena and mysteries of the Universe, all the way to making quasi professional observations. Perusing books and magazines on astronomy, even studded with spectacular photographs, can never match the emotional impact of engaging directly with the heavens.

Pastime or true passion, here is an activity that is within almost everyone’s means. Even the most sophisticated amateur astronomers spend significantly less money on their hobby than do many sportsmen, boating enthusiasts, and golfers. It is important to start out on the right foot, though. If you just rush in and buy a cheap “toy” telescope, you will quickly be disappointed and lose interest. On the other hand, if you acquire the biggest, most expensive instrument on the market, you are likely to find yourself overwhelmed.

The best way to start is to observe the sky with the naked eye from a dark site using a star chart or one of the new handheld devices using GPS technology (such as SkyScout). Once you have learned to find your way in the sky and are familiar with models, 8 × 40 or 7 × 50, are good choices. They are relatively inexpensive, convenient the major constellations and planets, you can move up a step, to binoculars. Standard to use, and offer a generous field of view, making it easy to locate objects. Then you can savor the beauty of the moons of Jupiter, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Pleiades, the Orion Nebula, several star clusters . . . and our spectacular Moon.

If your interest grows, a small telescope would be your next step. Amateurs have to accept the fact that, even with a good quality amateur telescope, visual observations can never hope to equal the spectacular professional images produced with large telescopes and long exposures. Nonetheless, the excitement of being in direct contact with the Universe, that strange feeling of seeing celestial objects suspended in space, is one of the incomparable pleasures that visual observations with a telescope can provide. If you really get hooked and want to try astrophotography, there are now some impressive digital imagers on the market that will allow you to produce magnificent astro-images,

somewhere between science and art, but this calls for no small measure of dedication and technical mastery.

Guidance on choosing a telescope can be found in Qs. 238 and 239. Before buying, take the time to do a bit of research: read some relevant books and magazines, check out the telescope manufacturers’ websites, and visit specialty shops. If possible, attend night-sky observing sessions or “star parties” organized by astronomy clubs where you can compare various instruments for size and ease of use and get the benefit of advice from other amateurs.

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