How to Get Started in Astronomy: Books, Flashlights,
Binoculars and Planispheres by Leigh Gettier
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to Get started in Astronomy
STEP ONE: Basic Tools
There are the usual inexpensive sources
of information: libraries and the internet. However, the place
where the “rubber meets the sky” (to coin a mixed metaphor),
is outdoors, at night. All you need to get started in astronomy,
IMHO (in my humble opinion) is a planisphere or star map and
a red flashlight.
Go online to the Sky
and Telescope or Astronomy
magazine web sites and print out a free (FREE!) star map of your
date and the time(s) of interest. Then, using your trusty red
flashlight, find the stuff on the map in the sky. Do this a few
times throughout the year, and see if you can name all of the
major constellations without the map.
Planispheres are round maps of the sky which bear a striking
similarity to the sky. You can rotate them for date and time.
You can get cheap paper ones which are usable from www.scientificsonline.com or spend a little
more and get an excellent plastic one for about $11.00. Search
for “David S. Chandler Planisphere” on www.amazon.com The advantages are that they all work all the time, they
are always up to date, and they show the stars and constellations
and some other stuff. NO BATTERIES REQUIRED!
You can go nuts and spend over a hundred dollars. But, get a
cheapy of your choice, or get a really great, IMHO, little red
LED (light-emitting diode) flashlight for about $20. Search for
“Gerber Infinity Ultra LED Task Light Red.” There are
also adjustable brightness red LED lights made for astronomy
which work well. Go to the Orion Telescopes or Company Seven
web sites. One can always start with any household flashlight
and rubber-band a brown paper bag or two over the end to make
it dim enough not to destroy one’s night vision.
STEP TWO: Books
It enhances one’s enjoyment of the
night sky to know something about it. Thus the following list
of books. Take your pick, or see what’s in the local library
and bookstore and find some good astronomy books yourself. In
no particular order:
Robbin Kerrod & Carole Stott, Hubble,
The Mirror on the Universe (Firefly Books 2007). Awesome
photos, as you would expect. Good text.
Mark A Garlick & Wil Tirion, The
Illustrated Atlas of the Universe (Fog City Press 2006).
Lots of color photos and illustrations of where we are in the
universe, galaxy, milky way, and solar system. Maps of the moon,
cutaways of the planets, diagrams of their atmospheres, photos
from planetary missions, etc., etc. A book about everything,
with many star charts—but too big and beautiful to be used
outside, I think.
Charles A. Wood, The Modern Moon, A Personal View
(Sky Publishing Corporation 2003). Wood worked for NASA helping
to pick landing sites for the Apollo moon missions, consequently
he knows a bit about the moon. This book concerns the most visible
night object in the sky, which you can always see with the naked
eye, with any pair of binoculars, or with any telescope. The
book is logically organized, has many photos, moon maps, lots
of explanations, shows and explains the Apollo landing sites
and lunar geography. A marvelous book.
Terence Dickinson & Alan Dyer, The
Backyard Astronomer’s Guide (Firefly Books 200x).
(Get the latest edition.) A very excellent beginner’s book,
with the best overview of the equipment side of the hobby—i.e.,
telescopes—I have seen. A beautiful hefty book with good
text and photos. IMHO its danger is that it may encourage telescope
fever—the idea that one must have a telescope, before ever
going to a star party and looking through a few actual telescopes.
(See Step One.)
Guy Consolmagno & Dan M. Davis, Turn
Left at Orion (Third Edition) (Cambridge Press 2006).
A beginner’s introduction to finding things in the sky during
the various seasons, with greatly simplified start charts. Everything
mentioned in the book can be seen with either a four-inch (or
less) beginner’s telescope, or binoculars. A good book for
getting started with amateur equipment. It would be fun to go
through the entire book, which will take a full year.
Storm Dunlop, Collins Atlas
of the Night Sky (HarperCollins Publishers 2005). This
book has start charts organized by constellation. If you want
to see what there is to see in Ursa Major (the big dipper) just
flip toward the back of the book (the constellations are in alphabetical
order), and there is a beautiful star chart showing Ursa Major!
Each constellation star chart is accompanied by descriptive text.
I love this book. Once you’ve finished Turn Left at Orion,
this is a good next step. The Atlas includes lunar maps, accompanied
by long lists of features, which I do not find as useful as the
text accompanying the star charts.
The Orion DeepMap 600 star chart folds like a road map, but it is a
map of the sky. I have one, and have enjoyed using it. However,
it does not differentiate between galaxies you need a 12”
telescope to see, and those which can be seen with smaller telescopes.
Also, though it claims to be “dew proof,” it is NOT!
If you don’t leave it open to dry when you get home, it
will stick together and pull off areas of ink the next time it
is opened. Do not ask me how I know this.
Jay M. Pasachoff, Roger Tory Peterson,
& Wil Tirion, A Field Guide to Stars and Planets (Houghton
Mifflin Harcourt; 4th Updated edition (November 23, 1999)). It
is similar to the Peterson Field Guide for birds. The star one
is ok; it is fairly small, but too big to be pocket-sized. The
star charts are small, hard to find, and hard to use. It has
some good text concerning the constellations. It has useful tables.
I wish it had a pronunciation guide. It is better than nothing.
Magazines: Astronomy is one,
Sky and Telescope is the other. They are very similar.
They have monthly star charts. They have articles on lunar rovers,
Saturn’s moons, and expensive astronomy equipment. They
have ads showing expensive astronomy equipment. Companies who
sell expensive astronomy equipment pay for the ads. But I think
the magazines alone are not enough. Read some of the above books.
Join a club. Search the internet. Go to the NASA website.
STEP THREE: Binoculars
The next logical step (and the first step
using optical equipment) is to use A PAIR OF BINOCULARS. Advantages:
inexpensive, easy to use, fun, the best views of the Orion Nebula;
the Andromeda Galaxy; and the Pleiades, the Beehive and many
other star clusters. Images are right side up, not cattywampus
as with most telescopes. Binocs reveal many more stars than you
can see with the naked eye. Also, unlike telescopes, binoculars
are produced in large quantities. Therefore you can get a very
good pair of binoculars for much less money than a telescope
of equivalent quality. Unlike most astronomy telescopes, they
are also good for terrestrial viewing: birds, bees, bears, race
cars, sailboats, opera, theater, you name it.
If you want to buy some, I suggest a pair
costing more than $70 (in order not to get junk), and the “10x50mm”
size (10 power, with the 50mm diameter lenses on the big end).
If you just won the lottery, Nikon makes some ridiculously expensive
handheld astronomy binoculars, but those are NOT NECESSARY. My
personal pair are 8x42 general purpose binocs which aren’t
perfect, but they do just fine. Use whatever you have.
There are also image-stabilized binocs
which use batteries (yuk!) but are supposed to be excellent (un-yuk!)
but are very expensive (yuk-yuk!). Why not wait until you have
seen what there is to see with your normal binocs?
There are humongous “astronomy binoculars”
with large contraptions to hold them. I have never seen an amateur
astronomer actually using one of these rigs. Someone must be
using them, or they wouldn’t be for sale. I think you should
get a pair of REGULAR BINOCULARS, with a possible upgrade to
imaged stabilized ones later.
If you are an equipment geek, there are
many web sites with excellent articles and reviews of binoculars.
Google “bird watching binocular reviews” and “astronomy
TIME TO GET STARTED!
A serious beginner can spend at least one
year productively having a wonderful time learning their
way around the sky without spending a significant amount of money
on anything. An inexpensive planisphere and red LED flashlight
will make life easier and can both be had for under $10, or you
can upgrade for a little more money to my suggested “deluxe”
flashlight, above. After the first year, you can easily go another
year (or more) using the binoculars you probably already
YOU CAN DO ALL OF THE ABOVE WITHOUT A TELESCOPE!
Get back to basics and have fun!
When you've mastered star charts and binoculars,
you're ready for your first telescope. At that point, follow
up with this beginner's guide: Your First Telescope -- A Grab-and-Go?
summary of additional beginner resources: Getting Started in Astronomy.
A comprehensive guide to telescope
buying : Resource Guide for Telescope Buyers.