5 Easy Steps to Becoming a Backyard Astronomer
A lot of people enjoy stepping outside on a clear night to look at the moon and the stars. It’s a beautiful site. Space is a big place, and we have a great view. However, many people don’t really know what it is they’re looking at. Sure you can find the moon or maybe even the big dipper, and that’s a good start, but if you’ve ever wanted to really know what’s going on above your head, what you’re really seeing on those beautiful clear nights, you’re looking to become an amateur astronomer.
An amateur astronomer, sometimes called a backyard astronomer, is someone who looks at and studies the night sky as a hobby more than a profession. There are many forms of amateur astronomy, from simple stargazing to utilizing expensive and complex equipment for astrophotography and much more. No matter what your goal is, the beginning steps are essentially the same.
1. Learn the major constellations, stars and planets.
These are your guideposts to navigating the night sky, particularly the constellations. Constellations are shapes that astronomers have identified in the night sky by “connecting the dots” between stars, nebulae, galaxies and other stellar phenomena. Some well-known constellations include Ursa Major and Minor (the Big and Little Bear), Orion, Leo, Andromeda, Canis Major (the Big Dog) and the constellations for the Signs of the Zodiac (i.e., Gemini, Cancer, Capricorn, etc.). Knowing where to look for these constellations will orient you and help you find what you’re looking for in the night sky.
A number of good ways exist to help you familiarize yourself with the constellations. There are many magazine publications available to amateur astronomers, both for new-comers and those already deep in the field. Astronomy is a wonderful publication that is very accessible to beginning astronomers and will keep you up-to-date in the field. They have a number of online articles dedicated to helping both adults and children learn the constellations, such as the Constellations by Glenn Chaple. The astronomy is also a paper magazine that can be subscribed through by their website. Issues can also be found just about anywhere magazines are sold.
An online source that is very useful to many beginning astronomers is Sky-Watch.com. Sky Watch, created by the late Ed Ehrlich, as many guides in helping the new astronomer get acquainted with constellations, planets, comets and other phenomena.
2. Get plugged in to at least one astronomy news/ information resource
The night sky is always changing, even as it stays the same. As the Earth revolves around the sun, we get a different view of the stars. This is the reason why constellations are grouped according to seasons (i.e., fall, spring, summer and winter) as well as their place in the sky (usually, northern or southern). Not only are some constellations only ever visible from certain places on Earth, they are also only visible at different times of the year. Of course, the other planets (as well as comets) themselves are on their own circuit around the Sun and are always in motion, so they too are not always visible. While constellations always stay in the same place relative to each other, the motions of planets and comets means their location changes not only relative to where we look in the sky, but also relative to the constellations. This also doesn’t include the occasional meteor shower or other event.
Trying to track all these movements is quite a task. Usually, it’s considered too much for one person to keep up with. So, how do you find out what’s going on in the night sky? Astronomy news! There are plenty of sources to tell you about what’s happening with the constellations, planets, comets, nebulae and other stellar phenomena. If you plan on being an avid star-gazer and want to be able to find anything (or make sure you don’t miss that eclipse, comet or meteor shower), it’s a good idea to plugged in to at least one source of astronomy news.
The McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas at Austin maintains a very useful website with a news section that details both upcoming phenomena and what is occurring in the field of astronomy (such as new discoveries, technologies, etc.). They also run the website stardate.org, which focuses on news of stellar phenomena and hosts their regular program by the same name. The most recent episode of Star Date is also played several times daily on National Public Radio.
There are also magazines which publish similar information. Astronomy is, again, good source of information along with Sky & Telescope and other similar publications.
3. Learn how to use star maps
Everyone occasionally gets lost. The night sky is a big place, and so it’s useful to have tools to help you find what you need. Many magazines like the ones mentioned above will print a star map, either once a year, bi-annually or quarterly (depending on the publication). These are useful because they’re easy to carry out into any open field no matter how remote and use them right there while you’re stargazing.
However, there is another option that many people utilize and enjoy: the interactive star map. These can be found online and used for free, though there is also software which includes many more features. This software can also get very expensive, but is worth the investment if you’re really serious about amateur astronomy. For now, let’s look at online sources.
One of the simplest websites to use is Heavens-Above.com. Heavens Above is fairly low-tech, and lets you plug in your location (down the street you live on!) and it will show you an up-to-date star map for specifically where you are on Earth’s surface. This map is simple and printer-friendly (especially if you view it as black-and-white).
There are also more interactive and graphic-intensive options. These are particularly fun to look at with children (though, you’ll have a lot of fun with it, too), as they display the beauty of the night sky. Google Sky is a very educational tool that can used to locate various stellar phenomena. If you have Earth installed on your computer, it also has this feature in a 3-D version, whereas the online Google Sky is displayed in a Mercator projection format. The difference between the two is the same as using Google Maps vs. Google Earth.
4. Buy a telescope
While star-gazing with the naked eye is a good past-time and very enjoyable, if you want astronomy to become a serious hobby, you’re going to need equipment. The most important piece of equipment, of course, is the telescope. Telescopes, contrary to popular belief, do not have to be large, expensive tools with a bunch of accessories, though there are certainly plenty of them out there if that’s what you’re looking for. For many, a simple hand-held or tri-pod telescope does just fine for causal stargazing. These vary in price, anywhere from around $50 up to several hundred dollars. It all depends on what you’re looking for.
There are many different types of telescope out there, and they’re meant to be used for different types of viewing. The best online guide I’ve found to selecting and learning how to use a telescope is from Sky & Telescope magazine under their Equipment section. They also have a marketplace where you can view and buy equipment from their website from top manufacturers like Meade, iOptron, Galileoscope, Orion and others. Also, don’t forget that, in the darkness of night, you’ll need a light that you can see by, but not just any light. We don’t want to diminish our view of the stars! Amateur astronomers will use light capped with a red filter, since red is the lowest frequency of light in the visible spectrum, it won’t interfere with your star-gazing while still letting you see what you’re doing when you need to find that eyepiece or reference a star map. Lights with red filters can be found just about anywhere telescopes are sold. Many hunting supply stores will carry these as well, as they’re popular amongst night hunters who need to see but not alert animals to their presence.
Some hobby stores may have telescopes, and most observatories will also carry a selection. If you’re looking for face-to-face education and assistance in selecting a telescope, your local observatory is probably the best place to go asking. Another option is to find your local astronomy club, which brings us to our next point.
5. Find your local astronomy club
Hobbies are fun to do, and many of them can be an escape from people and our busy lives. If that’s what you’re into, there’s no problem with it, but a lot of people like to talk about their hobbies and share their passion for it with others. If you want others who can teach you about amateur astronomy and talk to you about it, find your local astronomy club or society and go to their next meeting. They can give you more tips and tricks, point you to more resources and help you say up-to-date in the world of astronomy!