• Allen Mitchell

Astronomy Basics for Beginners

Updated: Jun 25, 2020

Amateur Astronomy is a hobby of learning

Amateur astronomy is a fantastic hobby for the inquisitive and curious. No other hobby can promise a lifetime of learning and discovery. There's literally an entire universe to discover. The best part about amateur astronomy is that you can pick and choose what you want to learn. This astronomy basics for beginners guide will help you understand the many ways you can learn the night sky.

This astronomy basics for beginners crash course teaches a progression of learning

Because this is a hobby of learning, and the topic is simply astronomical, Hobby Astronomy thinks the best approach to any beginner amateur astronomer is to learn the ideal (but not required) progression into the hobby.

Amateur astronomy can become expensive and time consuming if you wish to dedicate a lot of effort to it, but it doesn't have to be. Basic stargazing is free, requiring just your eyes, and a clear night sky. Since these are the two things everyone has access to - that's where this crash course to beginning astronomy starts.

What should you do first?

The first thing you should do is just look up at the night sky! That's obvious, but it's also important. Looking up and doing some basic stargazing will teach you about your local night sky. How many stars can you see? Can you recognize any of the constellations? Is the north star visible from your house?

These baseline observations will start to give you a sense of what is observable from your home. You'll know what kind of stargazing location you live at. Next, you should start learning about space, and in particular, the celestial sphere. While the internet is convenient, books have long been the best place to get dense information that is highly specific to a topic.

Places to learn

There are many resources and place to learn about astronomy, and many of them are free! Here are the best ways to get into amateur astronomy and stargazing.

The library is your best resource

The library is your secret weapon. Seriously. In a world where we have access to almost everything online, books are still be best way to get dense information on a single topic. You library will have a big selection on the topic of space. My local library has over 200 titles on the subject. A library will have a healthy selection of astronomy books for beginners, and astronomy books for kids. Learning about astronomy can be an activity for the whole family. Best of all, memberships are free!

Astronomy for beginners books

As wise man once said that the best place to start is at the beginning. It may be tempting to grab a copy of Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History Of Time" on your first trip to the library or book store. Don't let me discourage you from doing that either. However, if you were to also grab a few other books on whatever subtopic of astronomy interests you as well, you'll probably find them a bit easier to digest.

There really isn't any guide for what makes a book an "astronomy book for beginners". Good clues can usually be found in the title and table of contents. Because you can browse several books at once at the library, skimming the table of contents can help you see the topics covered and you'll know right away if the book will satisfy your interests or is too complicated.

My library has these "astronomy basics for beginners" books

Astronomy books for kids

It's no secret that astronomy for kids is magical. If you're serious about taking up amateur astronomy as a hobby, bring your children with you. They'll have a blast at the library! There are loads of books about space for kids that gently introduce them to the concepts of astronomy, our moon, the planets, and galaxies. When looking for a selection of books at the library for your kids, look for the picture books that have short captions to go along with each photo. Let the captions spark the curiosity, and allow your son or daughters imagination take over!

Learn night sky in general sense

It cannot be overstated enough that you will need to be familiar with the night sky. It might surprise you to learn that there are only about 3,000 stars bright enough to be seen by the naked eye on Earth. You don't have to know all 3,000 of them, but learning how to recognize and find the brightest 10 or 20 would be good. Familiar constellations will be useful as well, since everything in the night sky is found inside a constellation (spoiler alert, constellations are much bigger than the main stars you know about). To illustrate just how big some constellations are, take a look at a star chart.

A star chart is the perfect first purchase

A star chart, also known as a "star map" or "sky chart" is the road atlas for the heavens. For this reason, it is an indispensable tool for every stargazer. Buying one should be one of the first things you do. A Star chart will have every constellation, every naked eye star, and thousands of other stars you will need binoculars or a telescope to see. The star chart will show you where to find deep sky objects like star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. Below are my top three pics, and their corresponding amazon link (opens in a new window).

For years, star charts and star maps have been available on smart phones. These are super convenient, and pack features that paper star charts don't have like the ability to hold your phone to the sky, and it show you what you're looking at. This is one of the best, and most interactive ways to learn the sky. There is one drawback, though - looking at a bright screen at night is not good for your night vision or the stargazing experience in general.

I would recommend that a hard copy start chart also be purchased. They can be read at night with a red flash light. Red light is gentile on your night vision so the nights you spend under very dark skies isn't ruined by the bright screen of your phone or tablet.

Free podcasts are available for astronomy

The library is by far the best resource for a large variety of high quality material on any subject, and amateur astronomy is no different. But it doesn't have everything, and the internet has excellent podcasts for the amateur astronomer. These podcasts cover contemporary issues like Space X rocket launches, gravitational wave announcements, and of course meteor showers! Check out 365 Days of Astronomy which features a different astronomy podcast each day.

Star parties are an excellent place to learn

Star parties are events that are freely open to the public for stargazing through telescopes owned by the club members. The volunteers are knowledgeable, friendly, and eager to answer your questions.

Astronomy clubs are all over the place, and there's probably one near you. A quick google search can turn up the astronomy club/society in your area and if they host public star parties the schedule will be posted on their website.

The star party is also the perfect place to look through many telescopes and see different targets all in one night!

You don't need a telescope

Attending a star party doesn't require a telescope. In fact, unless you are ready to become very popular with the public in a very short period of time, I wouldn't recommend bringing a telescope if you own one. The attendees can't tell the difference between a host and a muggle (what my club calls non-club volunteers). You will quickly gather a crowd, and a line will form at your eyepiece. If you ever wanted a good test of how much you've learned, this is it! It's also a ton of fun, and can give you a bit of a rush from the fast paced nature of the questions, and requests to see things through your telescope.

Learn more from those with experience

But before you go out and buy a telescope and volunteer your time teaching the public, you should learn more about telescopes, the brighter celestial objects, and how they will look through different kinds of telescopes. Remember, a telescope is a tool, and there is a correct tool for every job. The experienced volunteers at a star part know their tools well, and have a keen sense at what they can or cannot show.

Rightsize your expectations

Knowing what a telescope excels at will help you rightsize your expectations. If you've never looked through a telescope before, and you only ever see beautiful photos from professional grade equipment like the Hubble Space Telescope then you're going to be in for quite a shock at what the night sky really looks like! Many of the nebulae and galaxies are much smaller than you would think, and so much more dim.

You can try before you buy

If you think you might be in the market for a telescope later then the star party is going to once again be the right place for you. You can try out telescopes before you buy. You'll hopefully have the chance over the course of several star parties to see, and use many different telescopes. By now, you should also know what you like looking at the most - and which telescopes gave you the most exhilarating views.

Once you've settled on what type of telescope you think is the right fit for you based on actual use, you could ask the owner of the telescope if they'd mind showing you how to use it when the crowds have died down. Let the telescope owner know you're wanting to buy one like theirs and before you buy, you want to learn more about using it. There's no harm in being an informed consumer, and this hobby can be expensive if you let it. All telescope owners know this, and they will help you save money where they can by helping you make the right purchase first.

Stargazing and Observation

Learning about astronomy is not enough, though. You're here because you want to look! No matter what your skill level is and no matter what you already own, you can start stargazing tonight!

Things you can see with your naked eye

When it comes to wide field stargazing, nothing beats the "Mark I Eye Ball". Binoculars and a telescope can help you get a higher resolution and detailed view, but there is still a lot to take in with just your own two eyes. In fact, the first two in this list can only really be appreciated with your eyes alone!

  • Constellations

  • Meteor showers

  • The Moon

  • The major planets and their motion from night to night

  • An average of one or two "naked eye" comets per year

Get comfortable with the constellations

As stated before, knowing some of the constellations will be useful when you try to locate celestial objects you find online or hear about in the news. meteor showers are a prime example of this, because they're named after the constellation they originate from. How can you expect to know where to see the Geminids if you can't find the Gemini constellation?

Naked eye comets also move through the sky fairly quickly, and can cross from one constellation to another over the span of a few days to a week. Learning a handful of constellations that are in the night sky right now is a good start.

Because constellations are traditionally associated with groups of the brightest stars in the night sky, you may want to also learn one or two of the brighter star names in each of the constellations as well. If you learn that the Geminids are going to originate from the constellation of Gemini, that's useful. If you learn that the Geminids radiant (where they appear to come from in the sky) is very close to Castor, that's much more useful to you since you have a specific point to focus at.

Learning to observe

Observing can be as simple as you want to make it. If you're up for a challenge, however, then there is much more than simply looking up and taking in the beauty of the night sky.

The basics of observing

Observation, by definition, is the careful study of something in order to gain information. The basics of night sky observations, therefore, is to look closely and carefully at the night sky to gain information about it. The night sky may seem unchanging, but it's alive with change!

The sky moves hour by hour

Every second the sky moves just a little bit to the west. This is caused by the rotation of the Earth. The rotation is pretty steady, so the sky motion is too. In fact, it moves 15 degrees from the east to the west every hour. This allows a new part of the sky to move into view every hour. Although, you also lose the same amount of sky to the western horizon...

The sky moves month by month

The sky also changes considerably from month to month! As you probably know by now the Earth is in constant motion around the Sun, and this constant motion gives the Earth a slightly different perspective of the night sky each night. An easy way to know by how much is by thinking about the relationship between our orbit, and the number of days in a year.

Our orbit traces a circle of 360 degrees every year (365 days). That is roughly 1 degree for every day of the year! Over the course of a month, there is about 30 degrees of change in the Earth's position. 30 degrees is equal to about two hours of sky motion as explained in the previous section. This means that every month, constellations will rise in the east or set in the west two hours earlier!

Finding your way around the sky

It has been mentioned many times in this post already, and I'll say it again: you need to learn how to navigate the night sky. Star with learning a few constellations that are prominent in the night sky. Orion, Gemini, Ursa Major, Perseus, Scorpio, Sagittarius, etc. Every object you will want to look at will be found in a constellation - and knowing which stars make up a constellation will get you close to the things you want to see.

If you bought a star chart like the ones I have included above, seeing the constellation, it's boundaries, and the objects within the star chart should be trivial. Knowing how to recognize the brighter stars in a constellation and where the observable targets are in relation to them in the sky is where the fun lies! You can do quite a bit with just naked eye observations, but adding some optical aide like a pair of binoculars will help out immensely.

Learn a few constellations per month

With so much to see in the night sky, and the fact that there 88 constellations in the entire sky, it may seem daunting to try to learn them all at once. Don't. Just pick two or three each month and dedicate the majority of you observing time to those constellations. There is so much to see in every constellation that it doesn't matter which ones you pick. The goal is to find a number of constellations, and targets that you feel comfortable with. If it seems like it's too much, drop one from your list.

Astronomy is a learning hobby. You should focus at learning at your own pace. Dedicate as much time and effort as you want into what you learn. Play the long game, and always remember that the night sky isn't going anywhere anytime soon! It's ok to go slow at first.

Learn star hopping with binoculars first

To really get a sense of how to find anything in the night sky, you will need to learn how to star hop. Really, this isn't complicated. Use your star chart to find a target, then look for bright stars close by, and see if you can follow the 'bread crumbs' of stars like sign posts to get to the target. If I may be allowed a metaphor, it's like a treasure hunt, where the star chart is the treasure map, the bright stars are the land marks, and the binoculars are your metal detector!

Things you can see with binoculars

If you are wanting to buy something to help see anything in space, binoculars should be the first purchase you make after your star chart. Binoculars are perfect for starting deep sky observations.

Deep sky objects are all celestial objects that are outside of our Solar System. There are dozens of targets throughout the year, and binoculars require next to no setup or training to use. In addition to their ease of use, binoculars give you a generous field of view so you can see a larger section of the sky (compared to a telescope) which make star hopping a breeze. Because they let in a lot more light than your eye does, they really do brighten up the "faint fuzzies" that you are hunting.

This table gives a few examples of easy binocular targets to observe

Yes! You can see comets with binoculars, many more than you can see with the naked eye. They won't appear as dramatic as the famous comets with long tails. But they can be observed. Some comets, like P46/Wirtanan are so bright because they're unusually close to Earth. This close proximity means that the movements they make around the Sun can actually be seen in real time through binoculars. It's a lot like watching the minute hand on a clock move. The motion is tiny second by second, but becomes obvious over the course of a few minutes or hours.

Picking Binoculars

Binoculars are given two numbers that describe how they work, and what they can do. For example, 8x42 is a common binocular. Starting out, I think the best binoculars are the ones that have the smallest first number, and the largest second number within your budget. I'll explain why in the next paragraph, but basically these will make everything very bright and easy to see, while giving you a very large field of view in the sky to find things.

The first number: 8x in the example above lists the magnification. The second number: 42 is how big the opening at the front is in millimetres.

Starting with the second number, 42 you can determine how much light the binoculars let in. the 42 mm binoculars will let in about 36 times as much light as your eyes do, making them 36 times more efficient as your eyes.

The first number, is the magnification. While magnification may seem like the more important attribute it really is not. Every time you increase the magnification, you make an object dimmer to your eyes because the light has to be spread out over a larger area on your eye's retina. For binoculars, the magnification ranges are not very big; typically between 6 to 10 power.

Keep track of what you see and how you did

An observation log or journal is essential to keeping track of what you've seen and how you found it. You won't know how quickly you're progressing in the hobby unless you go back and review journal entries. You might be surprised how hard it seemed to find the Andromeda galaxy your first night with binoculars, only to have it be second nature now.

Journaling your experiences is also helpful if you ever pursue certificates from the Astronomical League!

High powered observing

For many people, binocular astronomy is enough for a lifetime of enjoyment. For others, it's just the start! These people need more power, and with that need, comes telescopes.

Things you'll want a telescope for

The basics for choosing a telescope

There's a right tool for every job and if you've been doing binocular astronomy for a little while, you will have observed that things in space have different surface brightness and sizes. Planets are very bright, but incredibly small, while nebulae and some open clusters are dim, and large. Telescopes for viewing planets may not work well for nebulae. A telescope that's great for galaxies may not show the great red spot of Jupiter all too well. So which telescope should you choose?

There are a few fundamental things to remember about telescopes, and the first is that they are similar to binoculars. They let in much more light than your eye can, which boosts the brightness of an object, and they can magnify things so you can see smaller details. Choose too much magnification, and the distant and faint objects won't appear bright enough to be easy or enjoyable to observe. Too little aperture size, and planetary details just don't appear.

There is a silver lining: Eyepieces. The eyepiece is the one part of a telescope that can be changed and the field of view altered. Big telescopes with low power eye pieces show large fields of view, and the objects within the field of view are bright enough to be seen. For planets, the same large telescope and high power eyepiece can reveal the divisions in the rings of Saturn or the cloud bands and festoons of Jupiter.

Photos are fun, but expensive and time consuming

Smart Phone Astrophotography

Few people can resist the urge to want a photo of what the see through a telescope and share it online. The simplest way is to use your smart phone to take the photo and then upload it online.

But getting the little camera lined up with the eyepiece just right and then snapping the photo requires a lot of coordination, and steady hands. For this reason I recommend using a smart phone holder that clamps onto the eyepiece and steadies the camera.

DSLR Astrophotography

For DSLR astrophotography, it's best to have a t-ring adapter for the camera that replaces the camera's lens with the telescope. This is where many people actually start out at when he or she ventures into astrophotography. DSLR cameras are much more common these days. The nice thing about DSLR cameras is that older, used cameras can still be a viable option because advanced camera features are not needed, and sometimes are even unwanted (automatic noise reduction for example).

Planetary astrophotography becomes possible with DSLR cameras, too. Yes, technically you can take a picture of a planet with a smart phone, and you might even get a video of one too. But a DSLR camera, paired with software on your computer, allows for a level of exposure control that a smart phone doesn't make easy.

Dedicated CMOS/CCD Astrophotography

At the top end of the astrophotography mountain is buying a dedicated CMOS/CCD astrophotography camera. These cameras offer even finer control over what kind of image you take than a DSLR does.

Historically, CCD Cameras were much more sensitive, and had less noise in the raw images, but in the last few years, CMOS sensors (like the ones found in a cell phone or DSLR) have begun to rival the sensitivity and low noise performance of CCD sensors. CMOS sensors are also less expensive to buy.

Another factor that needs consideration is weather or not you should go color or monochrome with the camera. There really is no wrong answer to this question - unless you're really set on doing narrow band imaging with specialty filters. For those applications, a monochrome camera makes the most sense.

Most importantly, have fun!

Beginning amateur astronomy can be frustrating when you try to master everything on the first night out. Focus on having fun every time you get under the stars instead and you'll train yourself to not be overcome by frustration.

Play the long game

Take your time. The universe isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Get comfortable with basic stargazing with your eyes. No matter what you're interested in, knowing some of the constellations will help. I'll cover this a little later on, everything in the night sky resides inside one constellation or another. Learning how to pick out one or two constellations per month will help you later when you're trying to find things in the night sky.

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