Get Started with Backyard Astronomy – Beginners Guide
Table of Contents
The beauty of a starry night brings a remarkable sense of awe and using a telescope or binoculars can deepen this sense. With just some basic equipment, a little knowledge and a few hours under a dark sky you will be hooked on this rewarding hobby. Our night sky is full of amazing sights and before long you will be finding and looking at planets, nebulae, galaxies and many more objects.
Astronomy, like many other hobbies can be very expensive. Some of the finer, and more powerful telescopes, can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. But you don’t need to spend this kind of money to thoroughly enjoy this hobby. You can get started on a small budget.
What do you need to get started in your stargazing?
There are a few things that you will need in order to get started as a stargazer.
First off you will need clear nights away from any bright city lights. If you live in a big city it will be difficult or even impossible to enjoy this hobby. You will have to make plans to get out of the city for your stargazing. Streetlights and other forms of night light in a city cause something that astronomers refer to as light pollution. This pollution brightens the night sky and makes it difficult to observe anything.
Is your night sky okay? This is easy to test. Simply go outside at night on a cloudless night and look up at the sky. Is it a rich dark color? Can you see thousands of stars? Can you make out the different colors of the stars? That’s right! Stars come in many different colors and you should be able to see this.
If your night sky is a dim shade of gray and the stars are not crystal clear then you will need to make plans to leave the city when you want to do your stargazing. This will be the only way to realize the full potential of your telescope or binoculars.
Second off you will need a handbook or star charts that will show you where the various objects of interest are.
Just simply grazing around the night sky is very rewarding. But, with a telescope or binoculars there are tens of thousands of stars and objects to look at. And to be frank, most stars look the same! Do you know what a planet looks like to the naked eye? It looks just like a star! So without a guide you probably would never find any planets. There are also many galaxies and nebulae that look just like stars to the naked eye. So get yourself a good book with some star charts. It’s worth the cost. I have some recommendations here.
Finally you will need something to magnify the power of your eyes. This can be either a telescope or binoculars. If you already have a pair of binoculars then you can begin your stargazing!
There are four different major types of telescopes that I will describe here. I will give you the pro’s and con’s of each type. What type of telescope you get will depend on your own personal preference and on your needs and budget and this short summary will help you make a good decision as to what is right for you.
The Types of telescopes
- Catadioptric (or Maksutov)
This is the telescope that is most commonly thought of. At the right end of the scope is a large lens. At the left end of the scope is the small eyepiece that you look through. The picture on the left shows this type of telescope with a small telescope mounted on top. This is the spotter telescope. It helps you to easily find objects in the sky. This type of telescope is very popular in the smaller sizes and they can be quite inexpensive. But if you want to get a larger telescope this type can be very expensive – easily costing thousands of dollars.
Instead of a lens a Refractor Telescope has a mirror. Shown in the picture at the left is a reflector. The light comes into the tube on the left, it travels down the tube to the mirror on the right where it is reflected up to a small mirror to the eyepiece on the left. So unlike the reflector where you look in one end and point. This telescope has the eyepiece at the same end as the opening. Notice also the small spotter telescope. One of the advantages of this type of telescope is light gathering ability compared to price. You can get a very affordable reflector with a ten inch mirror. A refractor with a ten inch lens would cost easily ten thousand dollars. Disadvantage? Generally reflectors are not as good as refractors. Given any refractor and reflector each with the same size aperture the refractor will almost always outperform the reflector.
Catadioptric or Maksutov telescope
This type of telescope combines both the reflector and the refractor in that it has both a lens at the front and a mirror at the back. This type of telescope generally has superior performance to the other types of telescopes and even the smallest of these telescopes will generally outperform larger scopes of the other kinds. The disadvantage is the price. This more extensive arrangement of lenses and mirrors comes at a cost. One big advantage is the portability. This type of telescope is very easy to pack up and take out to a secluded location. If you are really serious about astronomy this may be the type for you.
This type of telescope has the identical mirror and optics as the reflector telescope. The thing that makes it different is the style of cradle that the telescope is mounted on. This type of mount makes the telescope very easy to use and very price effective. This is a great option for a beginner astronomer. It is easy to use and for a reasonable price you can get a larger scope.
Astronomy Books for beginners
See it With a Small Telescope – The ultimate beginner guide with easy oversized star charts and 101 amazing celestial objects you can find with a small telescope.
Nightwatch – If you are new to astronomy then this is the book for you. No mathematics or obtuse information. Just practical information on enjoying the wonders of the night sky.
Turn Left at Orion: A Hundred Night Sky Objects to See in a Small Telescope–and How to Find Them – Here is a great book for beginning your hobby of stargazing. It is cleanly written, easy to understand, and has lots and lots of stuff in it. I also have a section of lots of other great amazon.com astronomy books if you want to browse through them. Just click on the left hand link for books and charts.
The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide – By the same author this book is for the more serious amateur.The focus is on the equipment used: telescopes, cameras, film etc. If telescopes are your passion then this is the book for you.
Some recommended Telescopes
Amazon has a Telescope store. Learn more about telescopes and browse through their enormous selection. Amazon.com Telescope Store
Orion SpaceProbe 130 EQ reflector Telescope
Choosing a telescope, if you don’t know much about them, can be a difficult even risky thing. If you get a poor telescope you will get a bad experience and be turned off to the absolute wonder of astronomy. But if you spend too much you are worried that you won’t really care much for astronomy and the money will be wasted.
This telescope solves that problem. It is reasonably priced and it gives you sufficient quality and ability to get a real feel for astronomy. This scope could give you a lifetime of enjoyable astronomy.
You don’t know a lot about the mechanics of telescopes right? Optics, exit pupil, light gathering power, magnification, alt-azimuth mount? etc. etc. etc. So what telescope should you buy as a first telescope. Cost a factor? What kind of value can you get when you are not sure about what defines value?
NEW! Astroscan® Plus Telescope
I have used one of these and I have to say that it is just an amazing little telescope. It is very easy to use, has a nice 4 1/4 inch mirror for good light gathering power, comes with two different eyepieces, and most importantly gives a very rich and a very wide view of the night sky. This makes it very easy to use. One of the biggest hurdles any would-be astronomer faces is the tunnel that is created when looking through a telescope. It’s kind of like trying to find things through a narrow tube. You have to hunt around. But with the incredibly wide field of this telescope the problem disappears.
It’s small and compact which makes it easy to take anywhere and you just put it on its little base and you are ready to start looking at the moon, planets or other objects in the night sky. This picture gives you a sense of the size of it.
The optics of this telescope, which is what really matters, are outstanding. Edmund Scientific has been making high quality optics for decades now and you get maximum value for your dollar from this telescope.
More Equipment and Accessories
Maybe you already have a telescope and maybe you don’t This section of the tour through the universe will assume you don’t have one as a base for beginning your pursuit of astronomy.
So, if you don’t have a telescope what other things should you have?
You can do some wonderful stargazing with just your eyes and a few other things but if you have a pair of binoculars you should bring them along. They will make a wonderful addition to your stargazing. Binoculars are a low cost and effective first choice to dabbling in astronomy because they are very useful in other circumstances. They won’t just collect dust if you don’t do much stargazing.
The binoculars shown here are made by the Celestron Corporation and can be purchased from Amazon.com. Celestron SkyMaster SkyMaster 20X80 Astro Binoculars – I have a telescope and binocular store right here on the site with binoculars I have hand picked from the amazon.com selection. Just click on the binoculars tab on the left Telescopes and Binoculars
A Star Map or a Star Chart
If you are an absolute beginner to star gazing you might not know it but the stars in the night sky change from hour to hour and from season to season. This is because the earth is rotating and revolving around the sun. So if you go out and find something one night on the next night or later that same night its not in the same spot! You need to have some kind of a chart to help you find things. Here is a nice (and free) sky map that you can download and print out in pdf format Skymaps.
This is a good place to start. Here is a nice online tool where you enter your zip code and you get a star map generated automatically Weather Wonderland Starmap. I recommend you start with something like these free things but there are literally thousands of things you can see in the night sky and to really get an appreciation of these things you need a book that will guide you to them.
A flashlight is an important addition to your stargazing so you can read your star charts or books. But a regular flashlight is not good. When you do stargazing you have to take some time in the darkness to allow your eyes to adjust to the dark. This way you can see the most in the sky. But the bright beam from a flashlight could ruin this quickly and it will take another half hour for your eyes to adjust. So you need to cover the beam end of your flashlight with some type of red translucent material so it will give off a dull red light. Red light will not affect your night vision. Many flashlights come with a red lens as an accessory like the maglite below.
Maglite makes a whole series of high quality flashlights. They also make accessory packs that give you red and blue lenses which will change your flashlight into the perfect astronomy accessory.