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   Figuring out how to begin the hobby of astronomy and what to buy when it comes to your first telescope can be a daunting task. But with a little perseverance and some informed decisions your transition from average layman to  keen observer can be a fun and very rewarding experience.

   “Learning the constellations is probably the single most important thing you can do to get started.”  

   Most people think that buying a telescope or reading a book is the first place to start when it comes to the hobby of astronomy but this is simply not the case. While books are very important for the information they contain, the best thing you can do is to get outside under the night sky and look up. Some of the most memorable times of your life can be spent by yourself or with loved ones out under a starry sky. Whether it be watching for meteors or exploring the stars and planets without any optical aid this is the time to begin identifying the patterns of stars we associate with the constellations. Learning the constellations is probably the single most important thing you can do when it comes to getting started.


   As I began my quest to observe the rest of the universe one of the more boring aspects of the challenge I found was that of learning to identify constellations. Yet I came to realize that this is perhaps one of the most critical areas of observational astronomy for beginners because it lays the groundwork for so much more.

   “Once you have memorized the typical star pattern for a given constellation a wondering planet will stick out like a sore thumb.”

   There are officially eighty-eight constellations as defined by modern day astronomers. A lot of us will go through our entire lives never having seen a large part of them. This is because seeing all of the constellations has a great deal to do with where you spend most of your time on earth. People living at northern latitudes will never see a large part of the southern sky. While just the same, people at southern latitudes may go an entire lifetime without ever seeing the north star.

   When it comes to learning your constellations don't worry about trying to learn all eighty-eight at the same time. Instead take it slow by learning one or two over multiple sessions. The more time you spend learning to identify and connect star patterns the easier and faster it will become. Knowing the constellations will be useful for when you go to search for deep space objects like nebula, star clusters, and galaxies while using a telescope. Even better, once you have memorized the typical star pattern for a given constellation a wondering planet will stick out like a sore thumb.

    There are several tools available to assist you in identifying major stars and constellations. Among those is the planisphere.

Amateur Astronomy for Beginners


   Planispheres consist of a constellation disk enclosed by a sky mask that has an off center cut-out section representing the area of visible sky. The outside edge of the constellation disk displays the months and days of the year while the outside edge of the sky mask is marked with the hours of the day. By sliding the constellation disk around to match the date with the hour of the day, the cut out area representing the sky will display the current set of constellations visible. Planispheres can come in paper or plastic. Plastic is typically better than paper because continued use of the paper versions produces wear and tear in the area surrounding the central clip holding it together. This can cause the paper planisphere to come apart after a period of time. The paper version is also more susceptible to damage from moisture. Learn how to use a planisphere by watching the video below.


   Perhaps you don’t have a telescope just yet but you do have a pair of binoculars. It may surprise you to know that you can do a limited amount of observing using just binoculars. The minimum specifications necessary for decent observations through binoculars are 10X50. The specifications for binoculars vary but they are always listed in a standard format. For example, in the specification 10X50, the first and smallest number 10 tells us the magnification of the binocular. The second number 50 tells us the diameter in millimeters of the primary lenses. The primary lenses are the larger set we point at the target, not the set we look through. There are binoculars with magnifications higher than 10 and they will do the job too, but keep in mind that the higher magnification can make it more difficult for your arms to hold the image steady without a support. Anything above a 60mm primary lens may also feel heavier and may require a support. Even if you have binoculars  you will eventually want to upgrade to a telescope.


   An alternative to the planisphere is the star chart. Star charts are published monthly as a service from various astronomy publications and online resources. Because they are up-to-date monthly publications, star charts have a few advantages over the planisphere. Unlike a planisphere, the star chart also displays the current positions of planets visible for a given month. Depending on the publisher there may also be included detailed information concerning the movement, locations of, and lists of specific visible objects. Below are links to a few publications online and off that publish monthly updated star charts. - Visit skymaps for a free star chart updated every month. 

Sky & Telescope Magazine - A star chart is published for each monthly edition of the magazine.

Astronomy Magazine - A star chart is published for each monthly edition of the magazine.




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