Starting out in Amateur Astronomy

All to often, there's a telescope that can be found in a home that has become more a piece of the decor than the scientific instrument it was meant to be. This article attempts to set you on a path to explore the world of amateur astronomy and to avoid disappointments that might lead you astray.

Disclaimer: This article is not meant to be comprehensive in any way and should be supplemented with a good book! This is simply one recommended way of introducing yourself to astronomy while minimizing the chances of fallout and wasted dollars.

You Don't Need a Telescope!

The telescope is so symbolic of amateur astronomy that every aspiring astronomer feels the impulse to buy one right away. Though one of the most useful instruments in astronomy, it takes a certain degree of knowledge to correctly use a telescope without which, may lead to frustration and eventual abandonment. Simply going out and buying a telescope is akin to going out in your backyard with a shovel and expecting to find gold!

Before buying a telescope, consider these points: There's also some general bits about observing you should be aware of:

The First Step

So instead of starting out with a telescope, we'll start out with maps because you have to know where to look if you're going to see anything. Star maps can be found on the Internet, in freeware/shareware software, and in books.

A few places to find star maps:

The best way to orient yourself is to start memorizing constellations. Constellations are your landmarks of the sky and will allow you to readily find things. Start with easily recognizable ones like the Big Dipper and move outward from there. In the northern hemisphere, one of the most useful constellations to know is the Little Dipper, located right next to the Big Dipper, because it contains the north star (aka. Polaris). Unforunately, the southern hemisphere doesn't have a "south star" convenient. The location of these "celestial poles" is important, not only to get your bearings straight, but it is also a very common process to point your telescope at them in a process called "polar alignment". Once you get your bearings straight (which ways are North, South, East and West), you're ready to begin using your star map.

In addition to recognizing constellations in the night sky, pay attention to the magnitude numbers that are often found next to stars on star maps. These numbers are a good indication of how bright objects are (the lower the number, the brighter the object) and how difficult it will be in order to see them. After you gain experience with star maps, you'll be able to identify fainter and fainter constellations because you will know where to look.

Step Two

At this point, you should have a good portion of the night sky mapped and at any given time should be able to identify a couple major constellations in each quadrant of the sky at any given time.

Now we zoom in a little more and we get to put our mapping skills to the test. From the star maps, pick a couple of objects of a visible magnitude (less than 4, possibly even smaller depending on your eyes and the light pollution in your area) and try to find them! Can you find Sirius? Jupiter? Venus? Besides the moon and sun, these are some of the brightest objects in the sky, though they aren't necessarily visible all year round or all night long. A few other naked eye objects include: the Hyades, the Pleides, Saturn, and Mars.

So far, you might be wondering where to locate the planets since they typically are not on star maps. The fact that planets are so much closer than stars makes their movements a little more sporadic. The best places to look for updated planet locations are magazines like Sky & Telescope and Astronomy. Planetarium software and books will also have guides on where to find planets at a given date and time.

Step Three

Congratulations! Now that you know how to find objects in the sky, you are now ready to look at a magnified view of it! If you're exuberant enough, you might be ready to take the huge leap and go for a telescope at this point (with a little more research), or you can take a smaller leap and go for binoculars. Binoculars are usually recommended at this point because they are cheaper (with exceptions), easier to use, and can double for bird watching, hiking, or peeping into the apartment across the street (just kidding). There are also some objects, like open clusters, in the night sky where binoculars actually give a better view than a telescope because of their wider field of view; using a telescope on these is like sitting in the front row of a movie theatre! Also recommended with binoculars is a tripod to help keep your arms from getting tired and also to keep things from wobbling all around while you look at them. Tripods also enable you to show another person what you are looking at.

So whether you've gotten yourself binoculars, or a telescope, once again try and locate things in the sky. You can now look for dimmer objects (up to magnitude 8) such as Andromeda, the Double Cluster, the Orion Nebula, and much more! If you are using a telescope, use the lowest magnification possible. At this point you'll get used to finding things under magnification which, as you'll find, is much more difficult than without it.

The Telescope

If you've actually followed all the above steps and are still psyched up, you're probably ready for a telescope at this point. Hopefully, now you know the answers to the what/when/how/where points originally stated. In addition, here are a couple other points to be aware of:

Star Parties

Depending on your area, an alternate method of starting out in astronomy is to join an amateur astronomy association or visit some of their star parties. People at star parties will be able to offer an abundance of advice and will also bring telescopes and other expensive accessories with them that they will -- if you ask nicely -- let you use!

Check our Astronomy Association section or to find an association in your area.

One additional note: if you plan on attending a star party for the first time, make sure to read any notes or inquire about rules of etiquette. In particular, people at star parties are very sensitive to lights!


From here on, you'll find a wealth of additional accessories like eyepieces and filters that will let you explore the night sky in new and amazing ways. For the even more enthusiastic there is the realm of astrophotography and CCD imaging. As endless as space, amateur astronomy offers an ever expanding (and ever expensive) realm to discover that can lead to a lifetime of intrigue and awe.

Alternate Reading Material

Here's a few alternate site with their own telescope buying guides.

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