Planning Your First Steps into Astronomy

By Stephen P. Maran

If you’re just starting to become interested in astronomy, get into the astronomy hobby gradually, investing as little money as possible until you’re sure about what you want to do. Here’s a plan for acquiring both basic skills and the needed equipment:

  1. If you have a late-model computer, invest in a free or inexpensive planetarium program.

    Better yet, if you have a smartphone, download and use a free or cheap planetarium app. Start making naked-eye observations at dusk on clear nights and before dawn, if you’re an early riser.

    To plan your observations of planets and constellations, you can also rely on the weekly sky scenes at the Sky & Telescope website. If you don’t have a suitable computer, plan your observations based on the monthly sky highlights in Astronomy or Sky & Telescope magazine.

  2. After a month or two of familiarizing yourself with the sky and discovering how much you enjoy it, invest in a serviceable pair of 7×50 binoculars.
  3. As you continue to observe the bright stars and constellations, invest in a star atlas that shows many of the dimmer stars, as well as star clusters and nebulae.

    Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas by Roger W. Sinnott (Sky Publishing, 2007) is a good choice. For maps that are equally good but larger, consult the Jumbo Pocket Sky Atlas by the same author and publisher (2016); you’ll just need a bigger pocket. Compare scenes in your star atlas with the constellations that you’re observing; the atlas shows their RAs and Decs. Eventually, you’ll start to develop a good feel for the coordinate system.
  4. Join an astronomy club in your area, if at all possible, and get to know the folks who have experience with telescopes.
  5. If all goes well and you want to continue in astronomy invest in a well-made, high-quality telescope in the 2.5-to-4-inch size range.

    Study the telescope manufacturer websites earlier in this chapter or send for catalogs advertised in astronomy magazines. Better yet, talk to experienced astronomy club members if you can. They can advise you on buying a new telescope, and they may know someone who wants to sell a used telescope.

You may be able to borrow a starter telescope and try it out at home. Thanks to the New Hampshire Astronomical Society (NHAS), a movement to place such telescopes in public libraries has begun. Astronomy clubs purchase the telescopes; club members modify them for use by inexperienced borrowers and then donate them to the libraries. The telescope model adopted for this project is the Orion StarBlast 4.5, which retails for about $210. It’s meant for use on a tabletop but may work for you when just placed on the ground. According to Sky & Telescope, by late 2016 NHAS had placed more than 100 of these telescopes in New Hampshire libraries, and the St. Louis Astronomical Society had placed over 130 in Missouri and Illinois libraries. Astronomy clubs in other areas are beginning to sponsor library telescopes; search the web to see whether a library telescope program exists near you. Who knows; you may have a (star) blast!

If you find that you enjoy astronomy, after a few years, consider moving up to a 6- or 8-inch telescope. It may be harder to use, but you’ll be ready to master it after you have some experience. Equipped with a larger telescope, you can see many more stars and other objects. You can get ideas about what larger telescopes to consider by talking to other amateur astronomers and by attending a star party, where you can see many different telescopes in operation and on display.