Astronomy For Dummies
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The best way to break into astronomy without undue effort is to join an astronomy club. Clubs hold meetings where old hands pass along tips on techniques and equipment to beginners and scientists present talks. Members likely know where to get a good deal on a used telescope or binoculars and which products on the market are worth buying.

Even better, astronomy clubs sponsor observing meetings, usually on weekend nights and occasionally on special dates during a meteor shower or another special event. An observing meeting is the best place to find out about the practice of astronomy and the equipment you need. You don't have to bring a telescope; most folks are happy to give you a look through theirs. Just wear sensible shoes, bring mittens and a hat for the cool night air, and put on a smile!

If you live in an urban area, chances are good that your night sky is bright. You can find better observational conditions if you travel to a dark spot in the country. Your local club probably has a good observing site, and when the members converge on that lonely place, you can enjoy safety in numbers.

If you live in a good-size city or a college town, you can probably find an astronomy club nearby. If you live in the United States, find the club(s) near you with the locator form of the NASA Night Sky Network. Enter a city name, and a calendar pops up with the current month's astronomy activities in that area.

You can also check out the website of America's "club of clubs," the Astronomical League. Browse the list of more than 240 member societies, arranged by state.

For a more global approach, visit the Sky & Telescope website (just click the "Clubs and Organizations" tab in the Community menu to find clubs and organizations worldwide). The site lists more than 20 astronomy clubs in the state of Missouri, for example, and 9 organizations, including planetariums and an observatory, in the nation of New Zealand.

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Stephen P. Maran, PhD, is the retired assistant director of space sciences for information and outreach at the NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center. An investigator of stars, nebulae, and comets, he worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, Space Shuttle missions, Skylab, and other NASA projects.

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