Be an observer in 10 steps

January 13, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

From "Welcome to Astronomy" guide, a supplement to Astronomy magazine:

1.  Learn the sky basics

Earth rotates once a day, so sky objects rise in the east and set in the west.  It orbits the Sun once each year, making different constellations appear in each season.

The sky is a celestial sphere.  It has a north pole, an equator, a south pole, and two sky coordinates: Right ascension is like longitude, and declination mimics latitude.

The moon first becomes visible as a thin crescent low in the western evening sky.  Each night thereafter, it appears to grow and move eastward until Full Moon, after which it lit part shrinks to invisibility.

2.  Dive into the subject

Check out Astronomy magazine.  It features a combination of science and hobby stories.  "The Sky this Month" is an up-to-date guide to the current sky.  And more is out there.  Your public library and bookshops offer many observing guides.

3.  Try before you buy

Don't purchase a telescope without first viewing through it.  One way to test drive a scope is to attend an observing session or a star party hosted by an astronomy club.  Take your time, ask lots of questions, and you'll soon enjoy a lifetime of viewing pleasure through your very own scope.

4.  Pick your site carefully

If you'll be content with bright stuff, pretty much any location will do.  To see faint, diffuse objects like nebulae and galaxies, however, you'll need a dark site.  Some things to consider are how light-polluted the observing location is, the driving distance, how portable your telescope is, safety (do you get cellphone service?), and weather factors, including how generally clear the sky is and how steady the air above you is.

5.  Double your observing time with the Sun

The Sun beckons beginning observers because it's big, bright, and full of features that change daily.  Put safety first by using a filter, and even a small scope will deliver high-quality views.  Be sure to get a filter that fits correctly over the front end of your telescope.  A good solar filter will not transmit harmful ultraviolet or infrared radiation.  It also will drop the Sun's brightness to a viewable level.

6.  Comfort is everything

Comfort means a lot more than staying warm in the winter.  So, sit.  When you are comfortable at the eyepiece, you'll see a great deal more.  Many amateurs use adjustable chairs sold specifically for observing.

7.  Photography:  rewarding but time-consuming

Here's the good news:  You can take pictures of sky objects.  Here's the other side:  It takes practice, and there is a learning curve.  Producing a high-quality picture involves two stages.  First you acquire the data, and then you process it with appropriate software.

8.  Keep a log

A simple log contains the date and time of your observation, the name or names of the objects you looked at, and a brief description, like, "Saw spiral arms!" or "Really blue, but no details visible."  Once you get the hang of it, more detailed log entires might contain information about the telescope, eyepiece(s), sky conditions, and the faintest star you could see with your naked eye.  Observers call that quantity the sky's "limiting magnitude."

9.  Get social

Visit a planetarium.  Attend a star party.  Observe with other amateur astronomers.  Get on the Internet and chat in one of Astronomy.com's forums.  Without question, the best step you can take is to join a local astronomy club.  This will place you with a group of like-minded individuals who can answer your questions.

10.  Observe everything!

You may hear, "I'm a lunar observer," or "I only observe galaxies."  Really?  Are these observers saying they'd pass up watching a total solar eclipse, a bright comet, or a rich meteor shower?  The Moon has hundreds of targets on its ever-changing face, and even a small instrument will show most of them.  The planets spend lots of time in the early evening sky.  A trip now and then to a dark site may yield dozens of galaxies.  While you take them all in, you'll surely marvel at the magnificent universe above and the richness of the hobby you have chosen.

 

 

 


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