Getting started in Astronomy

Tracey Caldwell Dyson in the Cupola of the ISS
Image Caption
Tracey Caldwell Dyson in the Cupola of the ISS

Contents

  • Introduction
  • Astronomy as a hobby
  • Getting to know the night sky
  • Buying a telescope
  • Astronomy as a career
  • Resource List:
    • Planispheres
    • Suggested Reading
    • Software
    • Societies
    • Astronomical Holidays
    • Distance Learning courses
Introduction

This page lists selected sources of reference material, including books, magazines, computer software, web sites, societies and distance-learning courses, for people interested in taking up astronomy as a hobby. It is particularly aimed at UK residents.

Astronomy as a hobby

Astronomy can be a fascinating and rewarding pastime, whether you have a substantial telescope and accessories such as a CCD camera, or are a beginner observing with the naked eye. It is one of the few sciences where amateurs make genuine contributions to research, but many observers simply do it for the excitement of seeing with their own eyes the planets, star clusters, nebulae and so on that are familiar from books. Observing directly by eye with an amateur telescope, it is not possible to see most astronomical objects with the amount of detail and colour captured in the images recorded by large professional instruments. However, many experienced amateurs make beautiful drawings at the telescope, and some achieve spectacular results with photography and CCD imaging.

Getting to know the night sky

For anyone completely new to astronomy, the first step is to become familiar with the night sky, how it changes through the night and season by season, and how it varies according to the observer's latitude. A planisphere (or "star wheel"), monthly sky guide, or computer software will help with this. 

Buying a telescope

The next step may be to get some sort of optical aid. Keep in mind that good views of faint or diffuse astronomical objects will never be obtained from poor sites, such as urban locations. Furthermore, inexpensive telescopes sold by toy shops, natural-history stores, and other non-specialist outlets are often of poor optical quality and are very likely to give a disappointing performance.

A wide range of astronomical telescopes is available for purchase, but one which is large enough to be of much use, and which will give satisfying images, will cost several hundreds of pounds; it makes no sense to spend that amount of money until the observer knows enough to choose which type of observing is of interest. A good-quality pair of binoculars is a relatively economical alternative, and worthwhile experience can be gained with them. They are also useful for non-astronomical purposes! Sizes usually recommended are 8 x 40 or 10 x 50; while higher magnifications and bigger objective glasses may in principle reveal more detail, they increase the weight and bulk. Large binoculars can be difficult to use without a stand or tripod, because most people cannot hold them steady enough. High-power optically stabilized binoculars are available, but are expensive.

Good-quality terrestrial telescopes, such as those used by birdwatchers, generally offer good value, and can easily be pressed into use for casual astronomical observations; though not optimised for such purposes, they give excellent views of the Moon, and the rings of Saturn, Jupiter's major moons, and the phases of Venus can all be seen.

Some useful links can be found here:

How to buy a telescope

Choosing a telescope

Buying your first telescope

Harrison telescopes

Sky and Telescope

Telescopes for your money

What to look for when buying a telescope

A very detailed book, covering almost every imaginable aspect of amateur astronomical equipment, is Star Ware, by Harrington. Other sources of information include articles in popular astronomical journals, such as Astronomy Now and Sky and Telescope. At the time of writing, the Sky and Telescope website features a "Tips" section, featuring recent articles on "getting started" topics, including choosing binoculars and telescopes. The Astronomy Magazine website currently has a section entitled "Getting to know the night sky". Members of local societies may be able to offer advice on choice of telescope (and perhaps evaluation of second-hand offerings), though this will not necessarily be unbiased or unanimous!

Reputable retailers specialising in astronomical telescopes will also be able to advise on what is most suitable for different circumstances. A list of suppliers of equipment can be found in the Handbook of the Federation of Astronomical Societies, and there is a list of links to equipment suppliers on the Society for Popular Astronomy website. Advertisements can also be found in the monthly magazine Astronomy Now.

Other sources of advice on buying telescopes include Patrick Moore's guide to buying a telescope (youtube), this The Sky at Night magazine link, and the University of London Observatory.

Astronomy as a Career

Please see our careers pages for more information.

Resources List
Planispheres

http://www.philips-maps.co.uk/

Made for several latitudes; at the time of writing models are available from £4.99 to £9.99.

Plans for do-it-yourself planispheres are available from:

Astronomy in your Hands

"Uncle Al"

Suggested reading

Federation of Astronomical Societies supplies the following publications of particular interest to the beginner:

  • Astro-Calendar. Set of monthly sky maps, rather like those in the newspapers.
  • Choosing a Telescope or Binoculars, by Robin Scagell and Harry Everett.
  • Federation of Astronomical Societies Handbook. Exceedingly useful annual compilation giving lists of places to visit, societies, journals, equipment and picture suppliers, etc.
  • Observational Astronomy: a Plan for the Beginner, by S.J. Lubbock. Very handy little book enabling the observer to sample the various types of celestial objects within reach of his equipment.
  • Step-by-Step Astrophotography, by Rob Johnson.
  • Using a Telescope, by Tony Williams.

Other books:

A glance at the astronomy section in any large bookshop will show how extensive is the range of available books!

Norton's Star Atlas and Reference Handbook. Dutton, 2004. ISBN 978 0 13 145164 3 (hardbound): from about £25.99. The standard handbook for the amateur astronomer for generations. The current edition is the 20th, and has been revised and updated by Ian Ridpath to take account of developments in observational astronomy.

The Monthly Sky Guide, 7th edtn. Cambridge University Press, 2006. ISBN 978 0 521 68435 4 (pbk): £9.95. Differently arranged, large clear chart for each month with practical notes on location and "what to see" with naked eye, binoculars and small telescopes; unusually, includes planetary positions and eclipses for up to five years ahead.

Collins Stars and Planets Guide, 4th edtn. HarperCollins, London, 2007. ISBN 978 0 00 725120 9 (pbk): £16.99. Excellent pocket guide, with extremely clear constellation maps and descriptions of notable objects in each ofr users of small to medium-sized telescopes; also gives mythological and some historical background, followed by descriptions of Moon, planets and the stars.

Software

So much is now available for smart phones and tablets that it is impossible for us to keep up with it! Some personal favourites are Stellarium and SkyView.

Starry Night [CD-ROM], Ivybridge: Guildsoft (three versions: Beginner, Backyard, Pro).

Suppliers of astronomical software include:

Lambda Publications, 194 Cheney Manor Road, Swindon SN2 2NZ, Wiltshire; Tel: 01793 695296; email, Ray(@)lambdapub.demon.co.uk; Ray(@)AstronomySoftware.co.uk.

Midland Counties Publications, 4 Watling Drive, Hinckley, Leics. LE10 3EY; Tel: 01455 254450; Fax: 01455 233737; email: midlandbooks(@)compuserve.com.

Sky Publishing Corporation, the publishers of Sky and Telescope magazine, sell a wide range of books, software, and related products. They can be contacted at 49 Bay State Road, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA; Tel: (001) 617 864 7360; Fax: (001) 617 864 6117; email: Custserv(@)SkyandTelescope.com.

Popular magazines

Astronomy (ISSN 0091 6358). An excellent American magazine, heavily orientated towards the practical amateur astronomer, and full of stunning astrophotographs.
Kalmbach Publishing Co., 21027 Crossroads Circle, P.O. Box 1612, Waukesha, WI 53187, USA, Tel: (001) 262 796 8776 ext 421, Fax: (001) 262 796 1615; email: customerservice(@)kalmbach.com. Subscription $39.95 p.a.

Astronomy Now (ISSN 0951 9726). A British magazine with a wide mixture of current astronomy, some space material, news reports and quite a lot on amateur societies' activities, all from a British viewpoint. Well illustrated, with some historical articles and a regular sky page. Available from bookstalls, price £2.70, or by subscription, currently £29.00 p.a., from Astronomy Now Subscriptions, AIM Ltd., PO Box 10, Gateshead NE11 0GA. Tel: 0191 487 6444; Fax: 0191 487 6333.

Sky and Telescope, (ISSN 0037 6604). The premier popular-level astronomy magazine, profusely illustrated and including historical and fairly technical articles, as well as excellent sky pages. The publishers, Sky Publishing Corporation, also publish and sell a wide range of books, software, and related products.
Available at larger newsagents, price £2.75, or by subscription; members of the SPA and BAA can subscribe through those bodies. S&T can be contacted at 49 Bay State Road, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA; Tel: (001) 617 864 7360; Fax: (001) 617 864 6117; email: Custserv(@)SkyandTelescope.com. The 2001 international subscription rate is $59.95 p.a.

The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and some other papers, give charts of the night sky at the beginning of each month. These tend to be a bit on the small side, and can be rather difficult to use, but they have the advantage of including the brighter planets. By relating the well known star patterns or constellations on the chart (for example, the Great Bear, which is visible all year) to what you see in the sky, you can learn to identify other patterns.

All the magazines listed above have regular features which show star and planet positions, and forthcoming celestial events. Of these those in Astronomy Now and Sky and Telescope are among the clearest and most detailed, although the latter concentrates on the special events visible from North America.

Societies

The Society for Popular Astronomy (SPA), which publishes Popular Astronomy, is particularly aimed at encouraging people starting out in astronomy. The SPA website has a list of links including astronomical equipment suppliers, software manufacturers, and general astronomy.

The British Astronomical Association, which publishes a Journal, and a most useful annual Handbook.

The Federation of Astronomical Societies' website features links to local astronomical societies, which are also listed in the Federation of Astronomical Societies Handbook, and they supply several handy aids to the beginner.

Local astronomical societies frequently have interesting speakers, and will usually have someone who is able to help the beginner. Details may be obtained from the Federation of Astronomical Societies.

Astronomical holidays

Fieldview Guest House, run by the managers of the book suppliers Earth and Sky, Simon Batty and Christine Parker (although they now sell jewellery!).
West Barsham Road, East Barsham, North Norfolk NR21 OAR. Tel./Fax.: 01328 820083; email: fieldview(@)earthandsky.co.uk.

Madog's Wells, Mid-Wales. Accommodation in 2 bungalows and a caravan. Michael Reed, Madog's Wells, Llanfair Caereinion, Welshpool, Powys, SY21 0DE. Tel./Fax: 01938-810446.

COAA Astronomy Holiday Centre, Algarve, Portugal.
COAA, sitio do Poio, 8500 Portimao, Portugal. Tel: 00-351-282-471180; Fax: 00-351-282-471516; email: coaa(@)mail.telepac.pt; http://www.ip.pt/coaa

Galloway Astronomy Centre, Scotland
Mike Alexander, Galloway Astronomy Centre, Craiglemine Cottage, Glasserton, Nr Whithorn, Wigtownshire, Scotland DG8 8NE. Tel: +44(0)1988 500594; email enquiries(@)gallowayastro.com

These should provide access to suitable instruments, knowledgeable and enthusiastic advice, and help with observing, weather permitting.

Other links to astronomy holidays include:

Stargazing holidays

Northern Lights Cruise

Exodus Travels

Distance learning courses include:

Jodrell Bank Observatory

Liverpool John Moores University

University of Central Lancashire

(These three universities collaborate in the "astronomy.ac.uk" distance learning consortium)

Open University

Planet Earth Centre

University of Glasgow Department of Adult & Continuing Education

University of Hertfordshire

Local evening courses are another possibility, and details are provided by public reference libraries, or, in the London area, by Floodlight. University College London offers a part-time course leading to a Certificate of Higher Education in Astronomy.