Cost: $0 to very expensive
Time Required: Completely up to you
The night sky has always fascinated me. How everything moves across the sky at night and during the seasons, the phases of the moon – I’m interested in it all. The best part about astronomy is that (unless it’s cloudy) there’s always something you can see in the night sky. If you live in the middle of a large city, there are still some stars, planets, and, of course, the moon that you can look at.
Sky maps, charts, books, and simulations are available all over the place and they’re a great place to start when getting your bearings in the night sky. If you want, you can sign out a book from your local library, sit outside one night, and do some old-school astronomy with just your eyes. Get used to the constellations, figure out which dots in the sky are planets instead of stars, and, if you’re really lucky, catch something like the aurorae or a meteor streaking across the sky.
A pair of binoculars is a great way to expand your nightly repertoire. A lot more objects come into view, including some asterisms (look for Collinder 399 for a really neat one) and some of the planets become a tiny circle instead of a point of light.
Telescopes open up even more opportunities for you. You can see Jupiter’s cloud bands, Saturn’s rings, some star clusters, and the cragginess of the moon’s surface. If you’re looking for a telescope, I would advise against the small 60mm refractor telescopes common in department stores. I used one for a while and while it technically worked, it was very frustrating to use. The optics weren’t that great, the base was very flimsy, and it was very difficult to get it to point to exactly where I wanted it to.
So here’s what you need to get started:
- Maybe a sky map from your local library or online resource.
Here’s what you need to really start opening up the sky:
- A pair of binoculars, and
- A sky map
If you really want to get into things, here’s what you’ll need:
- A sky map
- A small Dobsonian or decent-quality refracting telescope.
If you want the sky available at your fingertips immediately, you’ll probably want:
- A larger (6 or 8 inch) telescope that comes with an intelligent mount that you can just type in what you want to see and it finds it for you.
Astronomy can be a very rewarding hobby if you’re patient. If you’re planning a night out to look at the stars, make sure you bring a list of several things you want to see. If you get yourself all set up outside and want to look for one particular target, it’s probably going to be hidden by clouds or washed out by city light or behind a building or tree. Just look up at the sky, get acquainted with it, and enjoy!
One last thing – there is a branch of astronomy that involves looking at the sun. PLEASE DO NOT LOOK AT THE SUN WITH ANY EQUIPMENT UNTIL YOU CONSULT A PROFESSIONAL AND BUY THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT. Immediate eye damage WILL occur if you look at the sun with binoculars or a telescope.