Getting Started in Amateur Astronomy for little or no money
This is my own list of ideas that beginning stargazers can use to get into amateur astronomy without spending a bundle on expensive and mostly unnecessary equipment. There are other lists out there, some of them by other people more famous than me, or put out by astronomy magazines. Do some poking around, and you’ll get some really good ideas.
So, you think you might enjoy a hobby of stargazing, but you’re not sure how to get started, and are thinking you’ll have to spend loads of money?
Fear not! You can enjoy the skies without having to drive to dark locations and haul out thousands of dollars worth of delicate optical equipment. Quite a bit of the wonder of the night sky is accessible to you at little or no cost. Here’s how to do it, without breaking the bank:
1. Don’t rush out and buy a telescope: Cost: $0
Too many people who want to get started in amateur astronomy buy a telescope first thing. Don’t do it! It’s too easy to get lured into spending a lot of money on a telescope that will supposedly “make it easy” to find interesting objects. What they don’t tell you is that these computerized telescopes take quite a bit of setting up each time, and you’re spending a lot more money on the computerized motor drive, and not a lot on the optics. One of the things you’ll need to do is put some serious thought into exactly what kind of telescope you should buy, and you can’t tell that just yet.
Think of buying a telescope like you would buy a vehicle. When you buy a vehicle you make decisions based on various factors: how many passengers, fuel economy, overall payload, truck vs car vs SUV, etc. The same kind of decision-making has to go into buying a telescope, and you’re better off waiting until you have some experience and can make these decisions intelligently. Otherwise you may wind up doing the equivalent of trying to haul roofing in a sportscar.
How often will you use it? Will you be observing from your back yard, or will you be driving 30 miles out of town to a dark location? Will you be looking primarily at planets, or will you be looking at fainter, diffuse objects like nebulae? These are all things to be considered, so wait, learn and then decide what kind of scope you want.
2. Study the topic a little: Cost: a little of your time
Go to your local library and check out one of the introductory-level books on astronomy. Besides information on stars, galaxies, nebulae and planets, it will likely have fold-out star charts and a section on telescopes.
3. Study the sky: Cost: A little of your time.
Subscribe to one of the astronomy magazines, and read the reviews and articles in it.
This can be done with no visual aids whatsoever, or with just the resources freely available to you on the Internet. For example, you can download software to print out a planisphere here, or make Toshimi Taki’s more elaborate double-sided one here. Star charts are available here (Taki’s Mag 6 Atlas), here( Taki’s Mag 8.5 atlas, very large!) and here (Johnson’s Mag 7 Atlas). Make one of the planispheres and just take it out with you at night, and acquaint yourself with the stars and constellations. Learn where they are in relation to each other. Look up the constellations online and begin learning about the stars that make up the constellations. As you become more familiar with the constellations, print out one of the star atlases from above (I’d suggest starting with Taki’s Mag 6 atlas. Mag 6 is about the limit of unaided vision on a dark night, and the atlas is only 12 pages, which is very manageable. ) and begin finding some of the more unusual objects. If you want a commercial star atlas, the Mag 5 and Mag 6 star atlases from Edmunds Scientific are inexpensive and highly recommended. If you want a *really* good commercial star atlas, the Sky Atlas 2000.0 2nd edition is *very* highly recommended, but also more expensive and would be massive overkill for a beginner.
Listen to astronomy podcasts such as AstronomyCast.
Use the links and blogroll on this site to find astronomy tutorials, tips on viewing and discussions between other amateurs.
4. Grab a pair of binoculars: Cost: $100
Contrary to popular belief you don’t need a telescope to get started. A good ( <$100 ) pair of 7×50 or 10×50 binoculars will really help you along in this phase. Be sure to get a pair with coated lenses, but don’t go for the ones with the ‘zoom’ feature. Make sure the first number is between 7 and 10 (that’s the magnification) and that the second number is at least 50 (that’s the size of the objective lenses in millimeters). The Astroprof has a nice post on what to look for in binoculars. Several websites have lists of ‘binocular objects’ that you can use to begin your search. Here’s a list of binocular Messier objects from the Astronomy League, and here is Karen Pierce’s list of binocular objects. Be sure to bring your planisphere and star atlas!
5. Try some free software: Cost: $0
There are many amateur astronomers around the world, and some of them have written software to help you learn your way around the sky. Stellarium is a free planitarium that lets you see what the sky will look like tonight, or tomorrow, or next year, or in 100 years. Celestia is a free space simulation that lets you explore our universe in three dimensions. Both Stellarium and Celestia run on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X, and best of all, are completely FREE!
6. Buddy Up: Cost: Some coffee or coco and some time.
You can learn a lot by talking to other amateur astronomers, many of whom will belong to local clubs or associations. Many clubs will have beginner nights, and all clubs will have experienced members who love to chat with newcomers on how to get started. Most clubs have websites so you can use search tools on the Internet to find clubs in your area. If you’re interested in the scopes, ask! Many amateurs will be more than happy to tell you about their scopes, why they like them, or why they dislike them, and help you make a decision regarding yours.
7. Party!: Cost: Free except for some bean dip and chips.
Find a local star party and go to it. Again, the Internet search engines are your friend, as well as local newspaper event listings. In the South San Francisco Bay Area there are several astronomy clubs, including the large San Jose Astronomical Association, the Fremont Peak Observatory Association, both of which are part of the Astronomical Association of Northern California. This would be a good place to begin your search for a local club and a star party! If you’re elsewhere in the U.S.A., try the NASA Night Sky Network club finder, or you can look up the Science: Astronomy: Amateur: Associations category on the DMOZ Open Directory Project.
8. OK, Now are you ready to get a scope?: Cost: Varies from $350 to several thousand dollars.
OK, you’ve done all the things above, you’ve acquainted yourself with the night sky, you’ve found some people to talk to, and you’ve perhaps actually had some experience viewing with binoculars. The question inevitably comes up: What kind of scope should you buy?
Since this page is geared toward beginners, I will leave aside highly technical discussions of the various designs of telescopes (See my telescope FAQ page for that), and simply say that you want something that is going to be simple and easy to use, portable and easy to set up, and something that will not frustrate you every time you go to use it.
I strongly recommend a Newtonian reflector in a Dobsonian mount, or a “Dob” as they’re called. You’ll want at least a 6-inch aperture, and perhaps up to an 8- or 10-inch, but probably not bigger than that for your first telescope.
This is your basic ‘light bucket’. You can set it up and be observing within a few minutes. They’re easy to use, and will last you for years. If you are going to primarily be doing planetary viewing then you don’t need anything bigger than an 8-inch, and the images you get from the smaller aperture telescopes will actually be clearer than from larger aperture telescope, because of atmospheric effects.
If you are going to be viewing faint, diffuse objects then you may want to go larger in aperture. Remember that there is a trade-off between aperture and length. The larger the mirror gets, the longer the telescope has to get in order to focus all of that light. Watch the ‘F-number’ on the telescope, and make sure you’re buying one in the ‘sweet spot’ for Newtonians, which is f/4 to f/8.
Expect to spend about $350 for a new 6-inch Dob, up to about $700 for a 10-inch Dob. You should also seriously consider an astronomy classifieds site like Astromart. It is a common practice for people to sell their smaller telescopes as they get more serious, and you might find that you can pick up a small Dob for under $200.
Stay away from big fancy computerized telescopes for now. They’re neat and fun, but you don’t want to go through the set-up each time you bring it out, unless you have been doing it for a while and are really seriously into the hobby. The set up and alignment time on some of the big scopes is an hour. The set up time on an 8-inch dob is about 30 seconds.
Well, there you have it! Hopefully you will enjoy this hobby and get years of use out of whichever telescope you purchase. Don’t forget your binoculars either. There are a lot of objects that really ‘pop’ in a pair of 10×50 binoculars.