Starting out in Astronomy

When you first start out in this hobby, it is commonplace to immediately look at getting a telescope and start enjoying the wonders of the night sky. However, many astronomers would say that this is not essential at the start. Although a telescope will open up access to both Moon and planetary detail and many deep sky objects, there is still plenty to see and do with simply your naked eye or a half decent pair of binoculars. Here are a few examples

Naked eye viewing

There are many things you can look out for just by going outside and looking up. Whether it’s finding the well known ‘plough’, the ‘summer triangle’ in the summer or finding the distinctive constellation of Orion and Orion’s belt in the winter months. It’s very rewarding recognising the patterns made by the stars night by night. Also, at least 4 of the planets are easily visible to the naked eye if you know where and when to look. In order to know what to look for you need to use either a planisphere or the more popular planetarium software option. They both sound rather technical things, but both are simple to use and will soon get you looking in the right place. There’s plenty of good planetarium software freely available to download online. More on software further down the page…

Objects visible to the naked eye

  • The Moon
  • Andromeda Galaxy (M31)
  • Pleiades cluster (M45)
  • Beehive Cluster (M44)
  • Constellation of Cygnus (for sheer star numbers)
  • Orion Nebula (M42)
  • Perseus Double Cluster (NGC 869 and NGC 884)
  • Alcor & Mizar double star in the plough (Ursa Major)
  • The Milky Way (see below)

Observing the Milky Way (Our own galaxy)

The milky way is the galaxy that we live in. For this reason, it’s very large and stretches across the whole sky from horizon to horizon. A collection of billions of stars and dust making it look like a giant thin cloud sweeping across the heavens. The only problem is it’s large, faint and diffuse, so in order to see this spectacular sight, you need a certain set of conditions. First and foremost, you cannot view it anytime around full Moon. Our closest neighbour can be the worst light polluter of them all and its brightness simply washes out the milky way in the sky. Ideally, the best time for viewing are the days nearer to new moon. Also, you must be out of light pollution as best you can. The Milky Way can be seen from smallish towns but it’s beauty is somewhat diminished. Finally, but quite importantly, the Milky Way is not even visible at certain times of the year. During the equinoxes it hugs around the horizon, making it almost impossible to see. The best time of year is during late summer when it stretches straight up above us in the sky. The best month of them all is August as you do not have to wait until unearthly hours for the night to get completely dark (and it can be reasonably warm outside!)

How to learn where to look

Now that you know just how much is up there, how do you know where to look? Well there are a number of ways. It’s down to personal preference. For me, I prefer software. The best free software I can recommend is Stellarium. It’s easy to use, very realistic and best of all free to download! It can re-create the sky at any given location on Earth at any time showing the position of all the planets, most well known deep sky objects and stars. There is a search facility and will find any of the objects listed above by their name or by their designation (shown in brackets). A useful too for naked eye, binocular and telescopic viewing. With the explosion in mobile devices, there are many free planetarium apps around. Sky Safari is a good choice on the free market. Another tool is a planisphere, a handheld card showing the sky which can be adjusted to show the sky at certain times of the year. As a third option, there are a number of astronomy magazines available from most good magazine stores and supermarkets. These always have star charts and guides to the months observing.

Failing that, we have our own object finder guides page.