Astronomy for Beginners
Star gazing and looking up to the skies has been going on since the beginning of man. Wondering what is out there. Wondering what is that point of light and what could be there. This is called astronomy.
Here on Earth we can see the stars of our own galaxy, the Milky Way galaxy, and it’s hard to realize just how big our own galaxy is. And there are thousands more galaxies out there in the universe. With the naked eye on a clear night you can also see a neighboring galaxy called Andromeda, it will appear as a white puff. You can also see planets, thousands of stars, meteors, nebulas, the aurora and star clusters. With a telescope you can see more of these.
A hobby such as astronomy can turn into a lifelong hobby or a career in astronomy, radio astronomy or even to the point of flying and working in outer space.
What to Look for with Beginning Astronomy
You can start enjoying astronomy by looking at the night sky with unaided eyes, there is a lot to see without the aid of a telescope. There is the moon to look at it, and all its craters and phases. On nights where there is no moon, the entire night sky and all its stars are much brighter.
Planets. Look for the planets that are visible for the time of year it is. There are all kinds of star charts and guides that will tell you where to look. There are five planets that are visible with the naked eye at the right time. They are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Venus is usually the brightest of the planets.
How do you know if you’re looking at a planet or a star, a general rule of thumb is that if it is twinkling then it is a star.
Constellations have been guiding travelers for thousands of years. By knowing the constellations and the stars, travelers have known where they are from looking at the night sky. Constellations have names of historic legends, animals and objects. Learning the constellations is a great way to learn about the night sky and the stars names.
The big dipper is a part of the constellation Ursa Major or the The Great Bear.
Interestingly, the flag of Alaska has the Big Dipper on it.
Stars, a star is what our sun is. Stars are different colors and many light years away. A light year is equal to 5.9 trillion miles, the amount of time it takes light to travel in one year. Actually, when you look at stars, you are also looking back in time. The light you see from a distant sun started many years ago. With the Hubble telescope now, we can look back in time to almost the big bang. The more notable and colorful stars are the bright blue Rigel and the bright red Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion.
Meteors are tiny bits of rock that enters the Earths atmosphere and burns up. Meteor showers happen at certain times of the year when the Earth passes through a known debris cloud of these bits of dust of rock forming a meteor shower, when a meteor shower is very intense, it is known as a meteor storm. These storms can sometimes be predicted, but often times they are a surprise. A well known meteor storm was the Leonid meteor shower in 1966. On any night there is the chance to see a meteor.
Aurora Borealis or northern lights (in the southern hemisphere they are called the aurora australis) are a beautiful sight. This occurs when particles from the sun hit the Earths magnetic field and get charged and then they start to glow. They occur at any time of the year but seem more prevalent during the fall and spring. When there is an intense aurora they can be seen as far south as the southern US.
Galaxies can be seen by the naked eye. Andromeda is the most common galaxy to see, at times you can also see the Pinwheel, M31, M82, M33 and other galaxies.
Great time lapse of the Milky Way rising. Video by WL Castleman
Nebulas are clouds of gas that can also be seen. Maybe the most famous is the Crab nebula, which has been written about as far back 1054. This nebula started as a star went supernova.
Comets are referred to as dirty snowballs, they are ice and at the center is rock. As they move towards the sun, they start to melt and you can see their tails blowing away from the sun. Usually you can’t see comets with the naked eye, but sometimes like in the mid 1990s you can when comet Hale Bopp came by the Earth.
Tools for Beginning Astronomy
Telescopes, once you have explored the sky with the unaided eye, you will want to get a telescope. Meade and Celestron are probably the most popular brands at this time. With a telescope you can see the rings of Saturn most times, some of the moons of Jupiter and the bands of color in the Jupiter atmosphere, the craters and shadows on the moon, more galaxies, star clusters, asteroids and more nebulas like the Orion, Lagoon, Swan and the Ring nebula
Before you get your own telescope, there might be planetariums or observatories in your town you can go to. Of course their telescopes will most likely be more powerful then one you use in your backyard, but there is plenty to see and look for as an amateur astronomer and your own telescope. Also look in your town for local astronomy clubs who can help you with your new hobby.
In using some online star charts, you will need to know your latitude and longitude, I included a good web site to find your own.
Good Books and Web Sites
- Nightwatch by Terence Dickenson
- Reviews of good telescopes
- Find your own latitude and longitude
- Learn about magnitude and star charts
- Constellation and their stars - interactive applet
- Using a star chart
- Weather Underground skychart for your area
- What's in the sky tonight
- Star Gazer TV Show
- How and When to Watch Meteor Showers
- How to Hear Meteors on Your FM Radio
Sam Montana © 12 December 2008