Ken Hough's Website
Astronomy

Where to start

Other topics that are included on the Astronomy Beginners index are intended to give newcomers sufficient understanding of practical astronomy to enable them to make a start in what can be a fascinating subject. I have deliberately avoided making specific recommendations of certain makes and suppliers of equipment as this will depend on factors such as personal choice and available budget. Instead, I have tried to present pros and cons of the various kinds of equipment that are readily available.

Much of the astronomical equipment that is currently available has been manufactured in China (eg by Synta), but is sold under a number of well known established names (eg Celestron, Orion, SkyWatcher, and even Meade!). This gives the manufacturers big advantages of scale and hence in their costs. Of course, cost always plays a part in the level of quality that can be expected, but most equipment of Chinese origin is now of very good quality. Most of my own equipment is of Chinese origin and I'm very happy with it.

Should you buy a telescope?
Probably not to begin with! And don't be tempted by 'bargain' telescopes of the kind commonly seen in some high street shops. These telescopes are typically of poor optical and mechanical quality, and are provided with very flimsy mounts. They will almost certainly disappoint.

Practical astronomy is necessarily a technical subject. Until you have at least some knowledge of the night sky, a telescope would be of little use, even if you understood how to use it.

In fact, you might not need a telescope.

You will need to become familiar with the night sky and begin to find your way around the many stars, constellations, planets, galaxies, and nebula that can be seen. You will need to understand some of the terms and jargon that are used. Magazines such as 'BBC Sky At Night' and 'Astronomy Now' often contain information aimed at beginners, including reviews of books, DVDs and astronomical equipment. These magazines are issued monthly and include star charts that show what can currently be seen in the night sky over the United Kingdom. Astronomers in the USA might find 'Sky And Telescope' and 'Astronomy' more useful.

Joining a local astronomical society could be a good start. Astronomers are usually only too pleased to talk about astronomy and to help newcomers. During public viewing sessions, you will have opportunities to see and use some of their telescopes, etc.

The Internet provides a vast source of information relating to astronomy, but you will need to be selective to discover material that is aimed at beginers. Local libraries will almost certainly have books about astronomy, again not always suited to beginners. There are good books for beginners and these can be found via Internet 'book stores'.

DO get a good pair of binoculars!
Binoculars are relatively easy to use and will greatly increase the number of stars, galaxies, and detail of the larger planets that can be seen.

In the unlikely event that you are not amazed by what you see and you loose interest, you will still have a good pair of binoculars that can be used for bird watching or a host of other terrestrial activities. An astronomical telescope would have been a waste of money, especially if it was one of those high street 'bargains'.

I now have several telescopes of various kinds, but still use my binoculars for 'wide sky' viewing.

Light Pollution
Many folks these days live in urban areas where there is a lot of light pollution which can seriously limit what can be seen of the night sky. However, where there is a will, there is usually a way, and astronomers are an inventive bunch! The effects of light pollution can be managed with the aid of special optical filters that are designed to block light generated by mercury and sodium lights while having very little effect on light of other wavelengths.

IMPORTANT WARNING:
DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES RISK POINTING BINOCULARS OR TELESCOPES TOWARDS THE SUN! To do so risks blindness or at least serious damage to your eyes!
A lens of only a few inches in diameter can easily concentrate the suns rays sufficiently to set fire to a piece of paper. Just imagine what it could do to the retinas of your eyes!

To observe the Sun safely, special filters or other devices that will reject most of the sunlight and in particular the potentially damaging infra-red light MUST BE USED.

Solar observation is a specialised field. Definitely not for beginners!

What Next?
After you have say 6 to 12 months experience of stargazing through your binoculars and learning about astronomy and the night sky, you will begin to have some ideas of what really interests you. This might be the time to consider, and I mean consider, buying a telescope. You might decide that a decent pair of binoculars is all that you need. Should you decide to go for a telescope, the subject does then become somewhat technical. Take allow time to absorb the subject and to decide what is appropriate for you. If you do decide to invest in a telescope system, you should not need to spend a fortune!

Astronomical telescopes come in many types, sizes and makes. Very confusing for a beginner! Telescopes must of course be supported by suitable mounts which must allow you to follow stars as they move across the sky. Mounts come in various forms and can be manually operated, motor driven, or even computer controlled. Again, very confusing!

You will read about and hear a lot of claims and counter claims made for the various kinds of telescopes and mounts. This is partly because no single kind of telescope and mount will be suited to all kinds of subjects and fields of study. Choices and compromises must be made.

The best telescope and mount for you depends on what you want to do with it, and on your budget. Do seek advice, but in the end, only you will be able to decide what is best for your needs.

Other topics on the Astronomy main page are intended to provide an introduction to understanding binoculars, telescopes, mounts and other aspects relating to practical astronomy. I have deliberately limited the number of links to other Internet sites as these can and often do become obsolete. You will no doubt be able to do your own Internet searches to discover more information that will be relevant to your own interests. I hope that these pages will help you to make a start with practical astronomy.

Good luck.


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19/02/13