Try getting your start in astronomy without a telescope
When I wrote a similar column 10 years ago, I fondly hoped that it might start a few readers on a lifetime of amateur astronomy. It was published on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. I doubt that anyone began a new hobby that evening. So here it is again, though updated. Keep looking up.
As hobbies go, astronomy has a tough reputation. “Too hard, too expensive’’ is what I often hear.
The problem is simply that people often start on the wrong foot. In particular, they imagine that the way to start is to buy a telescope.
Wrong. It is possible to find a decent beginner telescope for as little as $150 to $300 if you know how and where, but most people don’t. The low end of the market remains flooded with junk - wobbly, fuzzy-viewed “department-store telescopes’’ that only frustrate. That is problem number one.
Next, you have to know what to do with a telescope once you get it. To find much of anything beyond the moon, you should already be able to navigate the sky overhead with detailed star atlases and guidebooks. No one tells you that.
True, a computerized, robotic telescope can point to hundreds of celestial objects by itself, once you get everything properly aligned and initialized. But unless you spend serious bucks, robotic scopes tend to be fussy, complicated, and often fail to point right.
The easiest and best way into astronomy is actually with no telescope at all. No one has much of a reason to advertise this fact, so if you spend your life surrounded by advertising, you will not find this out.
Astronomy is an outdoor nature hobby. Learn the bright stars and planets you can see from your backyard or rooftop. Go to your public library (which is also little advertised) and take out some beginner’s sky guidebooks. Some are good, others are not; try several. I’ve had a soft spot for H. A. Rey’s quirky “The Stars: A New Way To See Them’’ since I started with it as a child. Anything by Terence Dickinson will be good.
Sky & Telescope magazine, also in the library, has a big centerfold map of the evening constellations with simple instructions. In my opinion this is the best-designed naked-eye sky map in the world. Disclosure: I designed it.
Once you can look up from your doorstep and say, “There’s Jupiter; there’s Arcturus,’’ you will be on your way to mastering the cosmos and impressing friends and family with your grasp of vast celestial arcana.
What comes next? The ideal first telescope to get is a pair of binoculars.
Binoculars take you about halfway from the naked-eye view to what you see in a good amateur telescope - and they are much easier to use. They will show colorful double stars, some dim galaxies, many star clusters, several luminous nebulae, and variable stars that change brightness from hour to hour, day to day, or month to month.
But you have to know exactly what to hunt and where. This is where those detailed charts and guidebooks come in. Make another trip to the library. See, for instance, whether it has Craig Crossen and Wil Tirion’s wonderful book “Binocular Astronomy.’’
Into the night Just for starters, here is a binocular astronomy project that you can do any clear evening this month.
Go out after dark, face south, and look almost straight overhead. The brilliant star there is Vega, pale blue-white. Take a look in your binoculars. How bright it blazes now! Vega is a sun larger and hotter than ours, 25 light-years away.
Compare the fainter stars around Vega to the chart here. Can you pick out the triangle-and-parallelogram pattern? That is the constellation Lyra. Not quite all of it will fit into your binoculars’ field of view at once.
Lyra has three fine double stars for binoculars: pairs of stars that slowly orbit around one another. Look to Vega’s left for Epsilon Lyrae. You will find it to be a lovely pair of white pinpoints close together and equally bright.
The third corner of the little triangle with Vega and Epsilon is Zeta Lyrae. This is a much closer pair, so it is a challenge: you may not be able to split it. The higher your binoculars’ power the better for this, and try lying on your back to steady their support.
Farther from Vega past Zeta is Delta Lyrae. This pair is wide, easy, and colorful. The brighter star is orange, the fainter one blue. You may also be able detect a scattering of much fainter stars right around them: the star cluster Stephenson 1.
Much farther down to the lower left (by about two binocular fields) is Albireo, another challenging tight double star. Its components are beautiful bright yellow and dimmer blue if you can manage to split them.
Back indoors, put the names into Wikipedia to learn all sorts of things about those deep cosmic wonders you just found. Welcome to amateur astronomy.
Alan M. MacRobert is a senior editor of Sky & Telescope magazine in Cambridge (SkyandTelescope.com). His Star Watch column appears the first Saturday of every month.