Getting a Start in Astronomy

Roberto Garza

For those of you who are both new to astronomy and to the club, I would like to help you get a good start. Most of you have seen photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, either on TV, in the newspaper, or perhaps in an astronomy magazine that crossed your path. Looking at these pictures triggered something inside you. Suddenly, you said to yourself, "Boy, I can see this. All I have to do is find an astronomy club, join up, and that's it! I will have all those fantastic images right in front of my eyes."

Nothing is further from the truth. To get those images of the deep sky, the professional astronomers and the telescope itself came a long way ... hundreds of years. What I am really trying to say is that to become an amateur astronomer requires some time. It implies that you have to make time to go and observe. You will put up with the frustration of not finding objects, and what is worse, not being able to even find the constellations. For this, a lot of patience is required. And what you see won't look anything like the Hubble images!

Okay, suppose you are ready to go through all of that. Then what you need is an instrument to enhance your view of the sky. Binoculars will do for starters. You will see the most obvious objects like the moon, Jupiter, Venus, Mars, and a few deep sky objects. After seeing them over and over again, you will get bored. This is understandable -- you have just passed the first stage and need to go to the next, which is to acquire a detailed sky atlas that will tell you where thousands of objects are exactly located. Now some time has passed and the sky atlas helped you to find a few more objects, but many that you wanted to observe have eluded you. Well, it's time to go to the next step: acquiring a telescope. A good 6-inch, f/8 reflector is the right one for many people. It will enable you to see hundreds of objects, and it will take you years before you outgrow it. I have seen people thinking of getting a telescope as a "toy for the kids" that they believe will cost them $20.00 or so. A telescope is not a toy, but it is a tool that can be used by anybody, even by children as young as five years old with parental supervision. But a good telescope is not cheap. To get a fair one requires an average of $300.00, plus $100.00 for one or two extra eyepieces. All this is the "basic".

Okay, suppose you already have all this, or more, and you only need to find a dark spot to observe. Here is where being a member of the club comes in handy. You can join some of the members when they go observing at the club's designated places. You set up your instrument and start trying to find something in the sky. After exhausting your resources, ask the experienced members for help -- I'm sure they will be delighted to aid you. This will surely encourage you to keep on searching for more new objects. It is also wise to log everything you see; this way you will have some reference for when you want to see them again.

There are many levels of interest in astronomy. Some people like to read about it in magazines. Other people learn about it through the programs on their computer. And there is the level where the enthusiasts rough it in the field. Some of us just observe, others take pictures either piggyback or through our telescopes, or take images with a CCD system. Sometimes this is done in winter's sub-zero temperatures, or in the middle of a swarm of mosquitoes in the summertime, hundreds of miles from home.

The club meetings are meant for members to socialize, compare notes, and exchange ideas. Seldom is a club program aimed at teaching astronomy, but if you keep your ears open and ask questions, you can learn a lot. Most of the effort still has to come from yourself. If you want to go beyond the "armchair astronomer" stage, any way you cut it, it is going to cost you some money, time, and patience. If you are willing to go through all of this, I am sure you will find an experienced member willing to guide you on which literature will enable you to learn how to buy, build, and use telescopes. The same applies to finding out about the accessories necessary for observing. The rest is up to you!

Published in the January 1998 issue of the NightTimes