How To Get Started In Amateur Astronomy
I'm an amateur astronomer. A pretty old amateur astronomer as it happens.
I've been into astronomy since I was perhaps 10 or 12 years old. Like some of
you, the bug for astronomy hit me early. I think it's because children who live
where it's possible to see a rich night sky are just naturally curious when
they look up at a night sky aglow with stars. Since I grew up in a small town,
the stars dominated the night sky.
I was fortunate that my parents encouraged my fascination, buying me a
couple of small telescopes in my childhood. Not super instruments, understand.
One was a little 2.5 inch Newtonian reflector made by Gilbert, shown here at Uncle
Rod's Astro Blog. I remember one summer I was working at our small town
filling station, and had my little Gilbert set up to view a partial solar
eclipse. The little Gilbert showed the eclipse by projecting the sun's image on
a little plastic screen housed in a plastic funnel that fit over the eyepiece.
A few passers-by stopped and looked, giving me a source of pride.
The other telescope my folks bought me was a little Moon
Watch telescope. Mine wasn't like the ones pictured at the referenced site,
but a little 50mm elbow telescope mounted on a small but sturdy Altazimuth
stand. Modest, but I saw a lot with that little telescope. It was useful for
looking at star fields, and I saw a few open clusters with it. I looked
at the moon often with it. At only 7x magnification, it showed little
detail, but the image was clear and the Mare with their subtle
shades were always fascinating.
By the time I entered high school, I had somewhat outgrown my modest
equipment, and was ready for something bigger. I got interested in ATM
(Amateur Telescope Making), and decided to make a DIY telescope. Involved
with that project was the need for my own DIY telescope tripod. At that
time, what was available were optics and parts for a homemade reflector
telescope, a big (to me) 6 inch f/12 Newtonian reflector. The tripod was
made of pipe fittings, and was just capable of handling the Newtonian.
This site describes more of my experience in the world of amateur astronomy,
and tries to offer some tutorials on telescope types, mount types, several do
it yourself projects, and even a few astro-photography pointers. The site is
designed for those who are beginning their venture into astronomy, or who have
interest in small telescopes regardless of their experience level. If for
whatever reason you have interest in small telescope astronomy, enjoy this site
for some practical information on the use of small telescopes. Also consider
the very popular NightWatch:
A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe as a way to gently but significantly punch up your
If you're on a budget, or handy at projects, you can make the DIY Refractor
Telescope or the DIY
Telescope Tripod. Other do it yourself projects include how to make a DIY Piggypack Camera
Adapter and a Make
Your Own Astrocamera. Another good option for the budget minded is to look
for bargain priced old 60mm refractors. The 60mm telescopes of old were
actually well built telescopes, and can be refurbished to be fine performers.
Look at Monolux
Review for a sense of what refurbishing an old 60 or 70mm might be
As proof that small telescopes can provide wondrous entertainment, I present
pages of observations and photographs of the moon and planets taken through
instruments as small as 2 inch (50mm) aperture, and no bigger than 6 inch
(150mm). Take some time to view the picture pages, and see if these images
through modest sized telescopes convince you of the power of small optics. Try
your hand at astro-photography for a real challenge, and a real thrill.
Though I've been an amateur astronomer for some 45 years (and a professional
astronomer for some of that time), I primarily use small and modest sized
telescopes. I started the hobby with my copy of Norton's
Star Atlas and Reference Handbook, using it and my Moon Watch telescope to locate
many rich star fields and Messier objects. From
there I moved up bit at a time.
From the very long f/12 six inch Newtonian that I assembled from parts, I
leaped into a 10 inch Newtonian project my biggest DIY telescope project. I
purchased the finished mirror from an individual's ad in a magazine. The 10
inch was my biggest bout with Aperture Fever. From
there I downsized to a homemade 8 inch f/5.5 Newtonian, building it with a
hand-made mirror made by a friend of mine.
After many years with the 8 inch as my primary telescope, I finally got rid
of it and purchased a few professionally made telescopes, hoping I'd get better
products than I'd been able to construct. In my case I probably did, because
other than some successful tweaks I've made to telescopes, my own ATM skills
are a bit meager. Now my biggest instruments are a pair of 6 inch Newtonians.
One is a 6 inch short focus Newtonian, similar to the Orion
9827 AstroView 6 Equatorial Reflector Telescope, and the other is a long focus 6 inch Newtonian,
longer even than the Orion
8944 SkyQuest XT6 Classic Dobsonian Telescope. The combination works well, in that both have
moderate sized aperture which can deliver a lot of targets, and one is great at
wide field targets, the other for high resolution observing.
While my 6 inch Newtonians are my big guns, I often use a Meade ETX-90
because of its charm and convenience, an earlier version of the Meade
Instruments ETX90 Observer Maksutov-Cassegrain Telescope with Tripod. I still own and use a small 2 inch Jaegers
refractor and two classic 60mm Japanese make refractors for their crisp
views, low maintenance, and quick cool down times. One is a 60mm x 700mm medium
refractor, and the other a longer 60mm x 1000mm Carton refractor,
constructed from parts. More recently I've added a Celestron NexStar
5SE, and a Vixen A70lf
And yes, I even use binoculars for stargazing, comet viewing, and special
celestial events. My favorite pair is my 15x70 Barska
Binoculars which is mounted on a handy mirror mount. It may surprise you
that many experienced amateur astronomers make considerable use of small
telescopes as small as the venerable 60mm refractor or binoculars. My Barska
binoculars weren't that expensive for what they deliver, and I notice that the
SkyMaster Giant 15x70 Binoculars with Tripod Adapter are very much like my Barska binoculars, and also at
a very affordable price. Binoculars are an easy and inexpensive way to get
started in astronomy.
Above you see results of the Amateur Astronomer Survey which shows that fully half of the amateur
astronomers who took the survey not only use binoculars in their hobby, but
often use binoculars. Consider clicking on the survey link and
adding your input to the database.
Still haven't purchased that first telescope?
In case you're considering a telescope purchase, I've created tutorials that
layout the basic characteristics of four major types of telescopes used by
amateur astronomers, as well as some information on binoculars. There are
certainly more telescope types out there, but the ones I give details about are
by far the most common. The telescope types discussed in the tutorials are the
refractor, the Newtonian equatorial, the Dobsonian, and the Cassegrain (2
types). If you want more detailed information about the astronomy hobby,
check out The Backyard Astronomer's Guide. It will give more detailed guidelines about what telescope may be right for you.
If you haven't purchased a telescope yet, check out the following tutorials
before you shop: Telescope Overview, or
the specific tutorials on Refractors, Newtonians, Dobsonians, Cassegrains, and Telescope Mounts .
Hopefully, these telescope tutorials will help you get a feel for what type
of instrument you need for what you enjoy or think you'll enjoy viewing, and
reveal approximately what it might cost to satisfy your interests. Most of the
information presented is obtained from my personal experience. Once you select
a telescope, or even if you already have one, consider getting a good book on
how and what to observe, like the very popular Turn
Left at Orion. A source like that will really help get you off on
the right foot, or left foot if that's your preference.
If you have logged a bit of time as an amateur astronomer, I invite you to
take the Amateur Astronomer Survey,
and see what most amateur astronomers are up to.
Some Telescope Shopping Suggestions
If you're just getting started, I strongly suggest that you begin modestly,
as the Astronomy
101 t-shirt design suggest. Wait until dark, then look up. For starters
(and for optics you'll use for years) consider a quality pair of binoculars. I
often use a pair of 15x70 binoculars, and can see most Messier objects with
them, though you may want to start with a 7x50 pair. Binoculars that magnify
over 10 times cannot really be hand held, and must be on some kind of stable
mount, so don't over buy.
With binoculars I can see all the Messier open clusters, several nebula, and
a number of galaxies. The galaxies aren't full blown as in photographs, but
show as soft fuzzy clouds. Still amazing, when you consider that even the closest are perhaps 2 million light years away.
My best comet views have been obtained with binoculars, and I've had very
enjoyable views of special celestial events, such as the crescent moon passing
near the Pleiades, and lunar eclipses are very enjoyable through binoculars.
Only the planetary nebula and small globular clusters are poor targets for
my binoculars. The objects are not too dim, just too small to be distinguished
If you're a do-it-yourself type of person, you may want to consider making
your own telescope. This can be a total project where you even grind your own
mirror, or a less strenuous project where you purchase the optics already made.
If you want to build your own telescope, check out the Dobsonian plans at Dobsonian Plans. It's a doable thing,
especially if you like to work with your hands. I've ground a mirror from
scratch, a 6 inch f/4.5. I'd say it was a successful effort, and made a
nice wide field telescope that I used for a few years.
I often use a small, 50mm telescope refractor. At f/15, my 50mm Jaegers
provides surprisingly good images of the moon, planets, and countless star
objects. Some photos taken through it and a 135mm telephoto lens are found here. The 50mm's main
limitation is its limited ability to resolve the dimmer galaxies, though some
practiced observers can even detect many of those with a small instrument.
I still use my 50mm because I happen to have a Mylar solar filter that fits
it, so it's my primary solar instrument (don't ever look at the sun without
a properly filtered telescope). So don't feel that you must buy the biggest
telescope in the store. You can have years of entertainment with much smaller
and less expensive equipment.
Where can you get more information?
There are many places to get more information on the subject of
telescopes and observing. Web searches, for one. It won't be easy, in that on
the web you'll see many different opinions. Each of us inevitably cloud our
advice with our own preferences. The fact that the advice offered by
different writers varies doesn't make any of them wrong, it's just that each
person has different hobby needs that he or she wishes to fulfill.
A good site for the beginner astronomer is Beginner's Guide To
Astronomy. There you'll find information tidbits on telescopes, observing,
and available observing targets for different times of the year.
Over the years I've accumulated a nice collection of astronomy and telescope
books in search of information, and I really enjoy reading them. I'll be
surprised if you don't eventually accumulate your own collection. You might
begin your search at ABEbooks. Their site
connects you to hundreds of new and used bookstores, and I'm sure you can find
some bargains there.
Speaking of books, some freely available public domain books are
available for instant download at the Gutenberg Astronomy
Shelf. While some of this information is dated, the ones on astronomy
history are still a good read, as well as are the observing guides.
If you want to know what's happening in the astronomy world, a web source of
up to date astronomical news that will keep you up to date can be found at:
Universe Today - Space news from around the Internet, updated every weekday.
What's It All About?
What many people like about astronomy as a hobby is that each night can be
an adventure. There are always the old friends up there, constellations and
stars that return each season. But there's always change as well. The planets
get closer, then further away. Jupiter has its moons move across its surface
for entertaining (and scientifically valuable) displays, not to mention storms
so vast that even amateur sized telescopes can see them.
Saturn flaunts its rings in varying configurations over the years, and each
Mars opposition has surprises. You'll definitely regret missing an encounter
with a comet, since many will never return within your lifetime. I invite you
to periodically check out my Tonight's Sky page to see what's upcoming each evening.