Binocular girl
The beauty of the night sky appeals to young and old alike. (Gary Seronik)

Getting Started in Astronomy: Part 1

The universe is a vast, magnificent place. And it’s yours to explore on any clear night.

What’s up there to see? Do I need a telescope? Can I photograph stars? Questions like these are usually among the first that come to mind when you consider getting into astronomy. Our guide will help answer them and many more. Let’s get started!

Who Are We?

Backyard stargazers, or “amateur astronomers,” come from all walks of life. To become one, you don’t need to take a test, have a university degree or possess a special licence. All you need is curiosity and a desire to see what’s up there. You don’t even have to go “all in.” Some amateurs spend their nights trying to glimpse obscure galaxies with a big telescope, while others enjoy nothing more than kicking back to watch the stars slowly come out on a summer evening. How much or how little you do is entirely up to you. There’s only one proviso: If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

Look Up . . . Look Waaay Up

Although many people assume that you need a telescope to enjoy astronomy, that’s not always true. Plenty of sights are best seen with just your eyes. Constellations, meteor showers, the northern lights, Earth-orbiting satellites and conjunctions of the Moon and planets are best experienced without optical aid.

Dyer - Big Dipper
One of the most recognizable star patterns in the northern sky is the Big Dipper, which is part of a constellation known as Ursa Major, the Great Bear. This photograph shows some stars too faint to be seen with unaided eyes alone. (Alan Dyer)

Tracing the constellations is a particularly enjoyable way to become involved in astronomy. A star map showing the current season’s sky, a dim red flashlight (to preserve your night vision) and a comfortable chaise longue are the only equipment you really need. Different constellations are visible throughout the night and at different times of the year. Indeed, once you start paying attention, you’ll find the passing seasons are as easily recognized by the march of constellations across the sky as by changes in the weather.

Big Dipper chart
A chart like this one, found in each issue of SkyNews, is indispensable for identifying constellations.

Learning the constellations is also a very helpful step if you decide to explore the sky with binoculars or a telescope. Think of the constellations as celestial countries. In the same way you couldn’t visit Toronto without knowing that it’s a city in Ontario, in a country called Canada, you couldn’t point to a star like Betelgeuse or Rigel without first being able to identify Orion, the winter constellation in which these stars reside. When you’re familiar with the main constellations in each season, finding individual stars, clusters, galaxies and nebulas becomes much easier.

Blinded by the Light

Most people live in or near a major city. So the night sky that the majority of us see is badly compromised by light pollution, which illuminates the air above us. The resulting glow washes out all but the brightest stars. Light pollution is the single greatest barrier to being able to appreciate the wonders of the universe from your backyard. If you’ve ever been under a truly dark country sky on a moonless night, you already know that the difference can be like night and day. Because of the wide effects of light pollution today compared with when our grandparents were young, avid stargazers travel far from home to use their telescopes.

North America at night
Utilizing data acquired in 2012, this NASA image of North America at night clearly illustrates the amount of light sent out into space rather than down on the ground where it’s needed.
(Earth Observatory/NASA)

Light pollution is pure waste spread brightly across the sky, the result of poorly designed outdoor light fixtures or ill-considered lighting strategies that allow excessive “light spill.” It consumes tremendous amounts of electricity annually and produces no benefits. Indeed, quite the contrary. Studies have shown that excessive night lighting has serious health consequences for humans, detrimentally affects the behaviour of nocturnal animals and alters the migratory patterns of birds. And yet it’s largely preventable. If you’d like to learn more about light pollution and what you can do to reduce it, visit the website of the International Dark-Sky Association.

Getting Started in Astronomy: Part 2
Getting Started in Astronomy: Part 3
Getting Started in Astronomy: Part 4