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Dark Skies
Star Parties
Solar System
Light Pollution


Introduction to Astronomical Observing  


Astronomy is the scientific study of the planets, stars, galaxies and the universe. An astronomer is an individual who has an educational background and profession that relates to astronomy. There are many branches or specialties in the field of astronomy.

An amateur astronomer is an individual who studies astronomy as a hobby. There are thousands of amateur astronomer all over the earth. Some are casual and devote a few hours a year to the subject. Others devote many hours a week to their hobby.

Amateur astronomers have contributed significantly to the field. In fact, according to NASA, Amateur astronomers watching coronagraph movies on the web are responsible for nearly all of the new finds of comets near the Sun in SOHO images this year. Imagine discovering a major commit and having it named after you. This happened to Alan Hale and Tom Bopp when they both discovered a comet that you may know as Hale-Bopp!

  Observing is the process of looking out into the universe. We can observer at night or during the day, however most observation happens at night. We can observer with just our eyes, with binoculars, telescopes, radio telescopes. There are many wonders to look at.  
  Learning about the night sky is a rewarding experience. The best place to start is learning the constellations, how and when to find them. Start with the easy ones like the big dipper, Orion, and Cygnus. The important thing is to understand that the stars and constellations have seasons. Certain constellations are visible at night during certain times of the year. In fact the zodiacal constellations each have months associated with them because that is the time they are overhead. The next step is to use those constellations to find the planets, globular clusters, open clusters, planetary nebulas, galaxies , variable stars, double stars... While the planets move from constellation to constellation, the clusters, galaxies and nebulas stay put. M13 the great globular cluster will always be in Hercules.  
  Constellations - This is a great place to start. There are a lot of books that can help you learn the constellations. Also consider picking up a planisphere. These are great tools for learning the constellations since they can be set to the current day and time and show you what is up there "now".  
  Star Hopping - Once we learn the constellations and some star names, we can hop from star to star to find other items. For example if I say Saturn is in Gemini, most armatures will know which direction to look. The Orion nebula is the middle star in the sword of Orion. When you look through the telescope you will see there is more than one star there. On a clear night you can see five stars and a cloud of celestial gasses. It is one of my favorite objects to look at through a telescope.  
  The Moon - The Moon is a great first object to study. It is very easy to find, and there is a lot of detail to see. A very rewarding time with minimal effort. For the best views of the moon through a telescope you should choose a night when the moon is not full. Looking a the line between shadow and light will give the best contrast. That is where the sun is setting on the moon so the shadows are the longest.  
  The Planets - Some of the planets are easy targets too. They also can reap rewarding views with somewhat minimal effort. Knowing where the planets are also impresses friends when out at night. You can say "hey, look at Saturn" and point to it. Looking at Saturn through a telescope for the first time is one of the greatest experiences for just about every observer.  
  Deep Space - Deep space objects are more difficult to find and sometime difficult to see even after you find them. The cool thing is that once you do, you will be looking at something extraordinary in the cosmic sense. For example globular clusters have hundreds of thousands of stars. Nebulae are clouds of gas blown off of stars, or from stars that have exploded. Galaxies are the most difficult to see but have up to trillions of stars!  
  Equipment - You already have the first equipment you need to start observing, your eyes. Start out learning the constellations, where the planets are, when the moon rises and sets. There is a lot to see with just your eyes. Binoculars are also a good first investment. There are a lot of things that can be seen with binoculars. If you have a pair go out and look at the moon, pan around the sky, you will be surprised how many stars there are. A telescope is the obvious next investment.  
  Books - There are a few good books that can get you started. We have a list of our favorites here.  

Where to get more information - Visit your local astronomy club. When I was starting out I learned more about astronomy and telescopes from the club than I could in any book. Members showed me their telescopes, discussed different models, showed me around the night sky. I am happy I went to the club before I purchased a telescope because the one I had in mind was the wrong type for what I enjoy doing.

Another great place to learn about telescopes is at Star Parties. These events are held all over the country and the world. There are a few dozen up to hundreds of amateur astronomers at these events.


We hope you will use these pages to learn about astronomy. These pages are meant to introduce you to astronomy and get you started observing the night skies with a telescope. Use the menus on the left to navigate to other astronomy topics.


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