Astronomy For Beginners
Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another.
A night sky is a wonderful place, so familiar but so unknown. We humans have always been fascinated by the stars, planets, meteorites, comets, and much more. Right from the advent of the human race, our species was always curious about knowing the heavens above us. The word astronomy comes from a combination of two ancient Greek words: Astron meaning ‘star’ and omous meaning ‘arranging’, i.e ‘star-arranging’ or studying the patterns of the stars. This science has been with us since the dawn of humanity and in the last few centuries we have achieved a lot but we have a long way to go. Now when you hear about astronomy, many of us think that astronomy is about telescope, physics, complicated mathematics. And this repels people from this field. While it is true for an astronomer, but for a beginner, astronomy is more of stargazing, cool concept knowledge.
Beginner Astronomy: explore the skies with your eyes
Beginner astronomy or amateur astronomy is to study the night sky with the help of stars, constellations with/without the aid of a telescope or a binocular. Basically, it is for appreciating the beauty of the night sky and contemplating the vastness of the cosmos.
Now let’s talk about how to get started, first by what we need. No no, I am not going to talk about expensive telescope/binoculars because astronomy is just you and a clear night sky. If you don’t believe me then here is a list of what you can see with naked eyes and clear skies.
The five naked-eye planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn)
Many constellations like Orion (winters), Ursa Major, etc.
DSO (deep sky objects) like Dumbbell nebulae, Pleiades cluster, etc.
Meteor showers (like Geminids).
And much more.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, there are about 90 DSOs (Deep-sky object) that you can see without the help of any telescope. Now let’s go to the other things needed for your voyage.
The Faith in Our Stars
Consider the night sky as a big map and the stars as the well-known places. They help us in finding the ‘difficult to find’ places. So you need to be friends with the stars and the patterns they make (constellations). For this you need a basics knowledge of astronomical concepts like the celestial sphere, azimuth, right ascension, declination, and also the knowledge about the luminosity of the celestial body comes in handy.
Astronomy is much more fun when you are not an astronomer.
And for that you don’t need to worry, the internet has plenty of resources from where you can read about them and get familiar with the basics. These things help you in navigating the night sky with ease. Also if possible grab yourself a star atlas which is easily available on the various online stores but if you don’t want to spend any money then you can download the planetarium apps available for android/ios/windows.
Astronomy ≠ Expensive Telescopes
Many beginners think that ‘If I am doing astronomy, it means I need an expensive telescope’. The simple and straight answer is NO. A lot of awesome things can be seen without it. As mentioned above you can watch a lot without telescopes. But if you really need an optical aid, I would suggest you to go for binoculars, they are great for beginners and provide a large FOV (Field of View). Telescopes are used to focus on hard to locate places. Beginners can go to that a bit later.
Playing around with binoculars is fun because of two things first it is easy to operate and second it provides a closer view to the stars and planets and if you are lucky then you can also see some DSO very clearly with binoculars.
Jupiter and moon as seen from binoculars
For astronomy, the larger the front lenses the better. High optical quality is also important, more than the binoculars that are used for terrestrial viewing. Modern image-stabilized binoculars are a gift for astronomy. But any binoculars that are already knocking around the back of your closet are enough to launch an amateur-astronomy career.
Make Your Own Astronomy Notebook
You can also make an astronomy notebook which has helped a lot of beginner astronomers. You may not have an expensive camera (If you have then well and good!), so sketches of your observations give you confidence and a sense of achievement. In fact when Galileo first observed the planets, moons he made detailed sketches of them, which helped him to conduct a detailed study. Many other astronomers who came after him used the same method until the invention of the camera. So it’s a good little add-on to your astronomy journey. Keep all the details like the date, weather conditions, and also the time of observation. You will feel like Galileo himself!
Very basic astrophotography could be done using just your simple phone camera and a tripod (homemade) and it’s fun you can capture star trails, many constellations, moon, etc only with your phone camera. A tripod could be using plastic bottles or anything to provide support to the camera or you can use any rigid support to stop your camera from shaking.
Star Trail Photography
Star trails are formed due to the motion of the earth as a result the light from the stars leaves a trail pattern in the photo. These types of pictures require a lot of time, patience, and post-processing. But the final result is soothing to the eyes. A very basic method is explained here.
Find a place with limited light pollution.
Set up your homemade tripod or the purchased one on a rigid surface.
Fix the camera and aim towards the stars.
General Settings: ISO: 400-800, WB: anything Shutter speed: 32s.
Play a bit with the settings to figure out the best for your surroundings.
Take continuous shots for about 45-60 minutes without shaking the tripod you could also use apps available on the play store/app store.
Use software like Photoshop or Gimp to stack all the images.
The most remarkable discovery in all of astronomy is that the stars are made of atoms of the same kind as those on the earth.
Richard P. Feynman
Another great object for amateur astrophotography, the constellations like Orion, Big dipper, small dipper, etc are very easy to find and we can capture them very easily with our phone cameras. Just point your camera towards the constellation mounted on a tripod. Adjust the ISO, shutter speed, and white balance and bam! There you go. As usual, there are many tutorials available, so go and check it out.
Orion in the February sky at Uttarakhand, India
The Final Verdict
Astronomy teaches you to be humble. It happens when we fail to make observations despite planning everything and it’s completely okay. You need to learn from your failures and start from a fresh page. And many times there are clouds and certain weather conditions that spoil your viewing session. Don’t piss yourself, just take a deep breath and relax. And despite whatever instrument you purchase there are going to be some limitations in it because a perfect instrument doesn’t exist. The whole point of astronomy is to make the most out of the things that you have and appreciating the beauty of the cosmos.
As a beginner astronomer, you are just taking your baby steps, no need to rush the things, take it easy and slow. It’s all about learning and having fun.
Learn to take pleasure in whatever your instrument can indeed show you.
“It's been said that astronomy is a humbling and, I might add, a character-building experience.” -Carl Sagan
So keep looking up space cowboy!