Getting Started

New year, new hobbies.

New series of BBC Stargazing Live.

Just this past weekend the Guardian published a story about the rise of Astronomy as a hobby in the UK.

How to get started then?  What should you do? How do you go about getting into astronomy as a past time? How do I not get overwhelmed?

There is plenty of advice out there and a quick glance at the shelves of a newsagents will put copies of Astronomy Now, Sky at Night, All about Space, Astronomy and Sky and Telescope in to your eager hands, and full of good advice, useful adverts and interesting stories they are.  There are also various websites that will fill hours of your time with hints and tips, useful stories and good demo videos.  See my recent ‘new telescope’ list of sites here.

Then of course there are books by the shelf full- Phillip’s massive catalogue of guides is usually a great place to begin, as is “Turn Left at Orion” – considered a bit of a bible amongst amateurs.

To add to all this  here is my tuppence worth…

Start small.  Start slowly

The universe is a vast place.  It is also not going anywhere.  Well ok it’s racing off in all directions at incredible speeds, but it’s all relative and from our back garden vantage point the Sky is not about to radically change before you can look at it.  You don’t need to purchase a large all singing telescope on day one.  It will frustrate you, not do what you want it to do and 6 months later you will have a very expensive astro-themed clothes dryer taking up space in your house.

Begin with you own eyes and perhaps a pair of binoculars.  You are not going to learn the sky overnight, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it.  Get out side, look up and take it in.  You will be following in the footsteps of the first great astronomy explorers and when you have armed yourself with a simple map or planisphere you can start putting names to the things you find.

Astronomy Binoculars

My faithful CZ 10x50s. We’ve explored the universe together for almost 3 decades!

Binoculars on a tripod are a fantastic way to get going, I bought my 10x50s thirty years ago and still use them – some objects look better in binos than in a telescope.

Try before you buy.

There are a huge number of very friendly, very knowledgeable astronomy groups and societies out there.  A good list can be found here at Active Astronomy.  Going along to a meet or an open day, talking to other amateurs and trying out telescopes is a must.  Most astronomers are very willing to share their telescopes with a new comer and talk about how it all works and how they got started.  If you have money for a telescope burning a hole in your pocket, go to a showroom by all means, but you cannot beat seeing it all for real, under a night sky.

My 5" Mak

My 5″ Mak

In London do pop along to The Baker Street Irregular Astronomers in Regent’s Park.  Free monthly meets, all ages and experience welcome- we have first time novices at every meet and a wealth of experience to share.  Come have a coffee!

Keep expectations in check. (aka The Hubble effect!)

Arguably the greatest telescope ever built (not the biggest or best, but..) is the HST, The Hubble Space Telescope.  The images it has created will be poured over for many, many years to come and will fill books on space and science long after the people who built it have gone.  But this is a telescope costing billions, sitting in Earth orbit, run by a group of the world’s largest space agencies.  You will not get the same results with a small scope in your suburban back garden.  No reason to lose heart.  You can still see many of the same things from your garden and that in itself is an amazing and breath-taking experience.  Compare below M42 as seen by Hubble and as seen in my own 5″ scope in a light polluted London.  Remember, the Hubble images are processed and coloured.  What you see in your eyepiece is real, the actual light racing through space on to your retina.  Incredible stuff.

M42 orion Nebula

M42 -That ‘smudge’ in a London Sky through the Authors telescope.

Orion Nebula

M42 through the Hubble! NASA/ESA

Don’t try to do everything at once.

You want to image the Andromeda Galaxy, you want to do spectroscopy, you want to do solar astronomy with Hydrogen Alpha, you want to do a film of Jupiter’s moons, you want to draw the craters of the moon.  Great!  Astronomy is a vast hobby with many strands.  I’m an observer and sketcher, friends of mine are incredible imagers with all the latest electronic gizmos.  But what we all have in common is that we started small and didn’t rush to do it all.  Like buying an expensive scope on day one, attempting something exciting and complex will often end in disaster and frustration.  Take advice, get to know the sky, read up on the area which interests you and like with Hubble, don’t get disheartened when your efforts don’t look like those of the more experienced – remember they started as you did with blurry images, smudged sketches and wobbly films.

Most of all enjoy it.

Wrap up warm, stay comfortable sit back and let the night sky wash over you.  Being overwhelmed and in awe of it all is not the feeling of just the beginner, the Universe does it to us all.

Astrocamp 2012 telescopes

Astrocamp 2012

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2012 – That was the year that was

938,900,000 km at 30km/s. It’s quite a ride when you think about it. Throw in 366 rotations at an equatorial speed of 1,674.4 km/h and the whole thing sounds pretty hair raising.

2012. It’s almost over and another arbitrarily set New Year is upon us. So here goes the Astronomer’s Den 10 big moments of the astronomy year…some shared, some personal.

Three heavenly moments.

Spring time conjunction…

In the UK the weather this year has been appalling and we seem to be odds on for our wettest year on record, but it didn’t begin like this and the first three months of the year were some of the driest we have ever had and with that came clear crisp air and views night after night of a spectacular conjunction between the skies two brightest planets- Jupiter and Venus. We watched them move together in the purple evening sky and just when we though it couldn’t get any more beautiful they were joined by the moon. Truly breath taking sight and one that got many looking up.

Venus and Jupiter

The King meets a Goddess…Venus and Jupiter 13th March 2012

The Transit….

The weather played havoc with my next big moment but it was an example of perseverance and optimism triumphing in the face of adversity. The view of the last Transit of Venus for 117 years was always going to be limited from London on a clear, perfect day but we were very far from that. A hardy band from the Baker Street Irregulars and others had gathered in my classroom to watch the live NASA feed from Hawaii and await our time at dawn. The clouds covered us all night, we placed our telescopes out more in hope than expectation, but….well read here to find out what happened….

Waiting for the Transit

Waiting for the Transit

Galaxy watching in Devon…

This one is very much a personal moment and was one of those nights of astronomy that you are lucky to have from time to time. Perfect skies, no moon, one of the darkest skies in the UK and stunning views of galaxies far, far away…oh and there was some noctilucent cloud on view just to cap it all!

M64 Galaxy Black eye galaxy

The Black Eye Galaxy M64

Three moments in space.


Place one in this section has to go to the Mars Science Laboratory/ Curiosity landing in the Summer. Hands up who didn’t think it would work? I was privileged enough to witness the landing at the Natural History Museum in London along with a group of hardy and early rising astronomers and planetary scientists and I don’t think i have ever heard such a big sigh of relief

Dr Peter Grindrod, Dr Joseph Michalski, Dr Matthew Balme

Everyones an expert eh?

50 years of UK space…

An amazing anniversary was marked this year. We were third in space and while at time the presence has been small the UK has always been there and it was a history to be proud of and read about. But the best for UK space was yet to come…

Lift off!  Black Arrow in 1971. (Photo Via Britain in Space)

Lift off! Black Arrow in 1971. (Photo Via Britain in Space)

oh and 20 million for Orion…”

While other nations in Europe were looking to scale back and trim budgets the UK did quite the reverse and increased our space budget. Not only that the UK put funds into manned space programs reversing a decades old policy set against the idea. The biggest surprise though was £20 million for the Orion space craft. The UK government finally seems serious about space.


UKSA just got bigger!

Three stars that faded.

Father of Radio Astronomy…

He was a giant in not just the UK but also the world astronomy community. The debt science and mankind owes Sir Bernard Lovell is immense and or course Jodrell Bank is a modern masterpiece and as much a part of our cultural landscape as Stonehenge or Big Ben.

Sir Bernard Lovell Dies aged 98

Lovell with Lovell. A legend with his masterpiece.

Man on the Moon…

Neil Armstrong. What else can I add? One of the 20th Centuries greatest icons and one of the best of us.

Neil Armstrong smile

The Human Experience. NASA


We knew it was coming and if you had seen The Sky at Night recently it was obvious Patrick Moore was not well, but the news hit the UK astronomy community hard. The greatest astronomy educator, inspiration to several generations of amateurs and professionals and a wonderful story teller – and it was an incredible story he was telling us – was dead.

Patrick Moore

In at number 1…

While I have grouped the previous nine by type and not in any particular order my last big moment is also my biggest. It to some degree is a personal one but it was something that was shared first with everyone who came and then with the wider audience of the BBC Sky at Night. The first AstroCamp was a triumph even if I may be a little bias (!) and I am not sure Ralph, Tom and myself have yet to fully come down from the happy cloud we have been on since. It was a fantastic weekend and it was made by all the amazing people who came along and shared astronomy.

Astrocamp 2012 telescopes

Astrocamp 2012

All that remains is to say is Happy New Year everyone, thanks for reading and may I wish you all clear skies, good seeing, clean optics and a universe full of wonder to explore!

Posted in Astronomy, British Space, Irregular Astro Camp 2012, Jodrell Bank, Mars, Moon, NASA, Orion, Patrick Moore, Space Flight, Space Station, Telescope, The Astronomer's Den, Transit of Venus, Venus, Weather | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to use a telescope…

Well Merry Christmas everyone!

Christmas Tree Nebula

Galactic Christmas Tree – NGC2264 (NASA)

I hope you are having a happy and fun filled one.  I will be beavering away in the kitchen to rustle up lunch and indulging a couple of medicinal sherry’s along the way, while the OH and scamp bury themselves in wrapping paper.

So did you get a telescope? I hope many of you did, or know some one who did.  Below is a list of links to point you in the right direction and get you started with your new pride and joy.

Remember telescopes can be extremely frustrating to begin with, they have quirks, they often seem designed to point at anything but the object you want!  I would say dive straight in and play, but don’t get too annoyed when you are not getting perfect, hubble-esque views of distant nebula on your first night.  It all takes practice, you will need many goes and don’t be suprised if a year passes before you are really doing the astronomy you’ve been dreaming of.


Any way on with the list!

Active Astronomy

Absolute Astronomy

Astronomy Wise ezine

Astronomy Today

Space: The Final Frontier

Astronomy Education

How to Enjoy Your New Telescope: Advice for Beginner Skywatchers from

The Awesome Astronomy Podcast

Find your nearest astronomy society!

And of course if you really want to learn how to use your telescope then join us at AstroCamp in May!

Christmas Tree

Not NGC2264 (Author)

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The End of the World!

2.5 Million stars will explode on Friday.

Tycho Supernova

Supernova (NASA)

Across the Universe there will approximately 30 supernovas a second.

All day.

Right across the sky, where ever you look stars will be dying.  Tearing themselves apart in world shattering explosions.

Sending out vast amounts of radiation, some forming blackholes and others vast glowing nebula.  Whole planetary systems destroyed and consumed in an instant.

All day long.

And the meteorites…

Perseid Meteor 2012

Meteors (Guardian)

All around us the meteorites will be landing.  If you looked carefully you would have seen 20,000 >100g meteorites hit the Earth’s surface in the last year.

Over 50 will hit us on Friday.

2 meteorites an hour hitting our planet.

Bringing material from the depths of space, with it’s different isoptopes and ancient deposits.  Some of it will be from the beginning of the Solar System.  Some from even before that.

Then there is the Sun.

Sun neutrinos

The Sun taken through the Earth by the SuperK Neutrino detector

On Friday it will crush mercilessly 600 million tons of Hydrogen every second.  All day long.  While we sit here under its gaze it will have turned 51840000000000 tons of hydrogen into helium through out the day and as a result will have unleashed vast amounts of radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum, much of it harmful to life on Earth.  The weather will be affected, storms created, winds generated and water will evaporate.

All of this will happen on Friday 21st December 2012.

None of it will mean the end of the World.

All of this happens everyday.

Pretty amazing place the Universe isn’t it?

Now stop worrying and enjoy the rest of the week.

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That is all it is.

Tiny particles of dust vaporising in the atmosphere.

Geminid meteors

Geminids. John Chumack

They look so bright, appear to fall so far and in the scale of the human mind that struggles to comprehend anything beyond 600 metres away they loom large. Something so fast and bright must be massive.

But it’s mostly dust, little flakes, tiny grains like sand.

Like most things in the universe, the scale and size of what we see confounds us.

Above us now the Geminids are falling, even in the middle of London on a hazy, misty winters night they have been visible.

I say that dust is all it is but that probably misses the point.

What you are seeing is debris, the result of an ‘event’. Every time you see a Geminid you are witnessing the end of little piece of Solar System history, a collision that has produced a curiosity that leaves a trail of dust in the path of our planet.

Most meteor showers we witness are the debris trail from passing comets.  The Orionids belong to the famous Halley, Perseids to Swift-Tutle.  All that material we see albating to form the coma and then extending for thousands of kilometres behind the comet doesn’t vanish into the vacuum of space.  There it sits tracing out the orbit of its parent body and along comes Earth crashing through and we see the result streaking though the sky on a dark clear night. Dust vaporising in the atmosphere.

But the Geminids are different.  This is not comet debris.  It’s been a shower that has always been curious with its bright slow moving meteors.  While the Perseids were first recorded in 36AD the Geminids were only noticed in 1862 and the parent comet was a total mystery.  The culprit for the debris trail was discovered in 1983 by two UK scientists Simon Green and John Davies using the IRAS or Infra-red Astronomical Satellite.  Named 3200 Paethon, this was no comet but an asteroid.

Arecibo radar image of asteroid 3200 Phaethon

Arecibo radar image of 3200 Paethon Credit: Arecibo/Cornell

But the curiosity doesn’t end there. This is an asteroid that appears to follow a comet like orbit, making it one of a group of asteroids that come closest to the Sun.  It crosses the orbits of Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury and comes as close as 0.140 AU to the Sun at perihelion.  This has earned it the nickname of ‘rock comet’.

Near Earth Apollo asteroid 3200 Phaethon

3200 Phaethon’s Orbit. Credit: Thierry Lombry

The story still has one more twist.  3200 Paethon, classified as an Apollo asteroid is also thought to be a member of the Pallas Family.  This group of dark class B asteroids are all thought to have originated from the Dwarf Planet 2Pallas, probably from one or more impact events as ejecta.

So above your head, vaporising into Earth’s atmosphere is the dust from another world, a proto-world, a remnant of the early years of the Solar System.

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A Baker Street Christmas

We had a wonderful christmas gathering last night and paid tribute to Sir Patrick Moore.

Patrick Moore Tribute Baker Street Astronomers

For Patrick

I have blogged about it here at the Baker Street Irregular Astronomers website.

More pictures of a moving and wonderful occasion here via Philip Stobbart.

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It was one of those coincidences.  I was perhaps 500 yards from where I met him when I heard and it was the person who had taken me to meet him who told me the news.

It’s an amusement arcade now I think.  Tucked in the corner of the bus station next to Lloyds Bank.

But three decades ago it was Stevenage Bookshop.  A tiny, cosy, dimly lit sanctuary of literature in the bustling centre of the New Town.  It was here almost 30 years ago that I was taken by my Father, shepherded inside between the tightly packed shelves and made to wait patiently to meet Patrick, clutching my copy of ‘Astronomy for the Under 10s’.

I remember being nervous and shy, but when I was introduced he was warm, friendly, interested in what I wanted to ask him and gave me answers that have stuck with me and my astronomy ever since.

He told me to buy a good pair of binoculars and mount them on a tripod, buy a planisphere and learn the sky.  He also told me to record what I see and if I enjoyed drawing to have a go at a few sketches.  He signed my book and looked up and said ‘keep it up’ and shook my hand and then in it placed his card.  “If you are ever in Selsey do drop in for a chat and a cup of tea.”

From what I know of him since I am sure he meant it.  Wish I had taken him up on the invitation.

The binoculars I purchased soon after and they are still with me all these years later.  The planisphere and the hunt for a shop that sold one is written into our family lore and as for astro-sketching, well I hope he would have liked some of my efforts.

Patrick Moore

I for one will miss Patrick Moore, he inspired my interest, educated my young inquisitive brain and I still take his advice and guidance from innumerable books and articles and of course Sky At Night will never be the same.

Sir Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore, CBE, FRS, FRAS


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