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.
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.
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.
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.
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.