Backyard Astronomy: Getting Started

Note: Regular readers may notice some changes. Please hang in there while the dust settles; I will be posting an update on said changes (including background on the new address and blog title) this weekend. You can still expect reflections on faith, literature, and current events, but I also want to include more science (and specifically astronomy) based content as well. As always, I reserve the right to post as frequently or infrequently as needed, due to my primary duties and busy schedule as a seminarian and graduate student in Theology. Pax.


When I heard the learn’d astronomer, 
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, 
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, 
   and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
   much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, 
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

-“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman


I hate to break it to ya, but you will be starting with something a bit more modest – your own two eyes. Photo by User Ericd on en.wikipedia (GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

A few people have asked me how to get involved in astronomy. I am no expert by any means, but I am also happy to help people get started on the journey. After all, astronomy helped me in my own faith journey, and continues to be a profound inspiration for me to this day. So when someone expresses an interest in discovering the secrets of our endless universe, I jump at the chance to be a guide, however imperfect. To be honest, that is one of the reasons* for this blog: I hope to show people that the sciences like astronomy and religious faith are not mutually opposed. Here are a few things I have learned over the years about getting started in astronomy:

Go outside and look up – Often times when we get involved in astronomy, we want to go out and buy a telescope, expecting to unlock the mysteries of the cosmos. This is probably the worst thing you could do, and will likely destroy your new hobby. Just go outside and look, and I don’t mean step outside for a few minutes and say, “oooh, that’s nice, time for some hot chocolate.” No, bundle up, get comfortable, and really look. Find objects in the sky that interest you. Jot down their location by identifying familiar constellations.  Try to get away from light pollution too (take a look at the International Dark-Sky Association for more info).

Don’t go off and buy expensive equipment at the start – I already mentioned it above, but seriously, don’t go out and buy the Celestron NexStar 8SE telescope, even if you can afford it, at least not yet (after all, it is pretty nice). Your own two eyes are just fine to start with, and eventually, you can upgrade to a good pair of binoculars. One useful piece of equipment that you can invest in now (for only 10 bucks) is a planisphere, an adjustable hand-held star chart. Make sure you purchase one that corresponds to your area though! There are also many useful apps that you can get for free or relatively cheap.

Share it with someone – Astronomy becomes even more fun when you are with someone. You can compare notes and help one another notice things that perhaps the other person did not notice there before. It’s also great to just geek out about what you saw while warming up over the afore-mentioned cup of hot chocolate after a night of productive star-gazing. You are likely to find astronomy clubs almost anywhere, and many of them are more than eager to help newbies get started.

Read and write – Read read read! The internet of course is a great resource to stay alert to current astronomical events and new breakthroughs. You should also venture down to the local bookstore and library and peruse their selection of astronomy books. There are many fine works out there to get you started. One important aspect of astronomy that I think is often overlooked by the budding backyard sky watcher is journaling. Whenever you go outside and look at the stars, right down what you see! Take notes, draw pictures, give details about the conditions. The more detailed the better, and it will help hone your observational skills.

Be patient – Astronomy is not a sport of the impatient. Some nights you will see countless wonders that leave you breathless, and others you will see a grey rain cloud covering up that planet or nebula you were hoping to catch, and that’s OK. The important thing is to keep at it and to not get discouraged.

Google will provide many resources on getting started in astronomy, and many of the articles provide similar advice, but I have found these sites to be particularly helpful:

Over the next few months, I will provide more detailed posts on each of the topics above, such as explaining the various types of telescopes and some methods for astronomical observations and journaling. These will be including among the more faith-based topics I cover and an occasional review here and there, as well as some newsy items. I currently carry a full load of graduate courses, so I can’t promise a timeline, but my own love for things otherworldly will motivate me to write, and I hope that I can guide one or two people in their first steps into this amazing world. Until then…


One thought on “Backyard Astronomy: Getting Started

  1. Pingback: The Wandering Hobbit Becomes a Believing Astronomer | The Believing Astronomer

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