Monday, July 23, 2007

Beginners Guide to Astronomy

By special request I was asked by Nick to put some notes together on the various literature availble for someone "starting out" in Astronomy...

Astronomy: A Beginners Guide

Introduction: what on Earth are you trying to do?

The notes below are only my opinion- Astronomy is a BIG topic (only one of which is the study of the entire Universe) and it has many followers all with their own thoughts and ideas.

The first foot hill for any person to cross is the difference between Astronomy and Astrology. Most times it’s just a bit of confusion on the spelling (or perhaps like my Mother-In-Law I think she does it deliberately to tease me). Astrology is the belief that patterns and alignments of “Heavenly Bodies” can predict peoples lives. Astronomy is the science and study (even at a modest level) of the Universe including the stars, planets, galaxies and well… all the rest.

In my mind there are two general areas for the beginner to explore.. One I call Armchair Astronomy see later) and the other I call “hands-on” or “practical astronomy”, also sometimes called Amateur Astronomy (a somewhat outdated term these days) and even Deck Chair or Back Yard Astronomy. No matter this is simply getting outdoors and looking at the Night Sky and understanding a little of what you are looking at.

Finding A Guide to the night Sky

If you have already made it to one of the regular Astronomy Meetings then you have already started and I now assume you want to know a little more about actually pointing to objects in the night sky and perhaps saying authoratively to friends and relatives that that star is actually “Venus” . If you haven’t then we meet at Pedro Castle monthly usually a few days past the “New Moon” Check the local press for details or the website at

In terms of equipment you do not need anything other than your eyes and possibly on Cayman some anti mosquito repellant. Binoculars are useful but Id certainly not rush out and buy a telescope without taking to others and thinking carefully what you want to do and how much to spend. All you essentially need is a dim light of some kind ( preferably red) and a map or chart for that evening and latitude.

If you want to buy a book or magazine the unfortunately the choice here can be limited at times, but the best place to start is probably with one of the regular monthly magazines.

By far the best in my mind of what’s available is “Astronomy” which contains for each month a guide of where the planets are together with star charts for the month. It is a little technical but not anything as much as Sky and Telescope, which really does take itself seriously. Both Magazines have charts for Mid Latitude Observing Sites which is not quite the same as Cayman (20 degrees North) but close enough.
Another magazine “Night Sky” is sometimes available; this is aimed at the beginner in Astronomy – published by Sky and Telescope. If you are new to Astronomy and you see this- buy it!

The Web sites to both of these magazines are pretty good too.
A good “Intro to Astronomy” can be found at as well as The Sky and Telescope site also has an interactive Star Chart for your latitude and longitude so that you can print off exactly what you will see.

There are many other sites on the Internet worth looking at and playing with . eg will give you simple maps plus predictions of when you can see satellites for example the ISS ( International Space Station)

A few books ( a personal choice) worth mentioning These have maps for the whole year and include more detail on the Moon, planets and the various “fuzzy objects” to be observed, with and without telescopes

i) “Turn Left at Orion: A Hundred Night Sky Objects to see in a Small telescope” by Huy Consolmagno. OK you need a telescope but it’s a lovely book to read . A good amount can be seen through binoculars too

ii) Anything by Wil Tiron. Wil has in my mind breathed new life into the art of drawing star charts, some of which (like road maps) can be over crowed and hard to follow. Wil’s maps seem very easy to read. At the more serious end of his work is The Cambridge Star Atlas, on my Christmas list (with many other things!)

iii) “The Stars a New way to see them” by Hans Augusto Rey. An old book with an endorsement by Einstein! But Like Wil he changed the way constellations are portrayed and make the night sky much more readable. Only eyes needed for this book and Rey has a good sense of humor.

iv) Another means to get a chart of the night sky is to get a Planisphere (see Amazon for an example) remember to get one which covers around 20 North

Finally to the Internet again for webcasts on what to see .From Miami is a series of short weekly lectures Jack is a real eccentric but what’s useful for us here is that Miami isn’t too far north so much of the latitude specific items are also true for Cayman as well.

And talking of eccentrics and being from the UK – there is of course the Sky At Night, the longest running TV Program on Astronomy on the World, hosted by Sir Patrick Moore. Past episodes are available on the Internet though of course it is based for audiences at approximately 50 degrees north

Arm Chair Astronomy

And finally Arm Chair Astronomy- useful for rainy nights or when the mosquitoes get too much to handle, I suspect anyone reading this will be doing this already- watching some of the Science Channels and Programs on TV and reading a number of books (science fiction even or perhaps some of the books and magazines already mentioned) . Arm Chair astronomy is reading about topics as diverse as Black Holes and Caves on Mars. However you will need some guidance to pick out the good from the trash (and on the Internet of Course, there’s plenty of that. is perhaps (again) another somewhat esoteric Website for a first choice but its honest enough and clears up the truth and fiction behind all those wonderful stories like the “Lunar Landings Moon Hoax” and the “Face” on Mars.

What ever you do have fun- the NASA Channel at times is as exciting as paint drying on a solar panel array – flip to something else!! And remember watch out for the "Bad" stuff.. for example in Star Wars – spaceships do not make swishing noises!

Chris Cooke

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