How to Become an Amateur Astronomy Hobbyist

Two Parts:Educating Yourself About AstronomyStarting to Make Your Own Astronomical Observations

Astronomy can be a fun and rewarding hobby, offering you a lifetime of fascinating observations and discoveries as an amateur astronomer. Astronomy can also be an expensive and frustrating hobby if you approach it without knowing what you're doing. Before you spend your money on an expensive telescope or other equipment, spend some time learning the basics of astronomy and what resources are available to help you learn more about it. The following steps will help you derive more enjoyment from your experience as an amateur astronomy hobbyist.

Part 1
Educating Yourself About Astronomy

  1. Image titled Become an Amateur Astronomy Hobbyist Step 1
    Read astronomy books. There are a number of excellent books on astronomy, including Dinah Moché's "Astronomy: A Self-Teaching Guide," De Pree and Axelrod's "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Astronomy," Dickinson and Dyer's "The Backyard Astronomer's Guide," Paaschoff and Tirion's "A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets," and Fred Price's "The Planet Observer's Handbook." Good astronomy books will provide you with an overview of the history of astronomical observation, a description of the solar system and its planets and moons, descriptions of what constellations can be seen at any given time, and pictures of stars, nebulas, comets, globular clusters, and galaxies.
    • You can find books for purchase at bookstores and on Internet sites such as Your local library also offers a number of books on the subject that you can check out for free.
    • When selecting astronomy books, look for the most recent copyright dates you can find, ideally within the last 5 years. The pace of astronomical discovery makes a lot of information, such as the planetary status and presumed size of Pluto, outdated.
  2. Image titled Become an Amateur Astronomy Hobbyist Step 2
    Read astronomy magazines. Magazines such as "Astronomy," "Astronomy Now," or "Sky and Telescope" feature articles on recent astronomical discoveries and reviews of new books and software applications for computers and smartphones. They also offer lists of Internet websites devoted to astronomy and offer tips for the beginning astronomer; one magazine, "Night Sky," introduced in 2004, is even devoted to the new amateur astronomer.
  3. Image titled Become an Amateur Astronomy Hobbyist Step 3
    Search the Internet. A number of astronomy-related organizations, such as the Astronomical League and the Society for Popular Astronomy, have their own websites to disseminate information about astronomy in general as well as the specifics of their organizations. NASA also has a number of astronomy-related offerings, such as the Astronomy Picture of the Day and astronomy education resources for both students and teachers. Many amateur astronomers have their own websites, where they discuss astronomy in general and post their observations.
    • The Internet also is a good source of astronomy freeware and shareware. You'll want at least a planetarium program, and depending on your astronomical interests, a program that tracks the planets' positions in the solar system and one that reports the moon phase for a given date.
  4. Image titled Become an Amateur Astronomy Hobbyist Step 4
    Join an online astronomy discussion forum or discussion group. Sites such as Google Groups, MSN Groups, and Yahoo! Groups feature a number of astronomy discussion groups covering astronomy in general or specific aspects such as astrophotography, cosmology, exoplanets, or meteor showers. Most groups let you post messages and participate in discussions either by email or on the forum itself.
  5. Image titled Become an Amateur Astronomy Hobbyist Step 5
    Attend planetarium shows. Planetariums display images of the night sky on a semicircular dome. Some planetarium shows are designed for the astronomy novice, while other shows are oriented to amateur astronomers strongly interested in a particular subject, and still others are designed so that visitors can set up their own programs from a selection of shows. Planetariums can be found on college campuses and in science museums.
  6. Image titled Become an Amateur Astronomy Hobbyist Step 6
    Visit observatories. Some astronomical observatories have nights open to the general public. These provide the opportunity to see an astronomical object through a telescope larger than that available to the average astronomy hobbyist.
  7. Image titled Become an Amateur Astronomy Hobbyist Step 7
    Attend meetings of a local astronomy club. Local astronomy clubs give you the chance to meet with other amateur astronomy hobbyists face-to-face and learn from one another. These clubs, separately or with other clubs, organize star parties and sunspot viewing sessions and have regular presentations on various astronomical topics. These clubs oversee astronomy viewing programs, such as viewing the objects listed in the Messier catalog, and award certificates to amateur astronomers motivated enough to complete them. Some clubs maintain their own observing sites and keep a collection of telescopes that can be checked out to members.
  8. Image titled Become an Amateur Astronomy Hobbyist Step 8
    Attend astronomy panels at science fiction conventions. Many science fiction fans are also astronomy buffs, and so many of the conventions they put on include astronomy panel presentations and displays. You can check sources such as "Locus" or "The Science Fiction Chronicle" for a list of conventions and then search the websites for the conventions near you to see if they have an astronomy programming track. Many convention websites also feature links to other conventions' websites, so if the first convention whose site you visit doesn't mention anything for the amateur astronomer, visit other sites until you find what you're looking for.

Part 2
Starting to Make Your Own Astronomical Observations

  1. Image titled Become an Amateur Astronomy Hobbyist Step 9
    Start simple. You don't need to have an expensive telescope to observe the night sky; it's possible to see the Andromeda Galaxy, 2.2 million light years away, with the naked eye if the sky is sufficiently dark and you're well away from city lights. A telescope simply makes it possible to see dimmer objects better than you can see them with the naked eye. You'll find these items helpful to get first and have with you before you buy a telescope:
    • A good-quality field guide. Some field guides have laminated pages to prevent them from being damaged by spills, dew, or rain.
    • A planisphere. This is a device that displays a printed image of the night sky with markings at the edges for the month and day of the year and the time of night. Simply align the viewing area with the correct day and time, and you'll see what stars and constellations should be visible at your location.
    • A red flashlight. You can cover the lens of a regular flashlight with red cellophane, or you can buy a flashlight with a red bulb or LED. You can use either a handheld flashlight or one that is worn over the shoulders or on the forehead.
  2. Image titled Become an Amateur Astronomy Hobbyist Step 10
    Look for a good observing area. Your best observing will be on dark, clear nights when the moon is low in the sky or new and when you are well away from city lights. If you live out in the country, your backyard would be a suitable location, as would a park on the outskirts of the city.
    • If it isn't possible to get out of the city very often, you can start your observations with the objects you can see best, such as the moon, major constellations, and the planets.
  3. Image titled Become an Amateur Astronomy Hobbyist Step 11
    Look for constellations and major stars that can help you find your way around the sky. Although there are 88 constellations altogether, certain constellations, parts of constellations, and the stars in them can help you find other constellations, depending on the season and time of night.
    • The Big Dipper, part of the Northern Hemisphere constellation Ursa Major, can be used to find a number of stars and constellations. The stars Merak and Dubhe on the outer edge of its "bowl" can be used to find the North Star, Polaris, by going in the direction the Dipper opens, and the star Regulus in the constellation Leo by going in the direction of the bowl base. Following the stars in the Dipper's handle in an arc leads to the star Arcturus in the constellation Bootes and then to the star Spica in the constellation Virgo.
    • The bright stars Vega in the constellation Lyra, Altair in the constellation Aquila, and Deneb in the constellation Cygnus, form what is known in the Northern Hemisphere as the Summer Triangle. Deneb and the other 2 stars that form the swan's body in Cygnus point to the star Antares in the constellation Scorpio.
    • Three of the stars in the constellation Pegasus, Algenib, Markab, and Scheat, and the star Alpheratz in the constellation Andromeda form the Great Square of Pegasus, visible during fall in the Northern Hemisphere. Algenib and Alpheratz, along with the star Caph in the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia, can be used to find Polaris during times when the Big Dipper is below the horizon.
    • The constellation Orion has a roughly hourglass shape and is visible from late fall to early spring in the Northern Hemisphere. The stars in its belt can be used to point downward toward the star Sirius or upward to the Pleiades in the constellation Taurus.
    • In the Southern Hemisphere, the 2 brightest stars in the constellation Centaurus can be used to point to the Southern Cross.
  4. Image titled Become an Amateur Astronomy Hobbyist Step 12
    Progress to binoculars before buying a telescope. Binoculars are lighter in weight and give a wider field of view than does a telescope, and unlike a telescope, they present their view right-side-up instead of inverted. A good 7 x 35 binoculars should be sufficient to see lunar craters, the phases of Venus, the largest moons of Jupiter, the Pleiades, and the Great Nebula in Orion.
    • Some larger pairs of binoculars intended for astronomical use require a tripod to stabilize them.
  5. Image titled Become an Amateur Astronomy Hobbyist Step 13
    Buy a telescope when you're ready for it. After you've done a fair amount of naked-eye astronomy and observing the sky with binoculars, you can consider getting a telescope. You'll want to spend time reading advertisements and reviews in magazines and online and, if you belong to an astronomy club with a telescope library, trying out various telescopes to help you determine what features you do and don't need. A good telescope should have a combination of the following features:
    • A sturdy, smooth-operating mount.
    • High-quality optics. Look for a telescope advertised as having "diffraction-limited" optics.
    • A large aperture (opening). The larger the aperture, the larger the telescope, however, and larger telescopes can be bulky, heavy, or both.
    • Be easy to set up and tear down.
    • Some telescopes come equipped with onboard computer systems that direct built-in motors to point the telescope to any object in their databases. These features can be useful if you like to look at a number of objects during a viewing session, but they add significantly to the telescope's cost. They can supplement, but should not replace, your ability to find astronomical objects by yourself.


  • One way to further your enjoyment of astronomy is to keep a log of your observations, either by jotting down notes on paper or by compiling it on a computer. A log provides a chance to review past observations so you can experience them over again as well as compare them to more recent sightings.


  • Be aware that even with the best telescope you can buy, you will not see images in your telescope the same way they appear in books, magazines, and on the Internet. These images were taken with the large telescopes found at major observatories on long-term camera exposures that allow the object's colors to come through. You will in most cases be able to see distinctive shapes, such as the rings of Saturn or the smoke-ring appearance of the Ring Nebula, but not their colors.

Article Info

Categories: Astronomy