How to Get Started in Amateur Astronomy

When you look up at the darkened sky and gaze at the stars, some seem to be blinking, and you wonder why. All of a sudden, you can see a shooting star and the little dipper. The moon is in an eclipse, and a feeling of wonder overcomes you. There is so much up there to learn about and enjoy, and it is not difficult or expensive to become involved.


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    Read about astronomy. Merely looking up in the sky will not teach you all you need to know, so visit your local library and browse through the astronomy section. There are a variety of books which are geared toward beginners as well as the more advanced. Find one that is an introduction to astronomy, and learn about the physics of the cosmos. Surf the Internet under 'Astronomy' and be assured you will receive a vast array of information as well as pictures.
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    Visit a planetarium or observatory. Many observatories have huge, expensive telescopes and offer you an exciting as well as informative way of observing the many wonders of the sky. Check with your local science museum to see if they offer a star-gazing night open to the public. Visit the observatory at night, climb up to the tower, and observe first hand, through their powerful telescopes, what you have learned and seen up until now only in books. A planetarium uses projectors to offer an artificial view of the night sky. The chairs recline, the room becomes black, and all you see are stars in a darkened sky. This is a great way to get started because you will have access to an expert guide to answer your questions. You also will get to meet others with similar interests.
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    Purchase a star atlas or a star map which will enable you to determine what you are looking at while gazing at the sky. Your library will probably have one, but since maps will be an important part of your astronomical study, it is best to buy your own. If you are unable to afford one, then download free star maps from the Internet.
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    Find someplace dark to observe that is away from city glare. Good choices might include national and state parks. Enquire at these places about naturalist lead presentations about the night sky as well. Use your eyes. It is not necessary to buy an expensive telescope because the naked eye can see a great deal in the night sky. By observing with only your eyes you get a true feeling of how ancient astronomers practiced their craft. If you can, try to lie down on the grass and look at the sky above you. The darkened sky takes on another dimension in this position, and creates a feeling of you being totally alone in a vast universe. Locate the North Star, and follow the 'map of the sky'. Make sure you have the correct star map to coincide with the date and location. If you have studied the books, you might be able to find the "Little Dipper" and other constellations or asterisms.
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    Buy a pair of binoculars. If your naked-eye observations have gotten you excited about astronomy, get a good set of binoculars and observe the night sky with them for a more close-up view. 10x50 binoculars are excellent for stargazing.
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    Obtain a telescope. There are several types of telescopes, with different features, uses and prices. However, you need not purchase the most expensive one in order to enjoy astronomy. The most important thing to consider is the telescope’s aperture, or the size of the light-gathering part of the telescope. The larger the aperture, the brighter your image will be. The next most important characteristic is the focal length of the 'scope, which will determine how much of the sky you can see in the image. Magnification is much less important than quality of optics. A good way to choose a telescope is to attend star parties (see below) and ask a few of the members for permission to try theirs so you get an idea of which models you prefer.
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    Join an astronomy club. Amateur astronomy is very popular in most cities and small towns. Search the Internet to find a club in your vicinity or get information by calling a local planetarium. For clubs in the U.S.A., go to, a website dedicated to amateur astronomy which will help you locate clubs and events. Clubs give you the opportunity to learn from others who have more experience, and to meet and make new friends with other beginners who have the same interest in astronomy.
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    Attend a star party. Star parties are outdoor meetings where amateur astronomers meet and look at the sky together. Many are already members of an astronomy club. This can be quite interesting, especially since each person might find a new area, star or planet that you might have overlooked.
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    Subscribe to an astronomy magazine. There are a number of periodicals which cater to amateur astronomers. Among the most popular are Sky and Telescope and Astronomy. These magazines provide monthly calendars, a wealth of sky watching tips, amazing pictures, and up-to-date information on new products and discoveries.
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    Subscribe to an astronomy podcast, such as What's Up in Astronomy, StarDate, or SkyWatch. They are free and you can search for them in iTunes and many other podcast directories.
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    Join the Astronomical League or similar organization. Membership in these large astronomy organizations will give you the opportunity to network with other astronomers and to participate in observing programs. The Astronomical League has observing programs for every age, skill, and equipment level, and by participating in a program and submitting your observation log, you can earn certificates of completion (and a wealth of new knowledge).
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    Enjoy your new hobby. Amateur astronomy can be a lifelong pursuit, and there’s always something new to look at. What’s more, amateur astronomers actually make significant contributions to the study of astronomy, and amateurs have discovered stars, comets, and other phenomena before professionals. In astronomy, you don’t have to be a professional to make a difference.


  • Depending on how late you expect to be out, and the climate, bring some warm clothes; it can get cold at night. Stay away from alcoholic beverages, which actually lower your body temperature, and affect night vision. Hot cocoa is a good warming beverage.
  • Try observing the sky during a new moon, especially if you live in an urban area. With no moon visible in the sky, you’ll be able to see fainter objects more easily.
  • If you live in a city, where light pollution can be a problem, try observing as late as possible. As people go to bed, cars stop stirring up dust, and businesses close down, your visibility will improve. It won’t compare to being out on a remote mountaintop, but you’ll still be able to see things you couldn’t before.
  • When you go out stargazing you'll need a flashlight to read your star map. You'll not want to ruin your night vision by switching it on and off, for it takes the eyes about 20 minutes to get used to darkness. Red light won't interfere with your night vision. Therefore you best make sure your flashlight has a red filter or cellophane. A cheap and easy alternative is to paint the glass of the flashlight red with nail polish.
  • If you can’t find a local astronomy club, consider throwing a star party with your fellow amateurs, especially if there's going to be a meteor shower.
  • The magnification of a telescope can be derived by dividing the focal length of the 'scope (usually in millimeters) by the focal length of the eyepiece (in the same units). Thus, a 'scope with 600mm focal length will produce 100x magnification when it is used with an eyepiece of 6mm focal length. Eyepieces are interchangeable on any good 'scope, so you can experiment with different magnifications. Note that, with the same 'scope, using higher magnification will narrow the field of view, i.e., the area of the sky that can be seen in the eyepiece (the image).
  • Remember, professional astronomy is more about decoding numbers than stargazing. Think twice!
  • Many regional astronomy clubs and organizations offer free educational programs and observation nights. Check one out in your area!
  • While magnification of a telescope is important, too much magnification just gives you a useless blur. A good rule of thumb to determine the maximum useable magnification is to multiply the aperture of the scope in millimeters by 2.5 (which means that the typical department store 60mm scope is only useable to 150x, not the "WOW, 625 POWER!!!" many of them claim). In actual practice, on nights of extremely unusual atmospheric stability, you -may- be able to use a somewhat higher power, but don't count on it. Don't buy a $200 eyepiece to get a higher power; spend it on a better scope, instead.
  • DO NOT engage in astrophotography initially, astrophotography can be confusing and hence flustering for newbies, it will probably kill your interest in this field, so start off with one or more of the above steps first.
  • Don't fret if a constellation is shown on a star map but you are not able to find it in the sky. Many constellations are visible to you only at certain months or a specific time in the night.


  • Never look at the sun directly or through binoculars or a telescope. You can permanently damage your vision by doing so.
  • Do not use solar filters in eyepieces as they have been known to fracture with heat and instantly blind the viewer.

Things You'll Need

  • Star Atlas
  • Observation logbook
  • Binoculars, Telescope (optional)
  • Compass
  • Flashlight with red filter or cellophane

Sources and Citations

  • Free stargazing program:
  • BBC Astronomy and space articles, interactive online activities
  • - Experiment with all the options available. The site will give you an accurate view of the stars and planets visible from your location at any time you choose including tracking your current time. You can set up the exact coordinates of your location using Google Earth, and also set up the exact time using any of those atomic time synchronizers available free on the net. Even if you don't use Google Earth or an Atomic time sync, you will still be able use the site.
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