A Beginner’s Guide to Backyard Astronomy

A Beginner’s Guide to Backyard Astronomy

If you’re one of the millions who looked at the eclipse last week and wondered what other cool things you might be able see in the sky, this guide is for you. Whether you want to spy on distant planets, supernovas, constellations, galaxies, or check out the International Space Station, astronomy can be a lifelong source of fascination, and it doesn’t take much more than a little knowledge and a little gear to get started.  

Learn what you’re seeing when you look into the sky

The thing that separates astronomy from just craning your neck upwards is understanding what you’re seeing, so learning is a big part of getting started. Here are the first steps to gaining a working knowledge of the observable cosmos. 

Books: There are libraries full of text books and popular titles about astronomy, but a good starting point is Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer’s The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide. An essential guide for generations of amateur astronomers, this book is useful for a beginner, but will stay useful for probably your entire life.

Planisphere: There’s something really cool about using a tool that has essentially been the same since 1624, so if you want to bring an analog style to your stargazing operation, a planisphere is the right choice. A planisphere is just two discs of cardboard or plastic held together with a pin, but it can locate any visible star. You can buy one for very little, or make your own by printing out the discs you need.

Apps: I confess, I like the idea of using a planisphere, but I’m hopeless with charts and maps in practice, so I actually use an app. There are many apps for astronomy, each with a slightly different focus or features, but for beginners, Star Walk 2 is great choice. Available on iPhone and Android, Star Walk 2 is free with ads, $US5.99 for the full version, and its database contains over 200,000 stars, eight planets, 27 asteroids and comets, and 10,000 satellites—basically everything in the sky. Using it could not possibly be easier: you point your phone at the sky and it will tell you what you’re seeing. 

Find a good spot for stargazing

Finding a good spot to crane your neck upwards is step one in the astronomy game. Here’s what to look for in a stargazing location:

Distance from cities: Unless you’re doing daytime astronomy (more on that below) or looking at the moon (ditto) the best location to practice astronomy is somewhere as dark as possible, so find as lightless an environment as you can. To locate the darkest areas near your house, check out this interactive light pollution map. Enter your zip code and check out the Bortle Number of nearby locations. The lower it is, the better.  Don’t be discouraged if there’s nowhere dark near you, though. There are plenty of interesting things you can see in the sky from any location. 

Mind the moon: The reflected light from the moon can blot out many stars and planets, so be aware of the phase of the moon and plan for sometime around the new moon for best results. Unless you want to look at the moon, of course.

Terrain: Higher elevations tend to be better because they’re often above atmospheric interference. Open areas are good too, for their unobstructed views. I like beaches, because beaches at night are the best.

Safety: Light pollution is cumulative, so you don’t need to find a place with no lights around, just far from a city as possible. That means lighted parking lots, maybe with restrooms, can provide a safe, more comfortable “home base” for a stargazing expedition. 

For more in-depth information on finding a perfect star-gazing spot, check out this article. 

(Optional) Get a pair of binoculars…

There’s a lot you can see in the sky with just your naked eyes, so binoculars are not required to get started, but just about any pair of binoculars will improve things somewhat, so if there’s an old set in your basement, blow the dust off them and give them a shot.

If you want, you can buy binoculars relatively cheaply too. For astronomy, look for large front lenses and high optical quality. Binocular prices vary from tens of thousands of dollars to under ten dollars, but a reasonably high-performing pair of binoculars for a beginner can cost between $US200 and $US300. This Celestron TrailSeeker is a good example. It’s recommended by both space.com and Amazon’s customers who rate it at 4.5 stars. 

…but don’t get a telescope—yet

You might associate the entire hobby of astronomy with telescopes, but you really don’t need one to get into it. Telescopes are a specialized tool, with many disadvantages for a beginner. Unlike your eyes and binoculars, they have a very narrow field of view, so it’s difficult to hone in on what you want to see if you don’t know what you’re doing. Telescopes are large and cumbersome too—not the kind of thing you can sling around your neck and hit the park with easily.  Most of all, though, buying a telescope as a beginner will likely result in later finding out you bought the wrong one, so I wouldn’t recommend purchasing a telescope until you know why you want one and what you want it for.

Do not neglect the moon

Avoiding moonlight is good idea if you’re interested in peeping stars and planets, but the moon itself is a fascinating subject for astronomy. Looking at the moon with a half-decent pair of binoculars, with a magnification of 10 or so, reveals a whole world up there. You’ll see craters, mountains, and large lunar planes. If you look at the moon when it’s in any phase but full, check out the long shadows near where light turns to dark to see dramatic contrasts on the lunar topography. It’s very cool.

You can do astronomy during the daytime

Like drinking, stargazing is generally done at night, but both daytime drinking and daytime astronomy offer unique pleasures. Here are some cool space things you can see while it’s light out:

The sun: There are interesting things to see on the sun, but safety is most important here. You can’t look directly at the sun or you’ll damage your eyes, and you can’t safely look at the sun with an unfiltered pair of binoculars or telescope either. But if you kept your solar eclipse glasses, you can look at the sun without a problem. (But don’t look inside binoculars or a telescope pointed at the sun even if you are wearing eclipse glasses.) You could also consider a pair of “sunoculars,” binoculars designed for looking at the sun, like these Celestron – EclipSmart Safe Solar Eclipse Binoculars with permanently filtered lenses. If you’re in a DIY mood, you could construct a sun projector. With the right kinds of filters, you can gaze at the sun and see sunspots, Venus and Mercury passing before the sun (although this doesn’t happen often), the photosphere, and the chromosphere.

The Moon: The moon isn’t visible all the time—it’s below the horizon half the time—but the moon is visible during the day about 25 days per month, for about six hours a day. Find it and check it out during the day.  

Venus: It’s hard to spot, but under the right conditions, you can see Venus during daylight, especially near sunset and sunrise. Conditions will be good for seeing Venus in the evening sky in 2024 from Oct. 5 through Dec. 31. You can also get daytime glimpses of Mars and Jupiter, but they’re considerably dimmer and probably will require a telescope. 

The International Space Station: Check out NASA’s tool for ISS spotting and see when it’s making an appearance near you. It’s better seen at night with a pair of binoculars, but daytime sightings are possible.

Comets and meteors: Both comets and meteors can be bright enough to see during daytime. 

Connect with other backyard astronomers

Once you’ve dipped your toes into the celestial heavens, you might want to meet others with similar interests. There is probably a group of stargazing fans not far from you, and they’re mostly friendly people who welcome newcomers. They might invite you to a star party or an informal sidewalk viewing event, which will give you a chance to learn a ton and look at celestial objects with telescopes you could never afford. Check out Sky and Telescopes listings and search Facebook to learn where local star-peepers hang out.  

Plan to see some of 2024’s notable astrological events

The big ticket astronomy event in 2024 was obviously the eclipse, but that’s not all that’s there is to see in the heavens. There are meteor showers, lunar eclipses, rocket launches, and more.

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