Tips For Beginners
Where to start?
This page contains advice for newcomers to astronomy, and tips to help avoid confusion and frustration which can sometimes occur.
Probably the most common pitfall for beginners is to rush out and buy a telescope and then not be able to find anything, or be disappointed by the fact that most celestial objects do not look like pictures in books and magazines when viewed visually. By taking a step by step approach, these pitfalls can be avoided.
The first step is to learn the constellations. An excellent aid for doing this is a Planisphere, a circular star chart with a horizon mask. By selecting the date and time on the dial on the rim, one can see which constellations are visible at that point in time. When going outside at night to compare the chart with the real sky, it is a good idea to give yourself 5 to 10 minutes to let your eyes dark-adapt. View the planisphere with a red covered flashlight to preserve your night vision. If you live near a city, the sky brightness will not allow your eyes to fully dark-adapt, and wash out the fainter constellations. You will have to limit yourself to finding the bright constellations, such as Orion and Ursa Major. Planispheres are available from Sky Publishing and Orion Telescope Center, and in the Chicago area at the Adler Planetarium bookstore.
Once you are fairly adept at identifying the constellations, you are ready to move up to an optical aid. However, it is not yet time for a telescope, but rather binoculars. Any set of binoculars of size 7 X 35 (the first number is the magnification of the binoculars and the second is the diameter of the front lens in millimeters) or larger are excellent for viewing the Moon and brightest deep sky objects. Binoculars are easy to use hand held devices, and typically provide a wide field of view of 5 to 7 degrees. If you do not already own binoculars, look for full multi-coatings and BAK4 prisms when buying binoculars. At this point you will want to read some basic observing handbooks, and get a set of more detailed star charts. See the your local Astronomy store for observing Guides. Two good charts are the Magnitude 6 Sky Atlas and the Cambridge Atlas 2000.
Star Party Etiquette
If you are planning to attend your first star party with us, or it has been a while since you have been to one, please take a few minutes to review these guidelines.
- NO WHITE LIGHTS. It takes the human eye over thirty minutes to get fully dark adapted. ANY white light can force that cycle to start all over again. If you absolutely must turn on a white light, warn other observers first. If you need a red filter, just ask.
- DO USE DIM RED LIGHTS. A dim red light has minimal affect on night vision. Bright red lights could ruin someone's astrophotography efforts. Keep it dim!
- NO OPEN FLAMES. No camp fires or open stoves. Be careful while lighting up if you smoke.
- PLAN YOUR DEPARTURE. Warn other observers several minutes before you leave so astrophotographers have time to save their photos and everyone else can shield their eyes. Only use your parking lights until you get away from the observing site. Remember your car interior lights, trunk lights, and automatic headlights. (Pull a fuse or remove a bulb, if necessary)
- PARK BASED ON YOUR OBSERVING PLAN. If you plan to stay all night, park away from the exit. If you are leaving early, park near the exit. Park so you will not have to back up (white lights!) If you do not have a telescope, park away from the observers and walk over.
- BRING OBSERVERS ONLY. In the darkness, a Star Party has its risks. Very small children, pets, and many adults are bored by starlight. If they will not enjoy the hours of looking through expensive telescopes at faint, fuzzy objects, they might prefer to stay elsewhere.
- DO NOT LITTER. If you brought it, take it with you when you leave. Please leave the dark wilderness the way you found it.
- BE CONSIDERATE. Please, no loud radios, no consumption of alcoholic beverages, and no discharging of firearms.
QUESTIONS? If you are new, please feel free to ask questions. Most experienced observers enjoy talking about their hobby.