Astronomy, stargazing – whatever you want to call it, it is a fantastic and rewarding activity which once you started, will probably be with you for life.
This guide to astronomy for beginners provides an overview of the basics to help you get going. We will cover:
- Why you should take up stargazing as a hobby
- What you can expect to see when looking to the skies
- What equipment you might need
- Where you can learn more
- East steps you can take to start
So let’s get going.
1. Why take up astronomy?
We live on a teeny tiny planet that spins and hurtles around space at 1000 miles per hour. We can stand on the side of our planet and look up and see countless stars, planets and other objects.
The size of space and the universe is almost unfathomable. There are over two trillion galaxies in the observable universe and our galaxy – the Milky Way – contains around 400 billion stars. Our Sun is just one of these stars, and Earth is just one planet in our Solar System
The human exploration of space is currently seeing a resurgence of interest. Up to now, we’ve had 24 people visit the moon, there are over 1,300 satellites orbiting the earth right now. Elon Musk and Space X plan to send a first mission to Mars by 2020 and eventually build a human colony there as a first step to mankind becoming a space-faring race and expanding beyond our planet. This is mind-boggling stuff – imagine in the not too distant future being able to look at Mars through a telescope and see lights, buildings and other human activity.
In short, there’s so much to be fascinated and excited about and learning about this is an awesome, mind-expanding thing to do and can easily be picked up by anyone – regardless of age, gender, nationality or anything.
These are three great reasons to dedicate time looking to the skies:
1) It reduces anxiety and makes you calmer
That might sound silly but stargazing can be highly therapeutic and can work to reduce stress and anxiety in the same way that meditation does for many people.
When I sit out in my garden and just spend five or ten minutes looking up, counting the stars and thinking about what I’m looking at I find the “chatter” in my head is greatly reduced. This helps me sleep better and also stay focused and think about what I’m doing in my life. People have different ways of doing this, but getting away from your phone, laptop or television and slowing yourself down is what meditation is all about
There is an inspiring physician called BJ Miller who dealt with losing three of his limbs in an accident when at college but went on to be highly successful in his field. He talks in a podcast that he did with Tim Ferriss (of Four-Hour Work Week fame) about stargazing can be an effective way to put everyday problems into perspective. Here’s a quote him:
“When you are struggling with just about anything, look up. Just ponder the night sky for a minute and realize that we’re all on the same planet at the same time. As far as we can tell, we’re the only planet with life like ours on it anywhere nearby. Just mulling the bare-naked facts of the cosmos is enough to thrill me, awe me, freak me out, and kind of put all my neurotic anxieties in their proper place. A lot of people—when you’re standing at the edge of your horizon, at death’s door, you can be much more in tune with the cosmos.”
2) It’s fascinating and humbling
It’s staggering how little we know about the universe, it’s size and what else is out there.
There’s a great article on the Wait But Why website on what is known as the Fermi Paradox. This is the oddity that a conservative calculation based on up-to-date information is that there are 1 billion Earth-like planets and 100,000 intelligent civilizations in our galaxy – and remember there are over two trillion galaxies in the universe. Yet the paradox is that despite these immense figures we haven’t been able to find a single one of these supposed alien civilizations.
Based on the numbers you would say with absolute certainty that “aliens” and other lifeforms exist in our universe but where are they? Why can we see them and why hasn’t any form of detection been made?
To learn more about this, read the Wait But Why piece as it really got me thinking.
But for now, just consider that as we learn more about space from technological advancements in the years and decades ahead, what we might discover? Understanding more about space and astronomy yourself will enable you to follow developments and be part of the community following what is going on in this area.
3) It’s great to learn a new skill
This is something that should be important to everyone. Some of us stop studying and learning when we finish school but lifelong learning is vital for keeping us sharp and interesting! I have had some amazing experiences through taking it upon myself to learn a new language or take up a new hobby.
Astronomy is something that anyone of any age can take up and get into and it can be done with minimal cost – you don’t need flashy equipment to start, just a bit of time and commitment (see below on what equipment you’ll need).
Now let’s move on to what you will be able to see.
2. What can I expect to see when stargazing?
The moon is 238,855 miles (384,400 kilometers) away from Earth but is the brightest and largest object in our night sky which makes it an obvious first target for beginner astronomers.
As is well known, the moon’s gravitational pull is partly responsible for tides on Earth. It goes through phases which changes its appearance to us according to how much light is hitting it from the sun. This ranges from a full moon to the crescent shapes that we are familiar with.
I’d recommend a great way of learning about the moon is reading Neal Stephenson’s 2015 novel Seveneves. The opening line is “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason” and does a great job of explaining the impact of this on Earth (mild spoiler alert: it’s not good).
Depending on the phase of the moon, the visibility, and what equipment you are using, you will be able to see different amounts of detail and features on the Moon.
A really cool (and free) tool for helping you work out what you might be looking at is Google Earth – which has the moon mapped and allows you to explore it like a city on earth – find it here.
There are an astonishing 1,300 man-made satellites orbiting the earth right now. If you count “space junk” this figure rises to something in the region of 35,000!
It is quite possible to spot a satellite in the night sky with the naked eye. It will look like a star that is slowly moving across the sky and should be visible for up to a few minutes as it passes over.
In order to know you are looking at a satellite and not a plane just know that most satellites do not ‘blink’ or flash but have a steady brightness and follow a consistent speed and direction across the sky.
NASA has a smartphone app which has a ton of cool stuff including a satellite tracker so you can work out which ones might be passing overhead at any given time and place.
The International Space Station (ISS)
The ISS is a satellite itself, but worth a separate mention due to its size, prominence and fact that it has up to six inhabitants living on it at any one time.
NASA runs a Spot the Station site which will tell you when you will be able to see the ISS where you are.
There is also a NASA YouTube channel which broadcasts the live view from the ISS over Earth (and is addictively hypnotic):
Thousands of stars are visible to the naked eye, but much will depend on where you are in the world.
In a big city with a lot of light pollution then you might struggle to spot more than a handful of stars but get away from the towns and cities and the sky lights up. As someone who lives in a city I can recall being in a fairly remote part of Thailand and being awestruck by the thousands of bright stars visible.
Here’s a BBC guide to the best places in the world to see stars. As you can see, these are all pretty remote places!
Once you’re looking at stars you can start to learn about constellations and – whilst not actually stars – witnessing a shooting star is always a special moment and actually more common than you might think once you start spending some time looking at the night’s sky.
A good (free) tool is the Sky View smartphone app which enables you to hold your phone up to the sky and see the stars and objects named. Google Sky is also a cool resource worth checking out.
Much closer to earth than the stars, it is possible to spot many of the planets of our solar system with the naked eye and Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn can all be visible unaided by equipment.
The way to distinguish them from stars is that they are usually much brighter. Each planet reflects the light of the sun differently and so has different characteristics outlined here:
- Mercury twinkles, flashing a bright yellow color.
- Venus is large and silver (when looking at from afar, not in the image below which is a combination of images taken from Soviet spacecraft!)
- Mars is red(ish) (and guess what – there is a Google Mars site)
- Jupiter glows white and is generally the easiest to see alongside Saturn
- Saturn is a yellowish-white color
The other planets of our Solar System – Uranus and Neptune are too far away to be seen unaided.
If you want to read about why Pluto is not a planet then see here.
The Milky Way
Even though we are inside of it, we can see the Milky Way. In fact, when we look up we are looking at it all the time but what we are actually seeing is just part of it.
Photos of the Milky Way often make for the most mind-blowing astronomy photographs but require some real expertise to perfect (we will provide a guide to this in the future).
Galaxies & Nebulae
Galaxies are huge collections of stars held together by gravity. Nebulae are huge, visible clouds of interstellar dust and gas.
These are known as Deep Sky Objects (DSO) and your location will have a much bigger effect on your ability to see them than your equipment as you need to be somewhere with very low light pollution levels to get any success.
Galaxies that you can see include the Milky Way (covered above) and the Andromeda galaxy.
3. What equipment do I need for astronomy?
If you are a beginner, I recommend going through these stages in acquiring tools and equipment.
1. Use your eyes
I strongly recommend just starting with no equipment at all – just your eyes.
Get in a habit of going into your garden (or whatever outdoor space you can access) and spend time looking up and observing. Your eyes will take time to adjust to the light and so the longer you are out there the more you will see (generally around 30 minutes).
If you are then suitably excited at the prospect of looking more closely at what is up there then think about investing in some equipment.
2. Get some binoculars
When most people think of astronomy they automatically think of telescopes, but binoculars are the perfect way to start.
Binoculars have some real advantages for astronomy, including being:
- Much easier to pick up as a beginner
- Lighter and easier to store (and this is a real consideration if you’ve never had to find somewhere to put your fully set-up telescope) and transport (important for if you want to take on a trip)
- Generally more affordable and you can get a good entry level pair for under $50
As a confession, my first astronomy purchase was a great telescope that I really had no idea how to use! It was a decision I made after spending a fair bit of time stargazing unaided by equipment but it then was left to gather dust as I didn’t know how to make the most of it.
I eventually decided to get a pair of binoculars and it was the best decision I made to help my progress as otherwise I may have just let it drop.
For good starter option, look for a pair of 10×50 binoculars (10×50 means 10x magnification and 50mm diameter).
You can start with your binoculars by looking at the moon and seeing how it changes as it goes through its phases. You can then move onto to trying to pick out the planets and hopefully get more ambitious (and successful!) over time – it’s quite possible to see beyond the Milky Way with binoculars and so well worth the investment.
3. Get a telescope
Upgrading to a telescope is a step you’ll almost certainly want to progress to at some point. When the time comes it’ll definitely be worth doing your research into the different brands, types and specifications.
As a brief outline, there are two main different types of telescope. These are:
And there is a lot more to consider, such as:
If you’d like to read more about this then check out What to look for when buying a telescope.
4. Get a camera
One thing to consider is whether you want to take astronomy photos. If you already have a camera then you will want to factor this into the type of telescope you buy as you’ll want one that allows this functionality.
If you don’t have one then you can think about getting a DSLR – see our review of the best cameras for astrophotography here.
Note that other equipment is needed to attach a camera to a telescope, including a T-Ring and an adapter.
It is worth noting that you can so some very good astrophotography with an iPhone or other smartphone if you have the right equipment. In fact, we have a very good piece on this – check out our guide to smartphone astrophotography.
4. How can I learn more about astronomy?
Investing in yourself and learning is as important as investing in equipment. The below resources are all excellent ways to learn more about astronomy and develop your skills.
1. Follow websites, emails and social media
Look out for good astronomy organizations and follow them online. You can bookmark the websites, register for email updates or follow on social media.
As a starter these are some great respected organizations:
2. Read up
There are great books out there for beginners and these are some of the best ones available on Amazon:
- 50 Things To See With A Small Telescope by John A Read
- Astronomy for Dummies by Stephen P. Maran
- Astronomy: A Beginner’s Guide to the Universe by Eric Chaisson and Steve McMillan
- Astronomy: A Self-Teaching Guide by Dinah L. Moche
- 2017 Guide to the Night Sky: A Month-by-month Guide to Exploring the Skies Above North America by Wil Tirion and Storm Dunlop (there are different versions of this book for different countries and continents)
3. Watch videos
A quick way to advance is to watch some videos on YouTube:
- Crash Course’s ‘Introduction to Astronomy’ is great:
Other good options are:
- Astronomy and Nature TV’s Stargazing – getting started in astronomy video
- The telescope manufacturer Orion’s Astronomy for Beginners video
4. Join a club
Joining a local club or group to meet other people interested in astronomy can be a great way to move forward quickly. The best way would be to Google something like “astronomy clubs near me” and do some research!
5. Astronomy for beginners: 3 easy steps to get started
To recap, I believe that starting out in astronomy doesn’t necessarily require a big flashy telescope.
Take these basic steps to get started and then invest in both yourself and your tools as your interest grows:
- Sit out and watch the stars without any equipment. Count how many stars you can see. Keep an eye out for satellites and shooting stars.
- Get yourself a pair of good binoculars or a beginner’s telescope. There are plenty of good inexpensive options (and also make great gifts).
- Read up on the subject. Follow websites, watch videos and read books. The results of investing in learning can far outweigh that of investing in equipment.
Once you have gone through these steps then you might want to think about getting yourself a more advanced telescope. Look out for a full guide on that in the future!
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