Learning astronomy may seem overwhelming at first. Still, by following some steps, you can become an expert at observing the sky along with its extraordinary stars, constellations, galaxies, planets.
Astronomy might be the oldest science of all. Even though we’ve studied the sky for millennia, it still holds many secrets–and therefore many discoveries that an amateur astronomer might be the one to make.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it’s important to get off to the right start with some astronomy fundamentals. And that’s exactly what you’ll be ready to do by the end of this article.
We believe these are the best ways for beginners to study astronomy at home:
1. Get comfortable using a star chart
There are over a trillion stars in our galaxy, this being one of the many reasons why they are the main targets of astronomy. Since there are so many of them, it is tough to recognize even the brightest ones in the night sky as a total beginner.
A star chart will make your work a lot easier, indicating exactly where you have to look to see each star. You will see the directly overhead stars in the center of the map, while on the outer rims, you will find the stars located in the north, south, east, or west. The directions will be labeled on the star chart.
You can use a paper-based star chart from a magazine or a newspaper or use an online version. You can also download apps on your phone, which will adjust according to your location on the globe.
Once you have a star-chart, you can start observing the sky and its magnificent stars.
2. Memorize major constellations
The night sky can be confusing at first since the celestial objects are not fixed, but continually moving. The sky looks different throughout the night and the seasons simply because the Earth is rotating, both around its own axis and the Sun.
Even though the stars change positions frequently, the patterns they make stay the same throughout time. This is why the constellations play a big part in astronomy, representing a real help for beginners in locating stars.
The first two constellations you need to know are Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. These are two distinct constellations located in the northern hemisphere, which contain as a fundamental part The Bigg Dipper and the Little Dipper.
3. Learn the major asterisms
The Big Dipper and the Little Dipper are two of the most recognizable asterisms in the night sky. They have been used throughout history by sailors and navigators as reference points for finding their way back to the shore.
The Big Dipper, also known as the Plough, is a well-known asterism located in the constellation of Ursa Major. It is one of the largest asterisms in the sky, consisting of seven bright stars, three of which form “the handle” of the Plough, while the other four form “the body.”
The Big Dipper is usually used as a guide to other stars. For example, if you stretch the imaginary line between Megrez and Phecda, you will reach Thuban, also known as Draconis.
You can also find the bright star Arcturus if you extend the Dipper’s handle, and if you go further, you will reach Spica, the most shining star of Virgo’s constellation. But the essential star you can find using The Big Dipper is the North Star.
All you have to do is continue straight up the imaginary line between Merak and Dubhe, and you will reach the brightest star of the Little Dipper.
The Little Dipper is located in the constellation of Ursa Major, and it also consists of seven stars shaped precisely like the Big Dipper, but on a smaller scale.
The most important star of this asterism is the North Star, also known as Polaris, the closest bright star to the North Pole. This particular star indicates the North, and unlike the rest of the celestial objects, it doesn’t change positions.
For that reason, you can use it as a celestial compass when you get lost among the stars. This star is even more accurate than a compass!
Once you have learned the significant constellations and asterisms, you are ready to analyze the sky a little deeper as you will always know where you are by just looking at the closest star pattern: “Oh, that’s Libra. If I look to the left, I will see Scorpius.”
4. Learn astronomical distance and coordinate systems
Like we have angles of longitude and latitude on the Globe, we have in the sky. The distances between celestial objects are determined using degrees of arc, one degree corresponding to 1/360th of a circle.
To determine the distances between stars with the naked eye, you can use your hand. Your little finger covers 1o of the sky, while your three middle fingers cover 5o. Your fist covers around 10o, and your outstretched hand 15o.
Another critical concept is the astronomical unit, or AU. One AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun.
5. Study up on telescope & binocular design
Astronomers use powerful telescopes that allow them to have a clear and unobstructed view of the universe so that they can observe even the dimmest objects in the night sky.
But telescopes might be costly and also unnecessary for a total beginner. The sky can be very well observed even with the naked eye if you find yourself in a place with little to no light pollution. Under these conditions, you can see up to thousands of stars.
But sometimes, our eyes are simply not enough. When this happens, a pair of binoculars is exactly what you need. But how do you choose the best binoculars? Every pair of binoculars is described using two numbers, such as 10×25, 7×35, or 10×50.
The first number shows how many times an object will be magnified. The second number represents the aperture, which determines how bright an image will be. Beginners often start with a 10×50 pair, which is a nice balance between power and ease of finding and tracking.
Observing the sky with binoculars can be a little challenging due to instability and difficulty finding objects, although tripods help. Start by following the moon to get used to the experience.
6. Keep a diary
Keeping track of your progress and discoveries can be an excellent and useful motivational tool. Whenever you feel down or consider quitting astronomy, just look at your diary and see how far you have come from, where you started and how much you have improved. It would be a shame to throw it all away, wouldn’t it?.
Moreover, keeping a diary concentrates the mind. The simple act of writing down the celestial objects you have observed during your sessions keeps your mind alert and wide awake. This will help you learn faster all the constellations, stars, and other celestial objects and their location.
7. Visit your local library
For astronomy beginners, the public library can be one of the most valuable resources for stargazing. It is not enough to look at the night sky if you don’t know what you’re looking at.
So the best thing you can do is go to the astronomy section and look for guidebooks for beginners and any other books that easily and clearly present celestial objects.
The first step to learning is reading, and astronomy makes no exception. After you’ve familiarized yourself with the basics of stargazing, you can dive into action.
8. Learn & share with other hobbyists
Surrounding yourself with people who share the same interests as you is critical. While stargazing is fun, doing it with friends can only increase the feeling, not to mention that you can help each other out when you’ve reached a dead end.
There are hundreds of astronomy clubs around the world, and you can not miss the opportunity of being part of one. Meetup.com is a great way to find them in many North American cities, for instance.
One of the many advantages this kind of experience holds is that you will be up to date with every astronomical event so that you won’t miss out on any solar eclipse or meteor shower.
And better still, you’ll have like-minded friends and mentors to experience them with. For instance, consider getting together for some of these major astronomical events that 2021 has in store:
January 13 – New Moon – During this night, at 05:02 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), the Sun and the Moon will be located on Earth’s same side. Thus the moon will not be visible. This is the best opportunity for observing faint objects in the night sky because there will be no moonlight to obstruct the view.
May 7, 7 – Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower – This above average meteor shower produces up to 60 meteors per hour, and it can be seen at its best in the Southern Hemisphere. Those who observe it from the Northern Hemisphere will see a rate of 30 meteors per hour. Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower radiates from the Aquarius constellation, and it occurs every year since Ancient times.
May 26 – Total Lunar Eclipse – A total lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon finds itself in the Earth’s dark shadow. The Moon will get darker and darker during this total lunar eclipse, only to take on a bloody red color afterward.
August 12, 13 – Perseids Meteor Shower – This meteor shower will radiate from Perseus’s constellation and produce up to 60 bright meteors per hour. It will be best seen after midnight.
December 13, 14 – Geminids Meteor Shower – This is the best meteor shower throughout the year. It radiates from the constellation of Gemini, and it produces somewhere around 120 multicolored meteors per hour. To get the best view of this meteor shower, you need to observe it after midnight from a place where there is almost no light pollution.
9. Use the internet to your advantage
The internet is a new astronomer’s dream, with endless info from beginning friendly like this one to the cutting-edge research published by NASA itself. These websites will help you learn many things and keep you interested or even excited about your new passion!
One of the more interesting topics to research online is the story behind each star: not just how it formed, but the actual mythological stories behind it, and how the ancients viewed and integrated them into their cultures.
Other websites continually post new discoveries, updates, and some even track celestial stars, planets, or other celestial events such as meteor showers.
Through these websites, you will also learn where different celestial objects are located, and when it is the best time to see them, and from where.
Videos on YouTube are also great if you want to see the actual scale differences between celestial objects or even real images and sounds from other worlds.
Astronomy is an extraordinary hobby since it involves the limits of human exploration and knowledge. You yourself may discover new things if this new curiosity brings you into the point of actually taking a telescope in your hands!
Since astronomy is somewhat related to mythology and history, think of all the things you could learn or the tales you might tell your friends at a campfire.
Apart from this, you will always have something to be excited about as technology progresses and new discoveries are made.
No matter what motivates and interests you about the heavens, it’s never been easier to immerse yourself in the ancient hobby and cutting-edge technology of stargazing.