Outside/In[box]: 7 tips for getting started as a backyard astronomer
Every other Friday on Morning Edition, the Outside/In team answers a question from a listener about the natural world.
This week, Zachary on Instagram asks: how do you get started as an amateur stargazer?
1. You don’t necessarily need a fancy telescope. Binoculars work great!
“There's some really great objects that you can see just in the Big Dipper. The bend of the Big Dipper is actually a double star… Mazar and Alcor,” said Susan Rolke, a physics and chemistry teacher in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. She’s also a NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador, a study program for teachers.
Mazar and Alcor are visible with a pair of binoculars,
While there might be more to see with a telescope (for instance, there are actually six stars within that "single" star in the bend of the Big Dipper), there are also plenty of benefits to binoculars.
“Binoculars have the advantage of being more portable. They're easier to grab when you have only a few minutes to spend outside or when there's a chance break in the clouds on an otherwise overcast evening,” said Jennifer Willis, a columnist for Sky & Telescope.
“Binoculars also generally offer a wider field of view than a larger telescope, so you can see more of a celestial object, like having the entire moon in one view as opposed to a closer-up slice of it.”
2. Bring a guidebook or planisphere.
A planisphere is “basically a star chart on a wheel,” as Jennifer put it.
“You just turn it to match up with the date and the time that you want to stargaze. They're made for different latitudes, so that's something to keep in mind,” she said.
3. Check out a telescope from your local library.
Many New Hampshire public libraries offer 4.5-inch telescopes for patrons to check out, an example of the "Library of Things" concept in action. “These are pretty nice telescopes," said Susan.
Learn more about New Hampshire Astronomical Society's Library Telescope program here.
4. Find community. Attend a “star party” with your local astronomy club.
This is also a great way to both meet other stargazers and, if you’re interested in investing in some gear, to test out different telescopes. Here's a Sky & Telescope tool to search for your local astronomy club.
“For instance, if you really have your heart set on Saturn, you can look at Saturn through five different telescopes, maybe, and figure out which one is going to suit your purpose,” said Jennifer.
5. Smartphone apps can be great – but be careful not to ruin your night vision.
For apps, Susan recommends Star Walk 2 and Stellarium.
“You can just point them at the sky and it's going to tell you what constellation is being pointed at,” said Susan. Even when you point the phone at the ground, these apps show constellations visible on the other side of the planet.
But Susan cautioned that the blue light of a screen can be disruptive to stargazing. She recommends changing your phone's to "night mode," which displays a darker screen and red light.
6. Explore NASA’s many resources available for ways to engage with the night sky.
“There's a big push to start bringing astronomy to the visually impaired and even the blind. NASA's actually taken some of their photos and they've turned them into sonic representations, with the different wavelengths being different notes or played by different instruments,” Susan explained.
“There's also 3-D printed material that you can get, so you can see – meaning, feel – what an asteroid is like or what the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A feels like, which is pretty cool.”
“There is something very, very reassuring in the enduring skies… even if everything goes wrong in my life, even if the world ends, it's not the end of everything… I find such peace and quiet exhilaration in that,” said Jennifer.
If you’d like to submit a question to the Outside/In team, you can record it as a voice memo on your smartphone and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call the hotline, 1-844-GO-OTTER.
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