The expanse and fascination of space has always been something that has intrigued people for generations. In fact we are living in quite a privileged time where amateurs now have access to extremely high-tech and advanced optical equipment which allows us to see detailed surface features on the moon, or the rings of Saturn (1.4 billion km away), or even distant galaxies and star clusters (billions of light years away) - all from our own back garden.
Astronomy can enjoyed by anyone at any age and can be made as simple or as complex as you like, depending on how deep you wish to go into it. In the field of Astronomy like everything else, using the necessary equipment does come with a learning curve and in this article we will try to cover some of the basics which we hope will offer beginners in this hobby a better idea of what to expect and also offer some advice in getting started in Astronomy.
Choosing your Equipment:
First off, there is a tendency for many people to think you need a telescope with the most magnification you can get, to see the best views of space. This is actually not true, in fact we never recommend purchasing a telescope advertised by its magnification capability. A much more important thing to consider when choosing your first telescope is actually its aperture - We have more detailed information on this topic in our 'Choosing a Telescope' article which you can view here.
But even before you decide on purchasing any equipment, here are some other ways you can begin your journey in the fascinating and exciting field of Astronomy:
Observing the night sky with just the naked eye and no equipment may seem slightly underwhelming at first but actually with the help of various Planetarium Apps now available on your phone (e.g 'Stellarium'), its amazing what you can see without a telescope at all. For many of us when we look up at the night sky we see lots of stars but some of those may be planets and if you are fortunate enough to live in a dark sky location (eg. away from city lights) our own galaxy the Milky Way and even some of the larger galaxies like Andromeda are also visible to the naked eye as well. - You just need to know where to look and this is where the planetarium apps on your phone will help - Just load them up and hold your phone to the sky and as you move around it will tell you what you are looking at, its that simple.
In fact some of the larger and closer planets such as Jupiter, Saturn and Venus are very easy to locate even from bright city skies and are often mistaken for a bright stars.
Choosing your basic Equipment:
One thing that can be said about Astronomy is that the cost of equipment can ramp up quite quickly for more advanced telescopes and mounts (especially for Astrophotography), however you really don't have to invest much at all to get some fantastic views of the night sky - In fact we would always discourage beginners from jumping in and purchasing expensive equipment from the start, as the learning curve for this is very steep and its easy to become discouraged and loose interest in a hobby which can otherwise provide you with a lifetime of fascination and enjoyment.
Don't rule out the Bino's:
You would be surprised just how amazing the solar system and deep sky objects can look through a good pair of binoculars. There is something quite unique and special about looking at an area of space with such a wide field of view with both eyes. The sheer number of extra stars for one will blow you away, and even the moon and planets like Jupiter will look very clear - with Jupiter appearing as a very small but bright disc and possibly 2 or three of its moons becoming visible. The other great thing about Binoculars is that they take up very little space and you can take them literally anywhere - even on holidays if you will be visiting an area where there is dark skies.
TIP: When using high-power Binoculars, its a good idea to use some kind of Tripod, as this will improve your viewing experience considerably by providing a more steady viewing platform.
Choosing a Telescope:
Choosing a telescope is normally where most beginners feel the most unsure about, especially given the huge range of options now available. The main thing however is not to feel you need to spend a fortune to get started, its better to get something simple that you can really enjoy, rather than a large and expensive Telescope which will rarely be used.
Even with good smaller Telescopes, you can enjoy some really breathtaking views of the Moon such as this photo below sent in by a customer who's 13yr old daughter took using her mobile phone camera and a small beginner Telescope - The Bresser AR80 Nano Telescope.
(Customer Photo: Taken with a Mobile Phone & Bresser AR80 Nano Telescope)
Telescopes are of course a step up from Binoculars and will naturally offer more detailed views of our solar system and deep space objects. There are various types of Telescope you can choose from and some will cater better for different types of viewing - We have put together some slightly more detailed articles below that you may hopefully find useful:
The main thing we would say about choosing your first telescope is to take your time and ask for help if needed. Generally speaking if you are looking for a beginner telescope for just casual viewing of the Moon and Planets, then most telescope designs will work quite well and one with an Alt-Azimuth mount would be a good option as they are cheaper, less complex and much quicker to setup.
If on the other hand you feel you would like to delve a little deeper into the hobby and perhaps try out some astrophotography, it may be worth considering one with a German Equatorial Mount - Either way, if you would like more help we are happy to offer you more tailored advice for your specific needs - so feel free to contact us here.
You can also contact one of the many Astronomy clubs around the country who can also provide a wealth of information and experience. Many of these clubs have outings where you may be able to try out some of the equipment for yourself and meet like minded individuals.
Finally - Managing expectations:
While we may have control over what equipment we choose, one thing we do not have control of is the weather and the seeing conditions. Its important for anyone beginning in Astronomy to be aware of these limitations, as they will determine just how clearly we see objects like the planets and other deep sky objects. The other thing to be aware of is the difference between visual Astronomy and Astrophotography.
This is simply using an eyepiece to view an object through a telescope. Viewing planets and especially the moon through a telescope in this way is always a memorable experience - even through smaller telescopes.
This is where we attach a camera (either a dedicated Astro Camera or a DSLR) to the eyepiece connection point and usually take long exposure images which are later stacked using specialised stacking software.
In the image below we show an example of the Andromeda Galaxy viewed under dark skies through both an eyepiece and also with a camera using long exposure stacked images. While both are impressive, there is naturally a lot more detail visible in the photograph, but saying that, there's also something really special about viewing another galaxy with your own eyes through an eyepiece, regardless of the detail.
The reason for this difference is that many of these deep space objects are so far away (millions of light years) so their light signal is very weak by the time it reaches us - Its a bit like someone holding a bright torch on a hill, as you move further away the light becomes fainter and harder to see, until a point where its not visible anymore. Because modern camera sensors are far more sensitive to light and can also capture even fainter light signals using longer exposures, they are able to collect far more detail and colour than just using our eyes.
The only exception to this is when we view the moon and the planets. As these are so much closer and brighter, its possible to see a lot of detail, even when viewing through an eyepiece using a telescope. This can be even further enhanced by using special planetary filters attached to the eyepiece to further enhance some of their features such as cloud bands on Jupiter and polar caps on Mars.
The one factor which affects both visual Astronomy and Astrophotography and is unfortunately out of our control is seeing conditions. Cloud is an obvious one, but less obvious is high altitude jet-stream activity, heavy moisture in the air and thermals (warm air rising from roof tops and concrete structures) - and lets not forget the dreaded light pollution from city lights.
This is why most of the worlds large scientific observatories are located in areas of high altitude, well away from large cities - or even better Hubble Space telescope located in orbit, where it has a completely unobstructed view of the universe!
Seeing conditions can make a big difference to our viewing experience, and this becomes even more obvious the higher you magnify the view. For example, you may find on one clear night your view of the moon or planets at high magnification looks extremely sharp and detailed but on another clear night using the same telescope at the same place, you may find the view much less clear - This is not a fault with your equipment, but is because the seeing conditions are constantly changing, even by the hour.
Larger aperture telescopes will help provide decent views at higher magnifications even when seeing conditions are not perfect, but even these have limitations too and even the largest amateur telescopes will always be limited on nights when atmospheric conditions are particularly poor.
If you'd like to know more or need help choosing your first telescope, or a telescope for a child, feel free to contact us here