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Observational Astronomy

By , Friday 7th November 2008 in Observation Tips

Like most hobbies, getting started in astronomy can be quite challenging. From learning your way around the sky to the first telescope purchase, there’s lots to learn. Discover everything you need to know to get started in astronomy and a little bit more.

Observational astronomy is the study of the stars, planets, and other celestial objects that populate the sky. This guide will show you what you can see in the night sky with amateur equipment and give tips and pointers.

There is so much out there in the night sky, so much to see. And you don't need expensive equipment to see these things. Astronomy is an endlessly fascinating field, the oldest of the natural sciences, and one of the few areas of science that amateurs can assist the professionals and contribute to science.

It should be noted that what you will see is not going to look like what you see on TV or media. The typical images we see are constructed from large numbers of photographic exposures using very expensive equipment. Please try not to be disappointed when you look through a telescope at a galaxy and only see a faint blob instead of the rich, full colour images that NASA produce.

It should also be noted that what you will be able to see in the sky will be limited by the quality of the atmosphere in your observation area. How much light pollution is there? What is the seeing and transparency like? But fear not, even if you live in a big city with terrible light pollution, it should be possible for you to pick out the more obvious objects, like Venus, the moon, Jupiter, Orion, the Big Dipper, the Pleiades, and the North Star. Not all of these things will be visible all the time, but if you start spotting for them you will begin to notice how their positions change over the course of the year.

Constellations

Constellations are patterns in the sky which have been to invented and have deep mythology behind them. The sky is divided up into 88 official constellations, each of which represents an area in the sky. These areas are used to help navigate the celestial sphere. Constellations cover massive areas in the sky and as such are very easy to find.

Constellations are best views with the naked eye, anything else and you won't be able to fit them all in.

The Great Square of Pegasus
The Great Square of Pegasus

 

Moon

There is nothing quite like the sight of a waxing crescent Moon hanging in the evening twilight sky - the classic Moon shape beloved of movie makes and artists alike. Luckily the moon is one of the easiest objects in the night sky to observe and is great to view with the naked eye, but really comes alive using binoculars and small telescopes.

The Moon makes great binocular and telescope viewing
The Moon makes great binocular and telescope viewing

 

Planets

The planets, although distant can also be seen with the naked eye. In late autumn early winter Venus is clearly visible in the early morning sky. It is the brightest object in the sky, save the Moon.

Although Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are visible with the naked eye, you should observe these with binoculars. Even using small power binoculars, you can make out the red of Mars, the green of Venus, the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter.

Using a telescope, you can see even more of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter and make out some surface details on Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

Venus and the Moon
Venus and the Moon

 

Star Clusters

Star clusters are groups of stars, consisting of anywhere between a few hundred and thousands of stars. These are visible as a faint fuzzy blob under dark skies, but can be seen easily with binoculars. Star clusters range in size and brightness and there are hundreds to see. M45 in Taurus is probably one of the best known and easiest to find. It is one of the few that is visible even in light polluted skies.

M45 - The Pleiades Star Cluster
M45 - The Pleiades Star Cluster

 

Galaxies

Galaxies are one of the largest objects visible. Despite being quite faint, they are visible in large telescopes quite easily. Andromeda is the largest and brightest and can be seen in larger binoculars and small telescopes as a fuzzy patch. To see any real details you would ideally need to use a camera and use long exposures.

M31 - The Andromeda Galaxy
M31 - The Andromeda Galaxy

 

Nebulae

Nebulae are a mixture of interstellar dust, hydrogen gas, helium gas and plasma. They are the reminants of supernova and are some of the most beautiful objects to see in the night sky. They are fairly easy to locate in the sky, however they are generally faint. Some of the larger ones are visible in binoculars and small telescopes with the fainter ones require larger telescopes.

M1 Crab Nebula
M1 Crab Nebula

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About the Author

Tim Trott

Tim is a professional software engineer, designer, photographer and astronomer from the United Kingdom. You can follow him on Twitter to get the latest updates.

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