Information for New Observers

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1999 by Eric Hilbert

New observers often face a bewildering array of choices when they begin viewing the skies.  If you're not careful, you can waste plenty of money acquiring items you don't really need.  Worse yet, you may neglect to secure those things which are priceless which will make your time out in the dark and cold more productive and comfortable.

 Listed below are some of the essentials and some advice on various topics.

  1. Gadgets
  2. Red light
  3. Star atlas
  4. Telescope
  5. Binoculars
  6. Winter woes
  7. Summer pests
  8. Weather forecasting
  9. Tobacco and alcohol
  10. Trespass, police, and personal safety
  11. SKY Online - Your Astronomy Source on the World Wide Web



Most amateur astronomers are not wealthy enough to afford every accessory and clever device on the market.  So unless you're independently wealthy, you'll have a very long wish list and a much shorter inventory list.  In fact, I've always been impressed by how little equipment some of the most active amateurs own.

In amateur astronomy there are a few essential items (a good telescope, star atlas, red flashlight), some basic accessories (eyepieces), many convenient items (filters, telescope clock drive), and plenty of neat things.

As a beginner, it's important to resist the temptation to spend and acquire.  Like any other hobby, the desire will always far outpace the budget.  The secret to happiness is to acquire only those accessories which are clearly essential and for which your skill level is demonstrated.

The desire to acquire will be particularly strong when you get your first telescope.  You will "need" every gadget in the catalog.  (Some of them are really neat!)  All I can say is to resist temptation (as long as possible) and learn to master the equipment you presently own.

Someday you may decide to specialize in a specific area of amateur astronomy, such as observing variable stars, searching for new comets, or monitoring the planets.  This is the stage at which you will collect some very specialized equipment.

But for now, save your money for a good telescope and save your time learning everything you can, in the books and under the stars.

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Red light

Astronomers (and pilots) use flashlights with red lamps to help preserve their night vision.  It takes about 1/2 hour for your eyes to become fully dark-adapted.  Any exposure to bright white light will destroy your night vision.  (If you flash a white light when you're observing with a group, you may discover they may not invite you observe with them again very often.)

A small flashlight with a red lamp or a red filter over the lens (red cellophane) will work wonders in the dark.  Even better are the newer "flashlights" which employ a high-output red LED (light emitting diode).  You'll find these small light sources are plenty bright when you've been in darkness for awhile.

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Star atlas

Eventually, and sooner than you think, you'll need a good star atlas.  At first, anything will work.  But as you become familiar with the sky and seek out fainter challenges you'll want an atlas with greater detail and accuracy.

My advice is to delay purchasing a good atlas until you become reasonably familiar with the sky.  Besides, if you observe with a group, only one person has to bring the atlas.  Get some experience with the various atlases you encounter.  You'll know which one appeals to you.  When you become more active and begin planning your observing sessions you'll want access to your own atlas.

Star atlases can be very expensive.  For beginners, I highly recommend Norton's Star Atlas and Reference Handbook, 19th Edition (edited by Ian Ridpath).  This thoroughly modern atlas is based on the original  Norton's Star Atlas, a long time favorite among amateurs.  (My frayed copy of the 16th edition is 25 years old.  The pages are falling out, but it still sees active service.)  An especially useful feature of this atlas its observing guide.  Many amateur astronomers have started with this venerable book.

As your skills increase and you seek greater challenges, I recommend Sky Atlas 2000.0 (by Wil Tirion and Roger W. Sinnott).  This modern atlas, now in its second edition, is available in three versions: desk (black text on white background), field (white text on black background), and deluxe (color text on white background).  Each version is also available in a laminated format for protection against the elements.

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A telescope is a major investment.  One of the greatest benefits of belonging to an astronomy club is the opportunity to use a variety of instruments.  Each telescope design has its advantages and its weaknesses.

In astronomy, size is everything.  Get a telescope with as large an aperture (diameter) as you can afford.  (The whole idea of a telescope is to act as a "light bucket".)  Minimum size is 5-6 inches, 8" is better, 10" is getting serious, and 13-16" will be on your wish list someday.

Unfortunately, size equals money.  A modern 8-inch "portable" telescope will cost about $1000; one with all sorts of delightful accessories and options will easily run over $2000.  A very simple 10-inch telescope can be built or purchased for about $500.  The bottom line: get some knowledge and experience before handing over your hard-earned bucks.  (Don't forget the need to invest in accessories too.)

Stay away from small department store telescopes.  They're worthless for astronomy.  They're difficult to use and will cause you no end to frustration and disappointment.

Finally, the art of using a telescope is a skill.  You should plan to invest time learning the craft of amateur observation and maintain reasonable expectations.  Your instrument cannot compete with the Hubble Space Telescope, but it can provide a lifetime of enjoyment and memories. 

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An alternative to using a telescope is a pair of binoculars.  They're great for scanning the Milky Way, viewing wide-angle objects, and searching for elusive objects.  The smallest practical size is 7x35, but these are technically inadequate.  Better for astronomy are 7x50 and 10x80  binoculars.

As with telescopes, quality optics cost money, but expensive binoculars are not necessarily great binoculars.

Specialized (and expensive) giant binoculars designed for astronomy are available at premium prices. They are not for beginners.

The only problem with binoculars is their weight; few observers can hold them up perfectly still without some discomfort.

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Winter woes

Nothing kills enthusiasm faster than frigid cold and a stiff winter wind.  Air temperature is one factor, but it's wind chill that eventually drives everyone indoors.  Dress as if it's 20 degrees colder than reported.  In fact, the temperature out in the open country will be colder than typically reported.  Worse yet, you'll just be standing around most of the time.

Take a lesson from hikers, hunters, and campers.  Dress in layers to trap air around the body.  Avoid materials which will make you sweat.

Keeping your head covered is essential.  More heat is lost through the scalp than any other part of the body.  (That's why there is supposed to be hair up there.)  Wear a hat or a hood.

I find that once my feet get cold the game is over.  I recommend insulated hiking boots.  Some observers have discovered electric socks.

Now the fingers are a lost cause.  The best gloves in the world are worthless when you must remove them to operate the telescope, operate a camera, turn the page of an atlas, and do fine, delicate work.  One partial solution is to keep a pair of hand warmers in your coat pocket.  I prefer hand warmers which use a sodium acetate solution to generate heat.  They can be recharged in the microwave.

Another issue during winter is dehydration.  When it's hot and you get dry, you get thirsty.  In winter your body loses moisture, but you may not get thirsty.  You can become seriously dehydrated.  Take a tip from the winter survival manuals:  Force yourself to drink something periodically.  (Of course, anything alcoholic is not a suitable beverage; alcohol will further dehydrate you!)

One last winter observing rule deserves mention.  Take particular care never to breathe onto any optical surface.  It will frost up immediately and require a great deal of time to clear up.

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Summer pests

Aside from occasional oppressive heat and humidity, summer nights bring some unique annoyances.

Mosquitoes, flies, gnats, and ticks can drive the most dedicated amateur indoors.  All I can say is minimize your skin exposure and use DEET-containing insect repellent as if it were aftershave.  In the northeast we have a serious problem with deer ticks and Lyme disease.  Keep your feet and ankles covered; apply insect repellent on your shoes and around your ankles.  (You should be wearing hiking boots anyhow.)  During seasons of heavy infestations the only solution may be to relocate your observing site.

Bears, raccoons, skunks, and snakes rarely present a threat, but dogs can be problems.

Bears and raccoons will generally leave you alone, but this is a two-way street.  Don't go out smelling like a deli.  Sometimes a raccoon will hang around and act tame.  Avoid physical contact with any wild creature which acts tame.  Fox, skunk, and raccoon populations have been observed to undergo periodic rabies epidemics.

Skunks are a different story.  They're basically harmless and they're afraid of nothing, but sometimes they can act too fearless.  If, while you're busy observing, you feel something rubbing around your feet, take a good look before giving a kick.  Skunks won't hurt you if you don't startle them.  They usually move along after they satisfy their curiosity.  Again, rabies is known to frequently be epidemic among skunk populations.

Poisonous snakes can be dangerous but are rarely a problem.  Simply stay out of the areas they inhabit, especially log piles and rock piles.

Dogs deserve special precautions.  If they feel they're protecting their territory, dogs will attack.  Your best strategy is to avoid a confrontation.

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Weather forecasting

Active amateur astronomers soon learn that they must also become skilled with amateur meteorology.  We'll spend weeks planning for a wonderful night under dark skies on some remote mountaintop only to have our dreams smashed at the last-minute by a rapidly forming upper atmospheric disturbance.  Almost as bad is the decision to abandon travel plans to observe at a remote location due to daytime clouds only to stay at home and watch a perfectly clear nighttime sky.

Sky watchers frequently need to determine several possible weather events.  Will the partly cloudy afternoon sky clear up when the sun sets and the air begins to cool?  Will an approaching front move high altitude cirrus clouds over your observing site before the end of the night?  Will dew be a problem?

It should not take too long for you to notice the local weather patterns.  Such observations can be very helpful for last-minute planning and for deciding whether to depart for your remote observing site.

Today this task has become much easier thanks to the Internet.  For the latest weather information, including the best collection of current national radar and satellite maps, check out Intellicast, especially their national radar map and their national radar loop.  They also have the Global Atmospherics national lightning map; it's 30 minutes out of date, but it's better than nothing.

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Tobacco and alcohol

Smoking while observing is dumb.  It decreases your eyes' sensitivity.  It annoys other observers.  Most importantly, smoke adheres to glass surfaces like a magnet to steel.

Do not smoke near any optical surface!

Alcohol has no function while observing.  It decreases all of your senses including visual acuity.  It dehydrates you.  And unless you are on your own property, you may be violating numerous laws, especially if you drive.

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Trespass, police, and personal safety

Always obtain permission in advance to observe on private property.  Get this in writing if possible.  On public land I strongly recommend securing permits from the proper agency.  The issue usually isn't the activity itself but the fact that you'll be out late at night.  Most people will have no idea what you're doing.  They'll assume you're up to no good and call the police.

If the police do come to visit, be prepared to lose your night vision.  They will use a bright white light until they assess the threat.  Remember, the police will have no idea who you are and what you're doing.  (This is better than being met by an angry landowner wielding a shotgun!)  Most officers will understand once they interview you.  This is when you'll need that written permission document.  Before they depart, remember to offer the officers a view of a nice object.

For your own safety make sure someone knows where you can be found.  A cellular telephone (if it works) is great if you encounter trouble.  Use some common sense to avoid placing yourself in harm's way.  Forget about the four-legged beasts; you need to concern yourself with two-legged predators.  Most visitors will be friendly, curious, and harmless, but it's a cruel fact of modern life that many who should be locked away behind bars are free.

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SKY Online - Your Astronomy Source on the World Wide Web

Sky Publications, the publishers of Sky & Telescope magazine, maintains SKY Online, one of the finest astronomy web sites available.  In addition to useful information on almost every aspect of amateur astronomy, the site provides the latest news on celestial events, monthly sky maps, and links to hundreds of astronomy-related web sites and organizations.  Point your browser to for the most complete source of astronomical information on the Internet.

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