I’m relatively new to astronomy, have been involved for just over 18 months, and am still pretty limited in my knowledge. One of my learning resources is being a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), Ottawa Chapter, and by being a member, I get the annual Observer’s Handbook.
The Handbook is a great resource. But I confess that as a newbie, it can be quite daunting. For example, page 23 of the 2015 handbook has a table entitled, “Heliocentric Osculating Orbital Elements for 2015: Referred to the Mean Ecliptic and Equinox of J2000.0”. Umm, sure. I’ll get right on reading that immediately. As soon as I finish grouting the tub at a friend’s house. And this is listed in a section called “Basic data”.
If you know what that table is about, congratulations! However, this means that this blog entry is not for you. It’s for the people who have the handbook and want to be able to use it without an advanced degree in astrophysics or spending 3 hours with a dictionary and going down internet wormholes looking things up on websites.
One might think that the Handbook would start with an overview of telescope options, but it doesn’t. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of places on the Internet that will cover the various options, and there are just too many to include every year in the Handbook. It does, however, note that you don’t even need a telescope if you want to just start with binoculars (page 60).
Most newbies assume that they should immediately jump to planets and deep-sky objects. In reality, you can go pretty far checking out the moon first. As such, the Handbook includes a moon map (page 148) and helpful tips on lunar observing (page 158). The obvious mistake many make is to think the full moon is the best viewing option, but in actual fact, any of the other days is actually better (outside of new moon when it isn’t visible at all), because the light coming from the side will illuminate mountains and show 3D relief along the edge of dark and light. It’s a great starting point, you don’t need a powerful telescope to see stuff, it’s easy to find the moon (don’t laugh! finding stuff is hard at first!), and some nights, it’s the only thing up there you can see from a bright location (like a city).
Once you’re done with the Moon, or rather, once you’re ready to expand your horizons (none of us are ever done with the moon), there are four parts to the guide that are your lifeblood as a newbie.
First and foremost, observing is mostly limited to the night time – if the sun is up, it’s too bright to see much. So, there is a list of sunrise and sunset times on page 205.
Second, there is a map of the night sky by month (page 339). If you have a planisphere, or any of a dozen astronomy programs/applications, this may be redundant, but it gives you an overview of where various things are going to be in the night sky — which gives you an idea of looking west or east, for example.
Third, there is a month-by-month guide to the sky (page 94). It is a little dense in places, but each month you can read it and have a pretty good idea of what you might consider looking for when you’re out. Maybe you’ll ignore something you’ve seen before, maybe you’ll only do one big “highlight” per month. But it is the first start in planning what you are going to see each month. It is also similar to what you’ll get in an astronomy calendar or each month from various online “guides” to what’s coming up to see.
Fourth, supplementing the month-by-month guide, there is also a guide to the planets (page 211). It gives you the basic info about the planet, but more importantly, it tells you when in the year you should plan to see it and what the likely pros/cons of different times of the year will be (i.e. when you might see it next to another planet, called a “conjunction”, when it will be high in the sky or low in the sky, etc.).
If you can master the moon (and some of its features), and then see a bunch of the planets, you’ve got the basics down pat. The best part for those two groups is that they are almost always quite bright, and thus easier to see. Sometimes you can even see the moons of Jupiter with the naked eye.
The last piece of the puzzle for newbies is being able to look at a constellation. Once you can nail one constellation, you can pretty much find the rest. Don’t worry if a constellation doesn’t look like a fish or a bear to you, it doesn’t really look like that to most people. The trick is can you find a star or two in the constellation, and from that point, figure out or spot the other stars that make up the constellation. The Handbook starts with an easy one — their feature constellation is Ursa Major (page 272).
Once the basics are covered, the Handbook offers a decent set of spotlights on other night targets:
- An overview of deep-sky observing hints (page 85) to help you find specific stars, galaxies, or nebulae;
- Seeing comets (page 265);
- List of the brightest stars (page 275), including the 50 brightest by magnitude (page 285); and,
- A list of double and multiple stars (page 291) which are always exciting to see (imagine looking with your naked eye at what looks like a single star, but the telescope shows you that it is actually 2 or 3 close together in the sky).
The RASC group also provides certificates to people who log their observing of a list of Messier objects, NGC, and deepsky objects (these are essentially just unique lists of objects in the sky that people or groups have indexed before and you can find all of the ones on a list and get a certificate). The certificate list is on page 308, with further links to more info about each of the sub-groups in the pages that immediately follow. I thought there was one for observing the moon too, but I don’t see it listed here.
Expanding Your Comfort Zone
There are tons of extra pages in the Handbook that might overwhelm newbies, but if you’ve done the above, you’re no longer a newbie. Nevertheless, even advanced newbies might find detailed numerical tables daunting. You can, however, consider three other “tweaks” to your observing.
I’ll start first with filters (page 64). Essentially, they are exactly what they sound like — filters to filter out certain wavelengths of light. While generally speaking you want as much light as possible to reach the telescope, using certain filters can help the planets “pop” more vibrantly. Think of it as looking at a multi-coloured object with a green filter — the green shade changes what the shadows and colours look like; if you use a red filter, different too; a blue filter, different again. And so on. So the filters can just bring out some of the contrasts, particularly for planets (with different filters working better or worse for each planet).
Many people think the only time you look at the sun is when there’s an eclipse, but if you buy a special filter (a solar filter), you can look at the sun anytime you want (page 186). You have to take basic safety precautions, no different than looking at the sun directly with your naked eye in that sense, but with the safety options in place, your “night” scope is no longer limited to just the night time. Sunspots, solar flares, all are possible sights. Some people even buy pure solar scopes, which outperform the simple “filter” option dramatically.
My last item to flag in the handbook for pushing your comfort zone is digital astrophotography (outlined on page 91). This can range from simply putting your iPhone up to the eyepiece and snapping a photo all the way to having an expensive webcam in your scope’s eyepiece while a computer records the video image the webcam can see. Numerous experienced astronomers tell newbies not to worry about photography for AT LEAST a year because it is not “simple”, it is often disappointing at the start, and it takes away from the time you need to be spending learning how to navigate the night sky an d working your telescope. By contrast, it is also a great way to feel connected to the hobby after you put your scope away.
I also like that the Handbook has a collection of web links to help you keep your learning going, with the handy list upfront on page 15. Some of the better ones on the list for newbies are Astronomy magazine, the Clear Sky Chart (predicts if there will be clouds or particles in the air), Heavens Above (tracking satellites, also highlighted in more detail on page 38), and the Sky and Telescope magazine site.
I hope you enjoy your Handbook and try not to let all the extra “pieces” scare you. It is for newbies as well as the technorati who have been observing for years.