Introduction to Astronomy

Since the earliest times mankind has been interested in what mysteries the stars hold. The night skies captured the imaginations of early humans and gave rise to fascinating tales and myths. To this day the night sky fascinates us. Astronomy can be a very interesting and rewarding hobby and well worth your time. Below you can find a very brief introduction to help you to get started with astronomy.

Getting started

Most people believe that you need a telescope to get started with astronomy. This isn't true. The only thing you need is a keen eye, clear skies and a thirst for knowledge. The first, and most important step, is to take the time to get to know the constellations and important landmarks in the sky. This might sound a bit tedious, but believe me, once you have a good knowledge of the night sky and you decide to get yourself a telescope this will make it much easier to find the objects you want to observe. The sky is a big place, and knowing where to look helps a lot! For this purpose you can make use of books, star maps or even some astronomy software programs that will show you the positions of constellations, planets and other celestial objects for your specific location.

Tools of the Trade: Telescopes and Binoculars

A good telescope is a worthy investmentOnce you have a good knowledge of the night sky and you are able to find your way around, you can consider buying some equipment to aid you in your hobby.

Binoculars: Binoculars are far less expensive than telescopes, but still provide for some great viewing. You will be suprised with what you'll be able to see using only binoculars. After all, you don't want to spend a lot of money on a telescope, just to discover later on that astronomy isn't for you. A good pair of binoculars is a much better investment than a cheap telescope, and more often than not you'll achieve much better results with it too. An added bonus is that if, in the end, you decide that astronomy isn't your passion, you'll easily be able to use the binoculars for other things.

Telescopes: If you are sure that astronomy is for you it's time to consider investing in a good telescope. You need to have realistic expectations of what to expect from a telescope - you won't see Hubble quality images. A telescope is the most expensive piece of equipment, but also the most rewarding. Buying a telescope requires a lot of research and finding the right telescope for your needs will take time and effort.

It is important that you stay away from the telescopes available in department stores. You might be tempted by their 500x magnification claims, but there is much more to telescopes than magnification. The most important aspects to consider is the quality of optics (lenses, mirrors etc.), the quality of the mount and portability and ease of use.

Magnification isn't everything. Actually when it comes to telescopes aperture (the light gathering ability of the telescope) is more important than magnification. The aperture refers to the size of the light gathering lens (objective lens) of the telescope and will determine how clearly you will be able to observe objects. A good start would be to go for a 6" telescope as a minimum. With that you'll be able to observe most objects. Unfortunately telescopes with larger objective lenses are very expensive, but the larger objective lens you get the clearer images will be. Portability becomes a problem with the increase in size, so you also need to take that into consideration.

There are various kinds of telescopes available:
  • Refractors: This is what most people think of when you mention a telescope. Light travels from the objective lens in a straight line to the eyepiece. They are generally more expensive than other types of telescopes
  • Reflectors: Reflectors make use of mirrors to reflect the image from the objective lens into the eyepiece.
  • Catadioptrics: Catadioptrics use a combination of mirrors and lenses to fold the optics and create an image.

Each of these types of telescopes have advantages and disadvantages. It is very important that you do the necessary reseach to find the telescope that's most suited to your purposes. Ask questions from retailers, read reviews of the various telescopes you are considering, and make sure that you get a period where you can test the telescope and still be able to return it for a full refund if it doesn't meet your needs. It is also important to stick to well known brands who offer good quality optics. Meade and Celestron is some of the best telescope brands available and should be a safe choice.

I hope this brief introduction has increased your interest in astronomy and that it has been of some help. I wish you all clear skies, and good viewing!