Saturday, June 24, 2006

Is Astronomy the Right Hobby for You?

By Christina VanGinkel

From young to old, astronomy is a favorite hobby of many people. Stargazing might theoretically be the oldest hobby when you think about it, as the stars have been here from the beginning. Like just about any hobby that you might imagine though, astronomy has made advancements in recent years in large part due to the computers that many of us use each day both at home and at work.

While stargazing will always take place by stepping out your door and gazing skyward, with aid of a telescope or just the naked eye, some hobbyists are also taking advantage of software applications that allow them to see much more than the telescopes that they can afford would ever allow them to see on their own. Starry Night Pro Plus 5.0 Astronomy Software, by Imaginova and available for use on both Macintosh and Windows based computers, works with the following computerized telescopes, by helping you align the telescope properly with the stars you are in search of:

Orion SkyQuest Intelliscope series (XT6, XT8, X10 and X12)
Meade LX200
Meade LX200 GPS
LX200 Compatible Scope
Meade ETX Autostar
Autostar V2.2 or later (ETX, LX90, LXD55)
Celestron NexStar 60, 80, 114 GT
Celestron NexStar 5 or 8
Celestron NexStar 8 GPS
Celestron NexStar 11 GPS

Advertised as a desktop planetarium solution, the Starry Night Pro Plus 5.0 Astronomy Software, by Imaginova is much more than just a fancy way to control your computerized telescope though. It comes complete with an in-the-field features and equipment checklists to help the serious stargazer, online updates, to make sure that information on sunspots, auroras, and weather patterns around the globe are kept as current as possible. The task panels are easy to navigate, and anyone interested in astronomy will be able to quickly understand how the user interface works. Planets, comets, asteroids, even satellites are mapped with ease thanks to the powerful search tools and amount of information that is included.

Keep in mind though that fancy tools such as these are not needed, especially for someone just beginning or someone who is just testing the waters, per se, sampling the hobby to see if it is something that even appeals to them. To start a hobby in astronomy, all that is required if I were pressed to give a short list, would be a basic telescope and a set of books such as Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe, by Terence Dickinson, along with The Backyard Astronomer's Guide, by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer. Nightwatch is considered by many to be the best book that any beginning astronomer could have on his or her bookshelf. The spiral bound book includes star charts, along with a lot of practical information hat the average person interested in astronomy might never have access to otherwise. Out side of a book such as this, a class in astronomy might be the next best suggestion. The Backyard Astronomer's Guide, by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer will take you one-step further than Nightwatch, and help you with shopping for the perfect telescope for your needs. I would recommend this book for those who are sure that astronomy is something they want to delve further into, but are in need of guidance when it comes to acquiring some of the tools that many astronomers use.

If you are even more of a beginner than even this, just someone who is marginally interested in what all the fuss is about when it comes to the stars, I suggest you do the following. The next clear evening, when the clouds are not blocking the view, head outside. Pick a spot away from the bright lights, somewhere that cars are not flashing their headlights, where streetlights are not commandeering pedestrians and vehicles alike. While a rural hillside would be ideal, I know that is not an option for most, so think about there you might be able to go, such as the rooftop terrace of a high building, or your backyard where the streetlights do no cast their glow. Once you have found a good spot free of the intrusion of artificial lighting, look up. Take the time to gaze at the stars. If you can see the night sky, filled with the brightness that the stars cast, and not be intrigued, then astronomy most likely is not a calling that you have. If however, you end up gazing skyward until someone calls you back to earth, then checking out this fascinating hobby a bit more is surely something that you should do.

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