Saturday, September 09, 2006

Arm-chair Astromomy for Beginners

Review by Garnet Brooks

Beginning a hobby in astronomy does not necessarily involve buying a telescope. Some people live in urban areas where there is too much light at night to see the heavens well. They may not even have a place to put or aim a telescope especially if tall buildings block the view. And, as a beginner, if you buy a very cheap telescope the image may constantly jump and drive you crazy.

One way to begin is to buy two or three astronomy volumes. There are different kinds with vastly different levels of information. People may have varying interests also. Beginning guides are available to tell you how to find constellations with the naked eye or with field glasses. Most people can start with the field glasses, a compass, and a star chart. Some beginners will want to know about the solar system. Others may be interested in stargazing. Still others in deep space objects like distant galaxies. Some may want to anticipate and observe comets. Others may want to know about space exploration.

One way to begin is by getting a college level introduction to astronomy. This has both advantages and disadvantages. While it may be systematic and informative it may also presuppose a knowledge of physics that the beginner does not have. In such volumes you may find good descriptions of spectral analysis, planetary motion, or other technical information all of which is not necessary to enjoy stargazing. One of the advantages to purchasing one of them is that they are often sold used at bookstores near a university.

A good place to start is a volume that says it is a practical guide. A good quality book of this sort should be easy to use with nice, clear pictures and general not extensive descriptions of the basic areas of astronomy. They often have pull out or detachable maps of the constellations for each of the four seasons of the year. They may have factual information about how to observe the sky locating not only constellations but planets that are easily visible. The may have factual information also about things like the composition of stars, solar winds and eclipses. Usually there is some information about the cosmogony, theories about the development and origins of the universe. Usually too there is some information about the more exotic things like dwarf stars, novas, black holes, or pulsars. There may be a brief introduction to physics.

Some basic astronomy volumes are very affordable. Some of the larger book chains reprint and sell them. I have found more than one very good one at Barnes and Nobel chain stores. Some contain resources guides that direct you to web sites like NASA's or to other more specific volumes. From there the beginner may want to invest in a more advanced volume or to be more specific in interest studying primarily the solar system or primarily deep space, for example. is a good place to look for texts. Another is the discount mail-order company E. R. Hamilton (they also have their inventory online).

Some astronomy texts contain disc for the computer which contain not only a wide array of color photos but also programs that help track things like orbital motion. Some provide simulations of all sorts of things like tracking a path through the mountains of the moon. Plus they have cool screen savers. My astronomer's companion guide has a program which simulates space flight in the solar system, one that simulates lunar and solar eclipses, and a comprehensive sky atlas. This is only a sample of the many things included.

One of the nicest things, in my opinion, is the large picture book particularly photos from the Hubble Space Telescope. For sheer beauty and mystery there is nothing like a good photo of the Ring Nebula. Of course, the Hubble photos are of things any amateur astronomer is just not going to see very well or at all with even a good telescope.

There are numerous web sites with amateur astronomy information. The best place to start is with NASA's web site. They have free downloads and you can access the NASA TV channel by web.

If you start actual observation of the sky with field binoculars you can see the moon quite well and can track the movement of some of the larger planets. There are a number of astronomy magazines available. Sky and Telescope is one of the best. It can also help you decide if you want to take the step to buy a small telescope. Another good one is Astronomy especially the online version. Meade and Orion sell reasonably priced basic telescopes. Or you could just sit in a nice comfy chair with a big picture book.

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