Where to Start?

Are you interested in astronomy but don’t know where to start? Are you thinking about buying an entry-level telescope for yourself, or perhaps for a child? Here are some general suggestions on taking your first steps into a close, personal relationship with the cosmos.

My first suggestion is to seek out some local like-minded people. There are so many different aspects to astronomy that having ideas and observations from others is always a great start. Seek out a local astronomy club. The great thing about astronomy club meetings is that they are not weather-dependent! No matter how cloudy the sky may be you can always attend a meeting, usually hear a great talk, and have the enthusiasm and interest rub off on you. SkyNews Magazine as an extensive list of Canadian astronomy clubs online at: http://www.skynews.ca/pages/clubs_list.html – there’s one just about everywhere.

In most parts of Canada there is a branch club of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC: http://www.rasc.ca) . There are also great independent clubs out there, like the Hamilton Amateur Astronomers (HAA: http://amateurastronomy.org/). These groups are open and welcoming to newcomers, and almost always have free nights out with equipment owned by members, people who are always keen to share their passion and help you learn which end is up!

Second, I generally think it’s a good idea to resist the temptation to buy a telescope right away (and this is coming from a confirmed telescope geek!). There is nothing that says you have to buy a telescope and then get interested and informed. I side with many astronomy enthusiasts who recommend taking it slow when it comes to actually purchasing a first telescope. There are other options. Telescopes tend to be large, expensive, and specialized instruments. Start with something smaller, and more multi-purpose. A good pair of 7×50 binoculars is a great place to start, and you can use them all kinds of ways you can’t use a telescope. If you want to start with a purchase, think bino. Pick up one of the many great books on introductions to the subject, such as Terry Dickinson’s Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe.

Telescopes are more than just the optical part of the instrument (the “optical tube”) – for astronomy a telescope almost always needs some sort of mount (which holds and points the telescope itself) and a sturdy tripod. Taken together this is a bulky bit of equipment. This is another advantage of the 7×50 binocular approach – you can use them hand-held!

If you do decide to buy a telescope, take some time to learn about the many different options out there today. This is a golden age for amateur astronomers: fantastic equipment is available, from excellent (relatively) inexpensive optical tubes to computerized mounts that use GPS to find out where they are and line up the stars for you. The Naperville Astronomical Association in the USA has a very comprehensive guide to what goes into selecting a telescope at: http://www.stargazing.net/naa/scope3.htm

The practical upshot is that if you are thinking of buying a telescope for your family, budget at least a few hundreds of dollars (you can’t get too much for under $200 that’s worth the time or money), or spend a fair bit of time looking for good used equipment to bring that figure down (there are good used deals out there, though. Telescope kits that cost much less than this may end up being a frustrating piece of sculpture that lives in your basement and doesn’t see the dark of night. I also recommend seeking out a store that specializes in astronomy. The offerings of big box, department, and hardware stores tend to be inexpensive toys, and you get what you pay for.

Some Additional Resources