Astronomy 101

Indiana Astronomical Society - Astronomy 101

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So you think you are interested in amateur astronomy? Well, you are not alone. Every one of us who has become "hooked" on our hobby started out right where you are now. Hopefully we can get you started in such a way that you will find our hobby interesting and rewarding.

Most beginners get involved in amateur astronomy because they have looked up at the majestic night sky and found it fascinating. We have all marveled at the beautiful images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Just remember, if you expect to see images like those from Hubble, you are going to be deeply disappointed. After all, if we amateurs could see "stuff" just like Hubble, NASA would never have spent billions of dollars putting the observatory into orbit.

Our assumption here in Astronomy 101 is that you are primarily interested in observing the night sky. So, this is where we will spend our time with you. First of all, and this is extremely important: DO NOT GO OUT AND BUY A TELESCOPE UNTIL YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY SURE YOU KNOW WHAT YOU WANT/NEED. There are lots of telescopes out there and some are total junk. So do not go out and make a major purchase that could very well disappoint you once you gain additional experience.

If you haven't already done so, stretch out in a lawn chair and look up at the night sky. You will be amazed what you can see on a clear dark night just by "looking up". Most people have binoculars so try using them from the lawn chair, you will see even more. Just scan the sky and look for areas of interest. The moon is visible almost every clear night of the year. Look along the "terminator", the region between the light and dark parts of the moon. This is where you will find the most visible detail. Light pollution (along with clouds) is the biggest adversary for the observer. If you live in an area where there is a lot of light pollution, try going out into the country where the sky is much darker. State Parks are a great place to view the night sky and you will see a lot more.

As you gain observing experience you will want to learn more about "what's up" in tonight's sky. Most people know about constellations, but which ones are currently visible? Will I even recognize them if I see them? What are the names of the bright stars that I can see? Are any of the planets visible tonight? Are there any Deep Sky Objects (DSOs) that I can see? To answer these questions, and many more, you will need a roadmap of the sky. These roadmaps are called sky charts and planetariums. A simple free version of a sky chart is available online at http://skymaps.com/.

Have you ever wondered how a telescope works? Is it just plain old magic? Nope, there is a real reason that we can see all of those objects in space that are so very far away. If you would like to know more, take a look at hostuffworks.com. This site does a great job of introducing the beginner to the kinds of telescopes that exist and how they work.

Still interested and want to learn more? Why not attend some of our IAS functions. The IAS has free events on a monthly basis that will introduce you to our hobby. During the summer months, the McCloud StarGaze is held at McCloud Nature Park. This event is specifically intended for the beginning amateur astronomer. It includes a short meeting that introduces you to the night sky and then, weather permitting, an observing session follows each meeting. We also have a General Meeting every month that features a guest speaker who will address an area of interest to the amateur astronomer. During the winter months these meetings are held at Holcomb Observatory on Butler University's Campus and during the summer at Goethe Link Observatory near Martinsville. Following the General Meetings at Goethe Link Observatory we also have observing sessions. You can find the date, time and location (along with maps) for each of these events in our website's Calendar of Events.

IAS Campout at Goethe Link Observatory Another way to get to "see us in action" is to attend a star party. A star party is where amateur astronomers (sometimes in the hundreds) get together with their telescopes to observe and image the night sky and to "network" about our hobby. These events usually occur during the weekend of a New Moon. We have some of the best local star parties listed in our Calendar of Events. If you have never attended a star party you are really missing out on the finest of night sky observing. When you go to a star party you will see observing equipment of all types, kinds and prices. Most telescope owners are quite happy to share their telescope and knowledge with you. What a wonderful place to learn and become acquainted with other amateur astronomers.

Once you have attended some astronomy events, we are sure that you will discover that there is a lot more to amateur astronomy than you ever thought possible. You may have even found out that your real area of interest is not what you thought it was. Hopefully you have had the opportunity to view through various types of telescopes (and other observing tools) that are available. You may have even decided what type of telescope best fits your interests. You have been introduced to a whole new vocabulary of names and terms. You have found additional sources of information including books, the internet, monthly publications and computer software (just to name a few) that will allow you to continue to learn about your new hobby.

Yet you have just scratched the surface. Amateur astronomy is a lifelong pursuit and the only regret that many of us "old timers" have is that we did not start it early enough in our lives. For many, amateur astronomy is a family happening. Regardless, now is the time for you to really get started.

Come join us at one of our functions. It will cost you nothing. All of our events are free. If you find us to be the friendly, interesting and informative organization that we believe we are, you may even decide to join and become an official member. Feel free to contact us via our contacts page on the web site for additional information.

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Images by Hubble Space Telescope