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Getting started in astronomy

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You're thinking of getting started in astronomy? Liar! Either you have no interest in looking at stars, space and stuff and are extremely bored, or you've already started. (Hey, I'm a psychic!)

So anyway, the message is that you're wasting your time by reading this sentence . . . unless it's not dark or is clouded over outside. If it's not then go out now!

Still here? Okay, here's a few tips to get you started. :)

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It gets cold

Really, it does. It might not seem cold stepping outside. In many parts of the world, given several hours of darkness to cool down and half an hour of not much movement, it gets really cold. This degree of coldness is often not very season based, and it can get cold on summer nights too.

The trick here is to stay warm. The aim is to get as many layers of clothing as possible (within reason) and still stay mobile and unhindered. The more layers, the more dry air is trapped within what you're wearing, and dry air is what keeps you warm. Wool and nylon are both great for this and some people haul out sleeping bags or blankets. (Happy happy joy joy!) In particular, try to get a hat of some sort to keep your ears warm. Gloves also become very useful (some say essential) if you're planning on just lying around, otherwise your hands can go a bit numb.

Try to get comfortable as you might end up lying on your back or sitting in the same position for quite a long time. Plan ahead where possible and work out suttleties such as if you'll need coffee, a deck chair, coffee, coffee, or more coffee.

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Find a location that's dark

Try to get as far away from light as possible. In the immediate sense, this means don't stand directly opposite the house across the road which has strobe lights shining out the kitchen window. Any type of light shining on you gets in the way by preventing your eyes from adjusting to the dark. Be particularly wary of street lights and especially those automatic sensor lights, which are dreadful. Also try to stay away from roads where cars are going to drive past with headlights. One stray beam of light for less than a second can destroy an hour of eye adjustment.

Similarly, don't use a torch. If and when you need a source of light, use red light - which has less of an effect on eyes than other colours. If you're rich, you can buy a special red-filtered torch. If you have a student loan, you'll probably be better off just by getting red cellophane and taping it over a normal torch. If you're just plain lazy like me, you can improvise. For the last year or so up until writing this I've been using a torch filtered with red bits of plastic cut out of a shopping bag from a department store. It works quite nicely.

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Get away from civilisation

Try to get as far away from light as possible. In the indirect sense, this means get away from all civilisation as we know it. If you live on a farm or some other out-of-the-way place then that's brilliant. If you live in or nearby a city then it's not so good. The problem here is that glare from lights, even if it's not direct to where you're standing, really messes up the night sky - making it look more and more like the daytime sky. In other words the sky isn't dark any more. It becomes harder and harder to see darker stuff up there.

Living in a city and not being able to get away from it doesn't spell the end of the career of an amateur astronomer. There are still a lot of things to look at such as looking at bright stars and planets, tracking planet orbits, watching the Moon and so on. It also increases the appreciation of the sky when you actually go somewhere where it's dark.

Try to get to a place from where you can see the entire sky. For example, unless you know you're not going to want to look behind you, standing on the side of a hill is preferably avoided. Being able to see from one horizon to another in all directions is excellent.

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Don't spend lots of money

This statement is not quite true. You can spend as much money as you want to, but make sure you know what you're doing. If you spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a telescope and then discover you can't use it, it will have been a waste of money. All you need for astronomy are your eyes, and possibly a truckload of coffee.

If you want to spend money on some form of optical enhancement that you don't already have, get binoculars. Binoculars are cheaper, more mobile, easier to use, and usable for other things if you get bored of astronomy. Also, under beginner circumstances they are usually better for general looking at and getting to know the sky.

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Plan ahead

You will probably have the most fun if you know what you're going to do before you try to do it. Whether it's well in advance or a few minutes beforehand, work out a plan of what you're actually going to look at when you go outside. This could be specific "I'm going to find Mercury," or vague "I'm going to sit around and stare at the Milky Way for no particular reason." The fact that it is there is what is important. Otherwise you might end up wondering why you went outside in the first place.

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Learn to read a map

If you're planning on looking for something specific, make sure you know where to look. There are lots of star maps available They can be found in most astronomy books which are available in both bookshops and public libraries. There are also other types of maps, such as planispheres which can rotate and show exactly what is in the sky at the current time.

Alternatively you could use any of a lot of computer programs currently available for tracking stars and planets. One of the most popular shareware programs to do this on a Microsoft Windows platform is Skymap. Don't be lazy and take a laptop outside when looking for something however. Even with the brightness turned right down it will nearly always be too bright to keep your eyes adjusted. If you need a star map, print it out beforehand and use a red filtered torch to look at it.

Make sure you can use a star map as soon as possible. Get used to seeing something on a map and being able to find it in the sky. All you really need is to identify one constellation in the sky, then look at what is next to it on a map and gradually work your way out. Keep in mind that if the sky is not completely dark (such as if you live near a city) you might not be able to see all the constellations. Similarly in a very dark sky situation it may be more difficult to pick any constellations out because so many other stars will be visible.

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Make notes

This isn't mandatory but it's useful. If possible, get hold of a diary or log book of some sort and write in it what you did each time you go outside. Write reports, write theories, draw pictures, write poetry, write in it whatever you want just as long as you keep it. It's something you'll appreciate a few years down the track, and a good habit to get in to.

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Don't be stupid

This is a standard common sense rule. Try to remember that very very occasionally people do actually get suspicious of shady characters wearing balaclavas walking around late at night. Particularly if they're carrying large tubular-shaped objects.

If you have neighbours and it's convenient, consider letting them know in advance that if something goes bump in the night then it just might be you. In the past there have been wierd and wacky occurences such as people calling the police about a suspicious person with a large cannon possibly aimed at houses on the far hills.

Since your eyes are adjusted to the dark, keep in mind that you'll probably see approaching people before they see you. Try not to suddenly surprise them. As fun as it is to play practical jokes on people, playing them on people you don't know is asking for trouble. On the other hand, playing them on people you do know can become an art.

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Join a society

Space related or not, you're likely to find that no matter what your interest there are flocks of people just as crazy and unusual as yourself. Astronomy is no exception. To be fair having said as such, it should be mentioned that most astronomers have the privilege of being able to truthfully state that they are neither politicians nor lawyers.

In most places there are lots of astronomical societies. If it's a local society you can easily meet people who are interested in all the same things you are. If you're in New Zealand, check out the Dark Skies society page for more information.

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Have fun

If you don't have fun, it's not worth doing.

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