From Galileo to children today, the sky has always enchanted minds and captured hearts. The mystery of what lies beyond the clouds had taken men to the moon and rovers to Mars. If you can’t afford a space shuttle, don’t fret! Astronomy can be mastered right from your backyard. All you need is your imagination and the wide open night sky.
What is Astronomy?
NASA has defined Astronomy as ‘the study of stars, planets, and space’. Early Astronomy was developed in companion with religion. They related objects in the sky with the Gods and occurrences, such as the weather, seasons, and tides. It is thought that the earliest Astrologers were priests who connected objects in the sky to creation and manifestation of the divine.
As history progressed, Astronomy began to weave its way into everyday life. Farmers would use the phases of the moon to know when to grow and harvest crops. Astronomy was used to develop the modern calendar we use today, as well as the practices of dividing an hour into 60 minutes and measuring a circle at 360 degrees. People began to use what they learned from the sky to make sense of the things around them.
Around Medieval Times, the concept of Observational Astronomy was developed. This led to the building of the first Observatories. These buildings were used to view and chart the night sky in a more intentional and organized way. The first full star charts were created in these Observatories.
During the Renaissance period, Astronomy underwent a rapid progression. For the first time, Nicolaus Copernicus suggested that the planets revolved around the sun, as opposed to the standing theory that everything orbited the Earth. Galileo became one of the first to observe the sky through a telescope. Towards the end of the period, Sir Isaac Newton developed laws to explain the gravitational pull of the Earth.
Even in the 20th century, Astronomers were still debating theories and making new discoveries. Planets outside our solar system were not discovered until the 1990’s. With so much still unknown, there is a great opportunity in reaching further towards outer space. You might even make the next big discovery from your own backyard!
For more information on the history of Astronomy, visit these resources:
- Ask an Astronomer: A History of Astronomy – This resource gives a brief overview of Astronomy’s history and provides links to other good websites to explore. http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/people-and-astronomy/the-history-of-astronomy
- What is Astronomy? Definition and History: Space.com give an in depth view of the study of Astronomy and its many subfields. https://www.space.com/16014-astronomy.html
- Astronomy Trek: History of Astronomy- This resource gives a timeline of the study through the ages.
Equip Yourself for Discovery
Just like the astronauts who go into space, your first step is always to suit up! Equipment and gear are the tools that will give you the ability to see the unknown and uncover new worlds.
The most important piece of equipment for backyard Astronomy: Your Eyes! Before the invention of telescopes or aided observation, ground breaking discoveries were made simply with sight. While you might not be able to see every crater on the moon, your eyes can see the big picture. Seeing something as a whole allows you to capture patterns and see changes on a large scale.
Binoculars are a great step up from unaided observation. They still give you a wider view, making it easier to find your way around the sky. Binoculars are also relatively inexpensive to buy. A good pair can last you for years. They are also easy to store and transport. A small case can keep them protected, or the ability to throw them in a bag for quick access make binoculars a handy tool to have around.
Your next step will be the purchase of a telescope. Telescopes magnify on a far smaller scale than the eye or binoculars can see, so navigating the sky might become more challenging. Getting the know your night sky before hand will be extremely useful. There are two different kinds of telescopes: Refracting and reflecting. Refracting telescopes have two lenses that bend light inside the telescope. They use a convergent objective lens and a divergent eyepiece to end up with an upright image. These were the earliest types of telescopes, partially developed my Galileo. Reflecting telescopes use mirrors to gather and reflect imagines into the eyepiece. While this type of telescope is typically cheaper to by and used most often by researchers, it is also more difficult for beginners to use. The image reflected into the eyepiece is inverted, making landmarks more difficult to recognize without practice. The mirror inside takes precise, proper alignment to gain a clear image.
Charts and maps are another piece of equipment essential to any good backyard researcher. Whether you create a map yourself or use one already made, they can be extremely helpful in locating landmarks in the sky. With a good chart or map, the night sky will start to look less like a puzzle and more like a familiar land.
For more information of backyard astronomy equipment, check out these resources:
- Best Telescopes for Kids: Space.com give a guide of the best telescope options for kids. It provides prices, difficulty level, and places to shop. https://www.space.com/29798-best-telescopes-for-kids.html
- How the Refracting Telescope Works: Backyardgnome give further direction into the function of the Refracting Telescope. https://thebackyardgnome.com/how-does-a-refracting-telescope-work/
- How the Reflecting Telescope Works: Backyardgnome give another great explanation, this time in the Reflecting Telescope. https://thebackyardgnome.com/how-do-reflecting-telescopes-work/
- Gear, Guise, Tips, and Tricks to Stargazing: Spaec.com give an allencompasing guide to the best tools and methods for backyard stargazing. https://www.space.com/27775-amateur-astronomy-guide.html
Learning the Basics
Searching through space will be pretty difficult if you don’t know what you’re looking at. Learning the basics about the night sky before heading outside with a telescope will make your backyard Astronomy experience far more rewarding.
Begin by doing some research. Pull out the maps and charts you gathered for your tool kit and start memorizing landmarks. A great place to start is with constellations. Constellations are groupings of stars that form a familiar pattern or shape. There are 88 total known constellations, but the 15 most common are a good beginning. There are 5 recognizable constellations, Orion, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Draco, and Pegasus, and the 12 Zodiac Signs. Find these on your chart, then try looking for them in the night sky.
Once you’ve got constellations down, try moving on to planets. There are 8 main planets in our solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. There is also one dwarf planet, Pluto. On a clear night, when the orbit matches up, you should be able to spot these planets without aid. Finding planets will be a little different than finding stars. Planets will typically be brighter and more disk shaped than stars. Begin by trying to find Saturn and Jupiter, as they are the brightest planets!
Once you’ve got some basics, dive deeper into your Astronomy knowledge. Head over to your local library or bookstore. The Astronomy shelf should have great resources on other celestial landmarks in the sky and how to find them. Some books may also give insight into how the night sky can change. While the main beings in the sky stay the same, many things move around or change throughout the year.
Check out these resources for more guides on getting started:
- Best Astronomy Books for Beginners: This list of books can help you find the further information you are looking for to start on your Astronomy journey.
- Star Charts for Kids: This can give you step-by-step directions on using your first star chart.
- How to Find Planets: This gives a tutorial on how to locate each planet in the sky. It will help you understand planet’s characteristics and explain how each appears.
- Finding Constellations for Kids: The guide explains what constellations are and how to find them. It gives information on the most recognizable patterns and how they came to be found.
Take your stargazing to the next level and bring out the big guns. Moving on from unaided observation can be both exciting and challenging. Use the information you’ve gathered to prepare yourself for the transition.
See those constellations and landmarks you’ve gotten familiar with on a closer level with binoculars. Binoculars allow you to gather more detail while still being able to see the whole picture. Even with these simple aids, there may be some transition struggles. Make sure you learn about your binoculars before you try to use them. There may be adjustments you need to make before use.
When you’re ready, move up to a telescope. Decide which type of telescope will work best for you and research the best ways to use it. The vast change in magnification from even binoculars to telescope will be the most difficult transition yet. Be patient and don’t give up. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to spot your favorite planets and stars with ease.
- Astronomy for Beginners: How to Get Started in Backyard Astronomy: Learn more about the basics with this guide from Sky & Telescope Magazine.
Want to go high-tech? Classical methods are faithful, but there are some modern technologies we can use. The term ‘there’s an app for that’ applies perfectly here. Put down paper star chart and pick up your smartphone.
Stargazing apps are one of the greatest advancements in beginner Astronomy. If traditional charts aren’t your thing or you’re having trouble finding landmarks in the real sky, open up an Astronomy app. These apps have developed ways to point out real elements in your sky in real time. Simply point the camera at the night sky and the app can outline the constellation or planet you’re looking for!
Itching for some up-to-date information on what’s happening in Astronomy? History is important, but new developments are just as exciting. Download the NASA app to see what new adventures astronauts are embarking on today!
Seeing planets with our own eyes is awesome, but what do they look like up close? Download information apps like Solar Walk to see what space elements are really like. Take a 3D digital tour of Mars or see what layers make up Jupiter. Fun facts and seeing real images can further your understanding and enthusiasm for each element you see.
Get connected! There are many beginner astronomers out there just like you. Hop online and find clubs and organizations in your community. Share your passion with others and have fun along the way.
Resources to help find apps and websites you will love:
- The 11 Best Astronomy Apps For Amateur Star Gazers: This article by Business Insider gives a list of the best apps for beginner astronomers.
- Astronomy Clubs Near Me & Organizations: Sky & Telescope Magazine created a guide to finding space lovers in your area. Just type in some information and start communicating with astronomers near you.
Let space take your mind places it has never gone before. Traverse the rocky landscape of Mars, spin around Saturn’s rings, or swim through the gases of Jupiter all from your own backyard. With knowledge, passion, and a wide open imagination, you can become the world’s next great astronomer.