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How to be an Amateur Astronomer

Looking to dive deep into the cosmos, first hand? Or merely want to know the local system better? Here’s how to get started with your own space odyssey.

We will start this DIY with the assumption that anyone who wants to be an amateur astronomer has a basic understanding of astronomical concepts like our solar system, the planets, a star, satellite bodies like the moon etc. Now, of course, you need to know a lot more to qualify even as an amateur astronomer but brushing up your basic celestial concepts would be a good idea before progressing further.

Step 1: Read up… and read up some more.

There is practically no limit to how much you can know about astronomy. Hell, even the most informed and well known astronomers of our generation will admit to truly not knowing much about the big expanse and what’s out there. But of what is known, there’s a lot you need to familiarise yourself with. For instance, to even get started with stargazing, you need to be familiar with the night sky and the way it’s laid out. But if you can use a map to find your way around your city, this shouldn’t really be a tough job. You will also need to understand concepts like the celestial sphere, how the sky moves, and check out a guide on how to read a star chart here.

MessierStarChart
A Messier Star Chart: This is why you need to understand the basics first. Click on the image for high-res

To understand the night sky and any basic sky-map, you need to know how to measure the night sky. The measurements and how they apply to what’s up there are quite different as compared to how they’re used down here. Check out this handy guide on how to measure angles in the night sky.

Step 2: Look up.. And bring your smartphone along

Even before you dive deeper, a really good way to make sure you understand what you’re reading about is to go out there and look up. The night sky has a lot of amazing treasures to offer even if you do not have a telescope or any advanced equipment. If you’ve tried your hand at some star maps based on your location and the season, now would be the right time to try and locate those constellations that you’ve been reading up about. And there’s a particularly interesting way to do that easily – your smartphone.

The Sky Map app
The Sky Map app

Use a star mapping app on your phone – a particularly good one being the Sky Map for Android – as a guide to the night sky. Don’t be overwhelmed by all the information on the screen. Use the toggles to only see things that you’ve understood so far. Gradually, as you grow your knowledge about different celestial bodies, you’ll be able to identify them with the naked eye, maybe even without the app to guide you.

Step 3: Mingle with the community

Once you’ve done your reading, familiarised yourself with astronomy lingo and believe that you can hold your own in a conversation about the cosmos, it’s now time to go out there and get to know the community.

There are quite a few good astronomy clubs in India which welcome amateurs into their folds. The Astronomical Society of India was established in 1972 and has grown to become the prime association of professional astronomers in India. The society has close to 1000 members. While it is a bit difficult to become a member, even as a student, since they require approval from two existing regular members, it is highly likely that you can reach out to an existing member to present your case. They maintain a list of existing members here.

Meetup
Meetup can be used to host gatherings for any interest group

If you’re in Bangalore, check out Association of Bangalore Amateur Astronomers (ABAA), the third oldest astronomy club in India. They hold regular meetings and workshops for amateur astronomers as well. In Delhi, Amateur Astronomers Association, Delhi (AAAD) would be your best bet and you could go for Jyotirvidya Parisanstha if you’re in Pune. On social media, a couple of really helpful places to post all your queries at any level can be found here and here. One of your primary objectives should be to find astronomy enthusiasts in your city. For this, you can use local meetup services like Meetup where you can find multiple enthusiast groups and even the chance to try out your hand at some actual stargazing equipment.

Step 4: Get your own gear… Or build it

Before you google ‘best telescopes under….’ keep in mind that often the best first telescope is a pair of binoculars. A good pair should bring many things within our own galaxy into a much better perspective. Once you get the hang of looking through viewfinders at the night sky and have ticked off most things on this list, check out this detailed guide on understanding which telescope you actually need.

telescope
Celestron NexStar 8 SE Telescope, available on Amazon for only 2.5lakhs.

Your previous experience with trying out different equipments should also come in handy here. Also, don’t forget to get the right mount and other accessories for your telescope, as without them even the best telescopes in the world are practically useless. And if you’re up for the task, you could even build your own telescope! Check out this basic guide from NASA and this advanced one on Instructables. You’ll find most of your required materials online on websites like Amazon.

Step 5: Stargaze

Find a good nice spot with a clear sky above your head, either in your own city or town or nearby on a weekend outing. In fact, plan one for this weekend to catch the Perseid meteor shower on Friday. Saturday and possibly Sunday night. Do let us know how your stargazing goes at editor@digit.in

Source: One-Minute Astronomer

Arnab Mukherjee

Arnab Mukherjee