1. Beginner’s Guide to Backyard Astronomy: The Basics

Hi again,

On my last post I have got you an introduction on stargazing. In this post I hope to give you an insight into the basics of backyard astronomy, the necessary things you need for getting started and the basic ideas you need to learn.

So let’s get started…

Introduction to Stargazing

The first and the most important requirement to get started with astronomy is to have a perfect place away from all sorts of disturbances mainly light pollution. Stargazing in the midst of a busy city can never get you a satisfying experience. Choose a place away from major sources of light pollution, just look at your sky when the sun has vanished completely, if you see it in deep black color then its good, a bit whitish then you are under some amount of light pollution (make sure you don’t look at a cloudy sky).

Once you get a comfortable place then it’s time to start.

Step 1: Choose a convenient time

Stargazing can be made better if you can do it regularly. Choose a convenient time about 1-2 hours after sunset. Every day or every few days when you do stargazing do it at a scheduled time so that you can spot the movements of planets and other things in the sky, like if you are watching Jupiter and does it every day at the same time say 9:00 pm you are likely to see it at the same spot on the sky over the consecutive days and can trace its movements by time.

Step 2: Get a star map

Star maps are available in great varieties. Apps like Stellarium, Skymap etc can also be of good help in your Smartphone.

Here is a list of a few highly recommended apps for your mobile:

  1. Star Chart

Put your phone up to the sky and see exactly where you’re looking at, regardless of what kind of day it is. Move your phone around to see different parts of the sky and how things change at certain times of day. You can even get information about each constellation. Learn where Andromeda got its name or find how close you currently are to Pluto.

Download it here for Apple.

Download it here for Android.

  1. Night Sky Lite

Like Star Chart, you can hold your phone up to the sky at anytime and see what is above you. Move around and see all the constellations you can see. There is a paid version of this app that comes with an info pack about all the constellations, stars and planets and a mini telescope. However, for someone that just wants to identify what is up above even when the sun is up, the Lite version is perfect.

Download it here for Apple.

Download it here for Android.

  1. SkyPortal

SkyPortal is one of the most realistic star simulator. Hold it up to the sky and see what is right above you. You can look at just the stars or opt for illustrations to outline the images. Skip ahead to different times of the day and week to see what will change and you won’t miss your favorite planet or constellation. Turn on the night vision at night so you don’t hurt your eyes and use the compass to ground yourself wherever you are.

Download it here for Apple.

Download it here for Android.

Printed star maps can also be useful. If you are using a printed one then you would need a torch with you. It is better to cover the head of the torch with a translucent red sheet as red light is the least bright and won’t cause much difficulties for our eyes to adapt between the brightness of the sky and the torch light.

Step 3: Learn to identify the major planets, stars and constellations

Use your star map to identify the major constellations. Start with some easily recognizable ones like Orion, Ursa Major, Cassiopeia etc.

Some of the most interesting things that caught my attention were the Orion nebulae (it can clearly be seen as a foggy star like object below the Orion’s belt) and the Pleiades star cluster which is a compact cluster of hundreds of stars of which seven can be distinguishingly seen with the naked eye. Therefore it is known by the name ‘Seven Sisters’. They were of great interest to me because of their importance in the scriptures of many of the historic civilizations. Some call it ‘The Home of the Gods’.

Another thing that is worth observing are the planets (Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn). You can easily distinguish them from the other stars because they don’t twinkle. You can use this technique for identifying Venus, Mars and Jupiter but for Saturn you may need the help of some app like Stellarium as it not so bright. Venus can be seen right after sunset in the western sky and right before sunrise in the eastern sky. That’s why we call it the morning star or evening star. Mars can clearly be distinguished by its red-orange color and Jupiter will be brighter that other stars and unlike Venus it won’t set soon at night.

Once you can distinguish planets from stars and is familiar with the major stars and constellations it’s time to move to some serious observations.

Step 4: Observing the motion of planets

Thus is something that needs about a few months of regular observation (you need not do it daily, 2-3 times a week is enough). You should mainly look for the brighter planets, Venus, Mars and Jupiter (you can also include Saturn if possible).

Observe them regularly and record changes in their positions. You may observe that all these planes are aligned in a line across the sky. If you observe them for a long time you will be able to grasp the dynamics of the solar system in real time…

Ok so, that’s all the basics,

In the next post on this category I will get you the most interesting things to be observed about the planets and stars, using and making telescopes and also about some cool and interesting facts and also trending astronomical apps. So subscribe/follow our blog on WordPress or click here to like us on Facebook and we will soon get you updated.

If you have any feedbacks mail me niranjananprajith@gmail.com


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