Night Sky and Practical Observing - Learning the Basics

Take it slowly you will not be an Astronomer over night, in fact we are all learning!

Learn to star hop and recognise the constellations, but little by little you will learn. A very good way of learning is research what you are going to look at in your next observing session.

So lets say we are looking at Cassiopeia the (W or M) it moves round the pole star Polaris. Learn what stars make it up and what if any deep sky objects are near it etc … Do this for each of the constellations and in no time you will know your way round the night sky.

That’s when your enjoyment will really take off!

You will find your own field of Astronomy you wish to explore. Like the Moon, Planets, deep sky objects, Solar or even Astrophotography you will develop your own preferences over time.

In the Astronomy magazines each month has a a section of what is up and visible for observation.

The Moon

The Moon is a great and rewarding, easy to find target to start with.

I have a download from Virtual Moon – this is very useful. Another good website is – this is for anyone of all levels with great write ups on the Moon and Planets.

You could even purchase a moon map.

First thing is to purchase for yourself is a Planisphere (for your latitude). This will enable you to locate stars and constellations, it is also a very good starting point and reference to remembering the star names.

Buy a small beginners type book for outside workings.

Telescopes and Binoculars

Many different types of scopes are available prices and quality vary vastly. I would advise just starting with binoculars until you get the feel of things. Ask advice from other astronomers as to what to purchase for your first scope and your budget. Opinions will also vary as to what you should purchase.

Binoculars are a very good starting point, although you will always use them for larger field of view objects. A good book is Philips Stargazing Binoculars.

Red Torch Lens

You will need a torch that has a dark red film on the front so your eyes stay dark adjusted. If you can not buy a torch with a dark red lens you have a few options, paint layers of red nail varnish on the lens or put some red film on or round the end.

Planets in our Solar System

Observing planets is a very rewarding subject to focus on. You will need some basic information on where and when you can locate the position. As they move with in our Solar system, your planisphere will not tell you.

Magazines, a year book or your computer planetarium software will give you the information that is required to locate them.

Saturn is a great target especially when the rings are at a good angle.

Jupiter is also another great object to observe, Jupiter’s moons move around (dancing) so you can make a note each evening you observe them. Jupiter also has details on its surface area. The great red spot, southern and Northern equatorial belts.

Yahoo Groups

Joining discussion groups, on Yahoo groups for example, is a very good way to learn and help other people.

Deep Sky Objects

Deep sky observing is a very rewarding subject. It is best achieved with larger aperture telescopes on the whole. Some specialist filters are a good idea to bring out the detail and contrast.

The Messier Catalogue is a list of 110 objects by the French Astronomer Charles Messier. Deep sky objects have catalogue numbers Messier M1 to M110 after Charles Messier who was a French comet hunter.

He has a fascinating story behind his dso’s (deep sky objects). He catalogued them so that he did not keep getting them confused with comets. In fact he came up with some of the best objects to observe which he just discarded them in the hunt for the comets.

The objects are mainly in the Northern hemisphere including Nebulae, Galaxies, Globular and open star clusters.

The Comet hunter, the original number was 103 entries between 1774 to 1781 Catalogue des Nébuleuse et d’Étoiles des love, que l’on découvrir parmi les Étoiles fixes sur l’horizon de Paris. Later in the next century other astronomers using his notes added another 7 objects to make it up to 110.

New General Catalogue

Compiled by J. Dreyer using observations from William Herschel and his son John in 1880’s. The Royal Astronomical Society turned down the findings asking it to be updated was published in 1888. It was later expanded on calling it the Index Catalogues “IC” adding 5386 new objects.

Once again mainly observed in the northern hemisphere as the Southern hemisphere were somewhat concise, but were observed by John Herschel or James Dunlop.

The NCG contained lots of errors were by between 1973 and 1988 the errors were eliminated making it the “Revised New General Catalogue” RNGC and NGC2000.0

Caldwell Catalogue

The list was made by our very own Sir Patrick Caldwell-Moore containing 109 bright star clusters, nebulae and galaxies as a complement to the Messier Catalogue.

This if he has not already in-bedded himself into our lives forever, will keep him on the map for years to come!

A natural progression for the amateur astronomer wishing to observe deep sky objects would be to view the Messier catalogue, followed by the Caldwell catalogue, and then the Herschel 400.

At the end of this exercise the observer would have viewed nearly 600 objects. Although there are 618 objects listed in these three catalogues, contain some objects from the Messier and Caldwell catalogues twice.