So You Want to Become a Stargazer?

Amateur astronomy is one of fastest growing hobbies today, as more and more people attempt to escape the stress and problems of our troubled society by looking skyward.  It’s also one of the most exciting of all avocations, dealing as it does with the awesome wonders of the universe. And it’s one of the least expensive and easiest to get started in.  In fact, as famed telescope-maker John Dobson says, we’re all already stargazers at heart!

Let’s begin by defining what’s meant by “stargazing.”   It’s the sheer joy of seeing firsthand the

wonders of the heavens — no astrophysics, cosmology or mathematics involved here!  Stargazing has been variously described as a “space age hobby,” “the ultimate trip,” a “mind-expanding cosmic journey,” “an exhilarating ride,” a “fraternity of the mind chartered at the dawn of time,” a “spiritual pilgrimage,” “the great escape,” and a “magic carpet to the stars.”  And those of us who practice it have been called “star hustlers,” “naturalists of the night,” “time travelers,” “harvesters of starlight,” “star pilgrims,” and “citizens of heaven.”

While there’s much to see even with the unaided eye alone, given the assistance of a pair of binoculars or small telescope, an entire universe awaits your inspection!  Imagine yourself peering through the “porthole” of one of these optical “spaceships” at sights like the following: the majestic mountains, craters and valleys of the Moon’s alien surface; the changing phases of dazzling Venus; the seasonal melting of the Martian polar caps and its blue-green-splotched orange deserts; Jupiter’s colorful cloud belts and four jewel-like bright satellites dancing nightly to-and-fro about the planet; the incredibly breathtaking ice-rings of Saturn; or perhaps a newly discovered comet rushing sunward sprouting a long scimitar-like  tail. And our Solar System is but a drop in the cosmic ocean. Far out in the depths of interstellar space are exquisitely-tinted, waltzing double and multiple star systems; fiery pulsating supergiant suns; glittering star clusters — the stellar jewelboxes and beehives of the cosmos; glowing clouds of hydrogen gas incubating new stars and their planets; the magnificent massed starclouds of our Milky Way Galaxy; and finally — in the great beyond — the other galaxies themselves, “island universes” containing billions of stars so remote that their light takes millions of years just to reach us.

Here are some basic resources that will help get you started. The world’s two leading popular astronomy magazines are Astronomy and Sky & Telescope.  In addition to fascinating and informative articles, star and planet maps, latest discoveries, upcoming regional and national astronomy club meetings, etc. covered in the monthly print editions, their web sites (www.astronomy.com and www.SkyandTelescope.com) contain a veritable treasure-trove on every aspect of stargazing you will ever need!  The monthly star maps contained in these magazines are great for identifying the patterns visible in the sky.  Another valuable resource for this purpose is the Edmund Scientifics’ Star and Planet Locator, whose rotating star chart can be set to show the sky for any hour of any night of any month throughout the year!

Beyond basic naked-eye stargazing, the next step it to explore the sky using a pair of Edmund quality binoculars with their wide bright fields of view.  This is recommended before jumping into telescopes themselves, which have a “learning curve” due to their much higher magnifications and limited fields of view.   But there’s one exception here: the Edmund Astroscan Plus, with its amazing 3-degree-wide field (that’s six Full-Moon diameters of sky!) when used with its low-power 16x eyepiece.  No wonder this has been the best-selling beginner’s telescope for well over three decades!

—James Mullaney

Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of eight books on stargazing.