This guide was created by Claire who has been studying the sky in her free time for the last eight years and Daniel who started just over one year ago.
Both Claire and Daniel hope you find this guide to getting started with astronomy helpful.
The focus of this guide is on keeping costs to a minimum so you can enjoy this wonderful hobby without breaking the bank – that usually means watching the sky above you from the comfort of your own garden.
What is Astronomy?
Astronomy is the study of celestial objects – that’s objects outside the earth’s atmosphere.
The most common objects to observe are moons, planets, comets, stars and entire galaxies. Hobbyists also track near-earth objects such as rocket launches, orbital satellites, and the space station.
Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences and is generally split into the theoretical and the observational, ie what you can see with the naked eye and through telescopes.
Why Get Into Astronomy
Astronomy is the perfect hobby for those that love the outdoors and have an interest in the universe around us.
Learn about celestial objects, their location in the sky and when you can get the best view.
Photography is also a big part of astronomy for many hobbyists. Combine a camera with a telescope and software such as Photoshop, you can create incredibly clear photos of distant objects.
Like any hobby, you’ll also find plenty of groups for enthusiasts, whether local or online such as on Facebook. Astronomy is a great way to meet like-minded people and share hints, tips and stories.
When is the Best Time to Get Started With Astronomy?
The best time is of course right now but you’ll soon discover the time of year plays a big part in how much time you can dedicate to astronomy.
In the winter you’ll need to dress warmly and arrange your sky-searching plans around the weather which is often cloudy. The good news is during the winter, the sun rises late and sets early so you get much more viewing time, either in the morning or evening.
In the summer you’ll find many more cloud-free nights and you won’t need ten layers of clothes. Unfortunately, the sun sets so late and rises so early that the only hours available will be in the middle of the night when you’ll probably want to be in bed asleep.
Regardless of the time of year, there is still plenty to learn from study books, charts and online groups.
Astronomy truly is a year-round hobby.
Get Started With Astronomy (on a shoestring budget) With These 10 Steps
If you’re looking to get started with astronomy but wish to keep a lid on your costs, follow the 10 steps below and start your journey today.
We’ve kept the focus on costs and many of our suggestions below will cost you nothing at all.
Step 1) Join a Group
For absolute beginners, we recommend joining a local online group.
There are hundreds of open groups on Facebook where you’ll soon find:
- local people with similar interests
- hints and suggestions of objects to identify over the next few days or weeks
- gorgeous photos from photographers along with tips on how they created them
- ideas for nearby locations away from light pollution
- product reviews
- niche communities buying and selling equipment
Start by searching Facebook for local groups here.
Step 2 – Start With The Space Station
Astronomy is, in general, the study of objects that originate from outside of the earth’s atmosphere but we recommend you start your journey into this hobby by tracking the closest objects – the nearest being the International Space Station.
The good news is you won’t need an expensive telescope, binoculars are helpful but the naked eye will suffice.
The ISS Tracker website shows the current location of the space station and is a good place to start.
The NASA website allows you to type in your location and you’ll discover when the next sighting is for your area. You can also get email alerts from NASA so you’ll never miss seeing the station.
The best times for viewing the space station are early morning just before sunrise or just after sunset, when the earth is shaded but the station is still in the sun’s glow.
Don’t forget that more often than not, the space station will either pass over your area during the day, when it’s cloudy or during the dark night when there’s no sunlight on it.
We recommend signing up to NASA’a email alert system (free).
Step 3 – Track and Watch The Moon
When is the last time you looked at the moon for more than a few seconds?
You’ll be amazed at what you can see in an area with low levels of light pollution.
For moon gazing, we recommend a good pair of binoculars. There’s no need to break the bank and you’ll find plenty of second-hand ones on Ebay at a fraction of the cost of a new pair.
The website at moonphases.co.uk displays the moon phases (New Moon, Waxing Crescent, First Quarter, Waxing Gibbous, Full Moon, Waning Gibbous, Last Quarter or Waning Crescent) that’ll appear during the next few days.
You’ll also find a calendar where you can look further into the future, this is a really handy tool for photographers and astronomers alike.
Because the moon is tidal-locked, on earth, we always see the same side and never the opposite side of the moon:
This makes mapping areas of the moon via your eyesight or binoculars easier and don’t forget; the moon can look very different during sunset and sunrise. With a good camera, you’ll get some great shots.
Step 4 – Take Your First Look at the Planets
There are five planets that you can see with the naked eye; Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
All of these planets are within 7 degrees of the ecliptic. This tells us that our solar system is very flat, like a disc.
The image below is from Astronomy Notes:
You can track the planets and comets in our solar system with the tool on The Sky Live website (left click and drag to pan).
Here is a screenshot from the interactive page on The Sky Live website:
If you’re not sure when the best time to look for the planets is, then check out the table below which was posted on the Naked Eye Planets website:
Step 5 – Compare Your Sightings With Star Maps and Charts
You’ll probably want to invest in either a digital app with a 3D star map or a traditional paper book with printed maps.
Personally, we think a paper map is a good place to start as it helps you memorize the stars.
Check out our list of recommended apps and books further down this page.
Comparing what you can see, either with the naked eye or through a telescope, with star maps, is a key part of astronomy.
You’ll be surprised at how quickly you can memorize the constellations and you’ll soon be able to locate the planets. Don’t forget; the path of the planets and their position in comparison to the constellations is entirely predictable.
Go invest in a month by month stargazing book with detailed maps, it’s a worthwhile investment.
Step 6 – Check Out Pollution Maps
There are two types of pollution that can affect your star viewing; the first is light pollution, too much stray light from towns and cities can drown out the dim light from the sky. You may have noticed on trips to the countryside or even abroad to less developed countries that the stars seem so much brighter. This is usually a result of light pollution.
The second is pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. Smog is very similar to fog and cloud – it can block or distort the light. Fortunately, this type of pollution, just like light pollution, can be predicted.
Check out the light pollution map at lightpollutionmap.info.
Here’s a wide screenshot:
Smog and Fuel Pollution
Smog and pollution often become trapped by low levels of wind and a warm upper atmosphere.
While this can affect your ability to take perfect photos of the sky, the good news is that smog is often predictable.
waqi.info displays pollution levels on an interactive map in real-time. The map uses thousands of data points, some of which are updated hourly.
Here is a screenshot:
national weather services in most countries will also publish a prediction for pollution.
Defra is the best place for those in the UK – defra/pollution-forecast
Can You Still Stargaze in Smog and Light Polluted Areas?
You sure can, but without a telescope and a good camera, you’ll be limiting what you can see in the sky.
By choosing a location outside of heavily light-polluted areas and days when smog is at a minimum, you’ll see so much more, even with just the naked eye.
Step 7 – Choosing Your First Telescope
We could easily write an entire article about choosing your first telescope but that’s outside the scope of this guide.
There are plenty of guides from experts on the web but in our opinion, you should consider these 4 points:
- Portability – telescopes come in all different sizes, weights and complexity. From simple devices you can easily carry around to fully computerized 20kg monsters that are best kept at home. Consider whether you’ll be viewing from the same location or whether a lightweight portable telescope would be a better option for you.
- Your first telescope should be a second-hand device – many people start out with astronomy and like many hobbies, they lose interest. Keep a lid on your expenses by choosing a second-hand telescope. Explore online astronomy groups or Ebay.
- Don’t forget binoculars – a powerful pair will be great for moon watching and finding the planets in our solar system. They also give you maximum portability.
- Camera compatibility – astronomers often like to take photos through their telescopes.c Compiling a series of stills into one frame via Photoshop can produce quite dramatic and clear images. Check that your telescope is compatible with a DLSR camera and the mount is sturdy enough.
Step 8 – Apps and Websites We Think You’ll Love
Below you’ll find a list of websites and apps we think you should explore.
The apps listed are particularly helpful as you can use them on the move via your phone.
The Naked Eye Planets – all about finding the planets with nothing more than your eyes.
Light Pollution Map – helps you pinpoint the best locations in your area to view the planets and stars.
The ISS Tracker – handy for locating the International Space Station.
Moon Calendar – simple website with info on which phase the moon will be on a given date. Great for photographers and moon watchers.
The Sky Live – track planets and comets via this website.
Space.com is a great website for all things space, including; the planets, moons, stars, news, tech, gadgets and more.
This is an excellent guide to photographing the planets in our solar system.
SkyWiki (Android) is somewhat different as it features a 2-dimensional map of the stars but has a snappy interface and plenty of other features that make it worth downloading.
Tom’s Guide contains a more in-depth guide to stargazing apps for 2021 and beyond.
Step 9 – Books, Charts, Gifts and Other Items Worth Investing in
If there’s one item we think you should invest in, it’s a good quality planisphere.
There are plenty to choose from but the Phillip’s Planisphere is a good start for beginners:
Step 10 – Free Online Courses (YouTube)
There are thousands of instructional videos on YouTube.
Not sure where to start?
We suggest Crash Course Astronomy which is a series of 47 videos.
The series starts with an introduction to astronomy and moves swiftly onto the planets and objects you can see with the naked eye:
Introduction: See Video
Naked Eye Observations: See Video
Conclusion and Summary
Astronomy has been around as long as humans have and we’ve only used expensive advanced telescopes for a fraction of that time – don’t be rushed into buying expensive equipment. You can see and learn so much without breaking the bank.
Here’s a summary of our guide:
- Start with the space station, track, predict and get a glimpse when you can.
- Join online discussion groups, you’ll learn so much so quickly.
- Learn about the moon phases, map the surface of the moon and get started with photography.
- Buy your first pair of binoculars.
- Explore the naked-eye planets. Start with books, maps and apps to guide you.
- Bookmark the light pollution, weather and smog websites/apps.
- Consider investing in a telescope but also take into account weight, weight and portability. Price isn’t always a sign of suitability.
- Buy a planisphere and invest in some star gazing books with month-by-month guides.
This guide was created by Daniel at The Bald Scrambler. Daniel is a keen hiker and scrambler who enjoys spending time in Snowdonia. An updated version of our guide to getting started with astronomy can be found here.