On the evening of Aug. 14, along with countless others in North America, I stood beneath a new moon looking up at the night sky, watching as it came alive during the Perseid meteor shower.
Since then, I have received a number of emails from readers of this column wanting to learn a little about astronomy. Well I’m the right person to ask when it comes having a ‘little knowledge’ of astronomy. I most certainly do not claim to know a heck of a lot, but here’s what little advice I can pass along.
Start by reading any basic book or magazine that you can get your hands on about astronomy – even if all you do is leaf through some of the articles that catch your attention or simply look at all the pictures. You will be surprised at how many facts and tidbits of information you pick up. Visit your local library and browse through the astronomy section.
You can also surf the Internet for information under astronomy. You’ll discover a vast array of information, as well as be able to look at some pretty amazing photos. The problem with looking for information on the Internet is that it can be very scientific in nature and hard to fully understand if you don’t know the terminology.
I started out by looking through someone else’s telescope. I asked a few questions and then decided to spend what little money I had on a subscription to an astronomy magazine. There are a number of periodicals that cater to amateur astronomers. I subscribe to SkyNews simply because it is a Canadian publication. This particular magazine provides monthly calendars and star charts, a wealth of sky watching tips, amazing pictures and up-to-date information on new products and discoveries. You can also subscribe to an astronomy podcast, such as What’s Up in Astronomy, StarDate or SkyWatch that are free. You can search for them in iTunes and a number of other podcast directories.
One thing you will have to purchase in order to get started in sky watching is a star chart or ‘map of the sky,’ which will enable you to determine what you are looking at while gazing up at the night sky. Again, you can download star charts free from the Internet.
Once you’ve equipped yourself with a map/star chart, you will need to find some place that is dark enough to begin observing the sky – some place far enough away from light pollution and the glare of city lights.
It is certainly not necessary to buy an expensive telescope right off the top because you can see a great deal with the naked eye. By observing with only your eyes, you will really get a true feeling of how the ancient astronomers studied the night sky. I know it may sound sort of strange for a person my age, but sometimes I just like to lie down on the grass and look up. The night sky takes on a whole other dimension from this position. It sort of gives you a feeling of being all alone, drifting across a vast universe filled with planets and stars.
Locate the North Star and then begin to follow your ‘map of the sky’ across the night sky. (Make sure you have the correct star chart to coincide with the date and location.) If you can, try to get your hands on a pair of 10×50 binoculars. You can see a lot through simple binoculars.
Once you look through a telescope, however, everything changes – a whole new world literally opens up, right there in front of your eyes.
Events such as the Perseid meteor shower are but a glimpse of what’s out there to see. There is a whole cosmos to explore in the deep, dark depths of the night sky.