Observation

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Astronomy is a science to which amateurs can still make worthwhile contributions. With only binoculars, or just the unaided eye, they can estimate the changing brightness of variable stars, count the meteors in the various annual showers, and record atmospheric phenomena such as aurorae. With modest telescopes, they can plot the rise and fall of sunspot numbers and monitor changes on the surfaces of planets. Advanced amateurs can undertake visual or photographic patrols to discover comets, asteroids, novae, and supernovae.

FIRST, You HAVE to learn to find your way around the night sky. To do that, all you need is a pair of binoculars and a guidebook such as this. Start by identifying the brightest stars and learning the most prominent star patterns, which you can find in the whole-sky charts on pp.228-277. The stars and constellations on view change throughout the year as Earth orbits the Sun, so the sky each month is slightly different. As familiar patterns slip below the horizon in the west, new ones rise in the east. Once you are able to recognize the main constellation shapes each month, you can navigate from these to the other, fainter parts of the sky, as needed.

amateur telescope

Modern computer-controlled telescopes like this allow amateur astronomers to find their way around the sky more easily than ever before.

shifting skies

Although the stars on show each month remain the same from year to year, the positions of the Moon and planets are constantly changing. The information listed in the Almanac on pp.278-289 includes the dates of new and full moon, appearances of the star trails over kitt peak, arizona

In this time-exposure photograph, stars circulate around the north pole star, Polaris (the bright star at top left of center), while the shutter of a telescope dome stands open to observe the sky.

planets, and eclipses. Note that when the Moon is above the horizon, particularly around the time of the full moon, it will brighten the sky, and faint objects, particularly nebulae and galaxies, will be difficult to see. Try to schedule your deep-sky observing sessions for times around the appearance of the new moon, when the sky will be at its darkest.

choosing equipment

This chapter on observing the night sky also tells you how to get started with choosing simple equipment. Binoculars should be first on the list, because of their portability and ease of use. For those wishing to go beyond the basics, telescopes are now more affordable than ever, and the amateur has a much wider range to choose from. Amateur astronomy has entered the digital age, with computer controls that make telescopes much simpler to use, as well as electronic chips that can take images of the night sky that surpass those from professional observatories not many years ago. This is indeed a golden age for amateur astronomy. Despite all these advances, most amateurs go stargazing to enjoy the sky for its own sake, without expecting to make scientific discoveries.

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