Getting into astronomy as a hobby is easier than it seems. All you really need are a few helpful tips, a pair of basic binoculars, and a planisphere to get started. (Don’t know what a planisphere is? Don’t worry. It’s cheap, and we tell you all about it below.)
Why get into astronomy? Here are just a few reasons:
- Be able to talk about dark energy at parties.
- Look for patterns and be able to connect them with weather, barometric pressure, and seasons.
- Finally understand what Mercury in retrograde means.
The best part is that, unlike other hobbies, you don’t really need to be consistent to “get good” at astronomy. Even looking up at the night sky a few times per month can enrich your life and teach you more about the cosmos.
What you’ll need
First thing’s first, you’re gonna need some binoculars. While astronomy enthusiasts typically gravitate toward using a telescope to stargaze, binoculars are good for beginners, and they’re less expensive, too.
Got a pair sitting in a drawer somewhere? Give them a shot. Want to level up? Space.com has an entire list of the best binoculars you can buy in 2023. Here are a few of the less pricey options:
- The Opticron Adventurer WP II 10×50 Binoculars are waterproof and offer a wide field of view. They typically retail between $135-$170.
- The SkyMaster 15×70 Binoculars are described as the “#1 Astronomy Binocular,” which basically means they have everything you’re looking for in one neat package for less than $125.
- Celestron’s UpClose G2 10×50 Binoculars are some of the most affordable, at $47.95. In addition to stargazing, these bad boys are good for observing wildlife, so you can take up bird watching at the same time.
- Celestron makes another model, the TrailSeeker 8×42 Binoculars, which sell for $220-$300. Though these are on the pricier side, they’re a great upgrade if you’ve already gotten used to one of the cheaper options and want to step up your astronomy game without breaking the bank.
Now it’s time to pull out your trusty ol’ planisphere. Just kidding—we didn’t know what that was, either. “Planisphere” is a fancy name for a star wheel. You’ve probably seen one of these in a school science class at some point, and then totally forgot they existed. These days, you can grab one from Amazon for around $15.
The planisphere gives you a map of the entire night sky with the constellations clearly marked. By turning its layers, you can see where those same constellations and stars will be on any given night. From there, you can track the way stars move and keep an eye on your favorite clusters over time.
PRO TIP: Not interested in carrying a physical star wheel around? Download Star Tracker or SkyView Lite on your smartphone. Though, we have to say, there’s nothing like holding a planisphere up against the sky to help you remember what you’re seeing. Phones do a little too much of the work for you, in our humble opinion.
Want to level up your gazing even more? We highly recommend grabbing the following three items as well:
- Red LED flashlight to view your planisphere at night. Red light is recommended for astronomy because it doesn’t impact your night vision as harshly as white light.
- Blank journal (astronomy diary) to keep track of everything you’re seeing in the sky.
- Bug spray, especially heading into the warm summer months when it’s going to get more mosquito-y.
How to start stargazing
So, you’ve gotten all your supplies together….now what?
The first and easiest step is to simply look up at the sky when it gets dark at night. REI recommends starting small and using your binoculars and planisphere to find the Big Dipper.
As REI neatly explains, “The Big Dipper (handle and bowl) helps point you to the Little Dipper (aka Ursa Minor). Follow the two stars on the outer edge of the bowl and trace a line up to find the North Star, or Polaris.”
From there, use your planisphere to identify and then locate other big, bright star patterns in the sky. Once you find something, jot it down in your journal so you remember when you first saw that specific constellation, and where you saw it in relation to other things. You might even add a note about weather conditions. You’d be surprised how quickly you’ll start filling up those pages.
FYI: Stargazing is easiest when you’re in a less populated area. City lights interfere with what you’re able to see overhead, but don’t stress it. Even if you do live in a city, you’ll still be able to see major constellations and the moon on most clear nights.
If you’re interested in astronomy but you’re not necessarily into the idea of tracking everything, that’s totally fine, too. Just carve out some time in your free evenings to sit outside and look at the sky. You’ll start to notice patterns and connections simply by being present.
Other ways to share your love of the universe
Sharing your love of the universe is a great way to connect with your community and to discuss something you’re passionate about. Not sure how to go about this? Join an astronomy club—it’s fun to meet new people and enjoy your shared hobby together.
An online directory of clubs can be found here. All you have to do is search by your state and start scrolling.
If you want to sound even more knowledgeable when you show up to the astronomy club, Sky & Telescope breaks down what you can see in the sky each week on its website. This is helpful for people who want to know what they can see and where they can see it after they’ve gotten comfortable using their planisphere.
A day or two before you meet up with your local club, scroll through Sky & Telescope to see what’s on the horizon so you have a few key talking points ready.
Getting into astronomy as a hobby is a trial and error process to see what works best for you and what you enjoy. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll want to dive even deeper into the universe to see what’s waiting for you there.
Really really into astronomy? Maybe you want to go pro! Here’s a list of colleges that offer astronomy-related degrees.
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