The Time Now > Astronomy > Observing the sky

Observing the sky

Two young amateur astronomers observing the night sky using a three inch refracting telescope on an equatorial mount.Two young amateur astronomers observing the night sky using a three inch refracting telescope on an equatorial mount. © iStockphoto/Lucentius

Let's begin at the beginning. The slogan –Astronomy is looking up!– suggests that the best way to do astronomy is, indeed, to look up. All of us have been “looking up” ever since we were little children. For most of us, however, scanning the night sky has been a random, unfocused activity. But now you can learn how to focus your eyes and your mind on “looking up” more seriously.

How often do you observe the night sky? Your answer may vary from never to every clear night! Here are a couple of other intriguing questions: How many generations of humanity do you suppose have existed on this planet? How far back in time do you suppose humans have been watching the night sky?

Astronomical observing is as much an art as it is a science. Learning what, when, where, why, and how to observe takes time, energy, and commitment. No one goes outside on the first night of stargazing and, bingo! discovers that Epsilon Lyrae is a double, double star or that the blinking star in NGC-6826 (a planetary nebula) in Cygnus isn’t really “blinking” after all. Indeed, observing is not something you learn how to do in a night, a week, a month, or a year. It is a lifelong activity, so be very patient with the universe and it will reveal itself in time. Many advanced amateurs who choose to use small, noncomputerized telescopes can easily spend nearly an hour searching for a dim, elusive galaxy or nebula. My favorite observing technique is to find a dim, distant object and then observe it intensely for at least 30 minutes, collecting as many photons of light as I can and creating a visual memory of the object. You have an entire lifetime of observing ahead of you; best of all, you will never run out of objects to discover. Once you begin observing with regularity, you will soon discover that observing becomes addictive; and believe it or not, when clouds keep you from watching the nightly astroshow, you will actually miss your celestial pals, the stars.

Most newcomers to astronomy can easily get lost when first looking up. What you may need is a map to help you find your way. There are many available. You can even access a map of the sky on the Internet for anytime and anyplace from the Mount Wilson Observatory just northeast of Los Angeles. The map you access will have the constellations visible at the time and place you chose, the locations of planets visible, and information about the Moon. If you would like to see a constellation up close in more detail, use the Stars and Constellations list to help you. If you would like to know what is happening in the sky on a particular night of the year, the Abrams Planetarium’s current Skywatcher’s Diary is an excellent source of information. I know one of the authors, Robert Victor, and he is an excellent observer. His monthly Sky Calendar, though not on the internet, is simply the best beginner’s resource available. Look for details about it on the Astroleague home page above. Another good source for information about observing in general is the Astronomical League. There is also monthly observing information available from Hal Kibbey’s Star Trak. Another source of monthly information about what’s available in the sky is the Sky Calendar.

© This article was written by Jack Troeger, stargazer.