Star Sky Map

ASTRONOMY DAY: Get Started in Backyard Astronomy

The night sky is an exotic destination we can reach without ever leaving the comfort of our home or neighborhood. And a telescope or binoculars will reveal even more of the sky on your journeys. To use these effectively, you first need to know where to aim them. The best way to do this is to get to know the constellations.

Charts such as this one from our friends at Sky and Telescope Magazine help you get an overview and familiarity with the sky above you. Their site and the website of Astronomy Magazine have “sky this week” features that will direct you to daily sights. Many of these are visible with only your eyes, such as this morning’s view of the planets as seen in the accompanying figure for dawn on May 3. Dawn on May 4 will be very similar with Mars slightly to the left of its May 3rd position. As you continue to look for and find these targets over the weeks and months ahead, you will become attuned to the changes in the sky over monthly and seasonal cycles.

Enhance your experience by learning more about these stars, such as their distances and how they compare to our Sun in size, brightness, and temperature. As your interest develops you can subscribe to the magazines mentioned above for more detail. Both have regular feature articles about the moon and other objects that are easily seen through binocular, and Astronomy has a monthly column for beginners.

Binoculars are a fine way to enjoy the sky. The wide-angle view provides a good look at interesting star arrangements and asterisms, which are like “mini constellations.” When buying binoculars you will see two numbers, such as 10×50. The first number tells you the magnification power, with higher numbers giving a larger size of the object in view. The second number is the width of objective lens. Larger lenses gather more light, giving you a brighter object and the ability to see fainter things. But be careful, bigger numbers also mean bigger, heavier binoculars, which are harder to hold steady.

Family with young children looking through a telescopeIf you buy a telescope, ignore any hyped claims about high magnification. It is best to also ignore any store or site that attempts to sell you on the magnification power. With telescopes, aperture, or width of the opening, is key. You change magnification by switching eyepieces. A telescope must have a firm base or tripod, so pay attention to this important feature as well.

Specific recommendations are beyond the scope of this blog. The Sky and Telescope and Astronomy websites have buying guides, as do the websites of the leading telescope makers Celestron, Orion, and Meade.

You also have a great opportunity for fun and learning right in your own “backyard!” You can join the Springfield STARS Club or attend their public events. At the public events you will get a look through a variety of different telescopes, ask questions of their owners, and get lots of good advice before making a decision to buy.

And to have even more fun while you learn the sky above, you can always come to a “Splendors of the Night Sky” show at the Seymour Planetarium or attend one of our monthly “Stars over Springfield” public observing events (see our website for details). We welcome the opportunity to help you begin your adventure!

Kevin Kopchynski is a Monson resident, nature/science educator, and computer service provider. He grew up on Long Island where he developed a strong fascination with science and nature.  He now works as a planetarium/STEM educator at the Springfield Science Museum and as a naturalist for Mass Audubon.