A Frugal Guide to Amateur Astronomy

Several months ago, I had a wonderful evening with my six year old daughter where we spent more than an hour (up until bedtime) in the backyard under the night sky, looking up at the stars. We talked about how big the universe is. We talked about how most of the dots in the sky are stars but a few are planets and some are whole galaxies. We identified a few constellations – the ones I could remember from my own astronomy “phase” as a kid and a few more I could identify quickly using my smartphone as an aid. We identified the Milky Way and talked about our own galaxy.

More than anything, though, we just enjoyed staring up at the majesty of the night sky together.

Since then, we’ve found ourselves outside in the evenings a few times and we always find ourselves staring up at the sky, looking for constellations and other interesting space phenomena. I distinctly remember a few months ago when my daughter recognized a few constellations completely on her own. Her excitement was palpable!

Naturally, this is an interest I’d like to slowly foster. My first thought was to buy a decent telescope… but when I started looking at the prices, I nearly fainted. In order to get a good quality budget telescope for home use, you’re dropping a lot of cash – more than I’m confortable spending. Truly low-end telescopes are actually more problematic than binoculars and don’t offer much more visually.

So, over the last several weeks, I’ve been seriously investigating methods for helping my daughter (and my sons, who have some interest but not as strong as my daughter) dig a bit deeper into astronomy without smashing our budget to bits. Here are some of the things that we’ve learned.

Free – Library (and Internet) Time

The first tool available to you can be found at your local library. Our local library offers tons of star maps and books on astronomy that can be checked out.

Why start here? Once you choose to move beyond the sheer wonder of the night sky, the next step is acquiring knowledge. What are you looking at when you look up? Where are the planets? What are they like? Where are the most prominent stars, constellations, and galaxies? What are they called? What’s worth knowing about them?

You can get all of this information from the star charts and astronomy books at your local library – and all of those resources are free.

Free – Naked Eye Astronomy

Once you have those tools, you can head out into the backyard and enjoy naked eye astronomy for free. Just look upwards and use your star charts to identify many of the bright elements of the night sky, then use the books to learn more about the things that you’re seeing.

In our backyard, we can see on the order of 5,000 objects in the night sky. Approximately 50 of them stand out due to their brightness or other features, giving us plenty of things to look at. With our naked eyes and materials from the library, we can easily identify a dozen or so constellations without too much trouble.

If you’re doing this with someone whose company you enjoy and taking your time to appreciate all of the beauty, this can actually eat up a lot of evenings. The sky changes quite a bit as the seasons pass, so you can often see completely different things after a few months than you can see at the present moment.

Free – Astronomy News

One of the highlights of looking at the night sky comes from seeing unusual and rare phenomena, like comets and eclipses and meteor showers. In order to spot those things, however, you have to keep up to date on astronomy news.

The internet provides many great websites that can alert you to the presence of such interesting things in the night sky. I quite like Universe Today, which provides highlights of phenomena in the night sky along with a lot of interesting and detailed information about what they are and where they came from.

Another useful tool is an astronomy calendar, which allows you to plan things like examining the moon (best done during a full moon) or examining stars (best done during a new moon) or when meteor showers or comet fly-bys occur. A good astronomy calendar can help you plan ahead for spectacular nighttime shows.

$0 to $5 – An Astronomy Smartphone App

If you’re willing to spend a buck or two, there are a number of smartphone astronomy apps out there that can greatly add to the night sky experience.

On the whole, the $5 app Starmap is probably my favorite choice. It uses GPS to figure out your location, then generates a map of the night sky based on your exact position and the time of the year. As you rotate your phone around, the app indicates where the highlights of the sky are, enabling you to directly translate what you see in front of you into names of stars and planets, constellations, and other facts.

If you’re looking for other options, Starwalk offers most of the same features as Starmap at a slightly lower price (I just like Starmap’s interface a bit better). Starchart is free and offers most of the same features as the other ones, though with a clunkier interface (in my opinion).

Still, in terms of a cheap interactive helper for viewing the night sky, any of these choices can be a great bargain option.

$0 to $10 – Local Astronomy Clubs

Most cities and college towns have astronomy clubs that add a nice social element to stargazing as well as enable access to resources that might be difficult to enjoy on your own. Some clubs have membership fees, while others are free.

What can an astronomy club offer? They can offer a great deal of advice and guidance with regards to beginning astronomy questions. They offer social events that revolve around viewing the sky. They often provide access at a very low cost (often free) to things like high-end telescopes and planetariums. Sometimes, they have access to bargains on items like star maps, binoculars, and telescopes.

If you’re looking for a local astronomy group in the United States, the Night Sky Network, sponsored by NASA, can help you find one.

$0 to $30 – A Trip to the Planetarium/Observatory

If you live near an observatory or a planetarium, they can provide a wonderful opportunity for great guided views of the night sky. Often, there’s a fee involved, but many observatories and planetariums have “free” days where you can see what they have on offer (though they’re often pretty crowded on those days).

To be more specific, a planetarium is a specially built indoor theatre designed to imitate the night sky through projections on the ceiling. A planetarium can appear just like a night sky, but it can also present zoom-ins and other materials that go far beyond what you’re actually able to see in the sky. An observatory usually features a dome and/or a large telescope at a clear point that can maximize one’s ability to see the night sky, both through powerful tools and through lack of interfering light. Both usually offer professional guidance and information.

A patient person can find trips to planetariums and observatories at a low price. A good way to get started is to search Google for planetariums and observatories in your area, watch them regularly for discounts, and also get in touch with local astronomy clubs for special events and discounts.

$5 to $50 – Printed Star Charts

Although astronomy smartphone apps include many of the features one can find in a traditional printed star chart or star map, the printed variety offers some advantages.

For example, on your own star map, you can add your own annotations about the celestial objects you’ve seen. A printed star map or star chart also works regardless of whether your smart phone has plenty of charge. Plus, it’s much easier to pass around and share without worrying about someone dropping your smart phone.

Most bookstores offer a number of these charts and maps; Amazon offers an unlimited variety. If you’re looking for a one-shot recommendation, the spiral-bound book NightWatch by Terrence Dickinson is probably your best choice. It has a lot of information in one tidy package.

$50 to $100 – Quality Astronomy Binoculars

If you’re looking for a low-cost took for improving your viewing of the night sky through magnification, the best place to start is with a quality pair of astronomy binoculars.

You can find endless lists of specific recommendations on astronomy websites, but I personally find that the Orion 10151 10×50 E-Series is a great beginner option (I do not actually own a pair yet, but I have tried them out). They provide 10x magnification, which is plenty to get a great view of the moon’s craters, of the planets, and of all kinds of nearby celestial objects. My favorite part? When you zoom them correctly, relatively blank pieces of sky come alive with thousands of otherwise unseen stars and galaxies, which is one of the most breathtaking things I’ve experienced in backyard astronomy.

This would make a great gift for someone with a beginning interest in astronomy.

Why Astronomy?

Once you have a few basic items, like some binoculars and an app for finding things, the sky itself becomes an infinitely interesting tool. The night sky changes throughout the night and throughout the seasons, giving you interesting things throughout the evening and throughout the year, plus there are new objects and celestial events all the time.

In other words, it’s a pretty cheap hobby with no real upkeep costs and it’s one that can provide endless amounts of breathtaking wonder.

Sure, you can get obsessed and drop thousands on a telescope if you so choose, but that makes little sense and provides little benefit to the starting amateur. If it becomes a lifelong passion, then a telescope can make for a nice investment, but in terms of just getting started, you barely need anything at all.

In fact, you can enjoy a lot of star and planet identification as well as social engagement without any expense whatsoever.

That’s really what I want. The starry night is a wonderful, breathtaking thing that I can look at for countless hours, but part of the joy of it is sharing it with my own children. It’s something we can do with surprisingly little expense.

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