Getting Started in Astronomy: Part 4

Once you know the basics, going deeper is fun and easy.

Comet Hale-Bopp

The rare spectacle of a bright comet is one of backyard astronomy’s greatest prizes. Comet Hale-Bopp was one such object, delighting night-sky enthusiasts in the spring of 1997. The comet could be seen easily without optical aid and was a stunning binocular sight. Courtesy Gary Seronik

Picture This

Viewing the universe for yourself is the central attraction of backyard astronomy. The desire to photograph and share what you see is a natural extension of the experience. The main difference between using your camera during the day and using it to take shots of the night sky is, not surprisingly, a lack of light. This means two things. First, you’ll need to use a tripod. Second, your camera has to be able to take exposures of 30 seconds or longer. But even with a setup as basic as this, you can capture beautiful scenic nightscapes, photograph the northern lights, make star-trail images and even take constellation portraits. The very best results are obtained with digital SLRs. Such cameras typically perform very well in low-light conditions and allow you to select a lens that best suits your subject.

Moon and Venus

This photo of the crescent Moon and Venus was taken with nothing more exotic than a DSLR camera mounted on a tripod. Courtesy Gary Seronik

Once you’ve mastered camera-and-tripod shooting, the next step up the astrophotography ladder is long-exposure photography utilizing some kind of tracking mount. This specialized equipment compensates for the Earth’s rotation, which causes stars to appear as streaks in photos, rather than sharp points of light. With the right lens, you can capture all kinds of astro-images, ranging from constellations to star clusters, galaxies and nebulas. Suitable tracking mounts can be purchased from most telescope dealers.

But what if you want to photograph the Moon, planets and even nebulas and clusters in detail? For that, you have to be able to attach your camera to your telescope, which then works like a powerful telephoto lens. This kind of imaging is the most demanding and is best suited to experienced shooters.

Going Deeper

If you are interested in the universe of amateur astronomy, consider getting in touch with a local astronomy club. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) has branches across Canada, where you’ll find like-minded individuals who are happy to share their enthusiasm for astronomy and to answer your questions. RASC Centres have regularly scheduled meetings that are open to the public and feature guest speakers. Most RASC Centres also host observing nights, where you can look through telescopes set up by the members and tap into their immense wealth of experience. It’s an ideal way to get a feel for what recreational astronomy is all about and what’s overhead for you to see. For more information about the RASC and to find a Centre near you, visit the RASC’s website.

Andromeda Galaxy

The Andromeda Galaxy is a spiral galaxy like our own Milky Way. Also known as M31, it lies some 2.5 million light years away. Courtesy Gary Seronik

Literally a lifetime’s worth of information is available in your local library, at bookstores and on the internet. Of the many introductory books on astronomy, none is better than Terence Dickinson’s classic NightWatch. This superb volume features lively text covering the full spectrum of recreational astronomy and includes nicely rendered star charts. A more in-depth work is the previously mentioned Backyard Astronomer’s Guide by Dickinson and Alan Dyer — a must-have, especially if you are contemplating the purchase of a telescope or any other astronomical equipment. A good star atlas is also very useful. Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas is an excellent choice.

The hobby is well served by several fine magazines, including one produced in Canada: SkyNews. Each issue is packed with amazing colour images, observing charts and event listings, as well as regular contributions from Canada’s finest astronomy writers.

Ready, Set, Explore!

Seronik-Full Moon

The full Moon is an alluring sight for beginners and experienced backyard observers alike. Courtesy Gary Seronik

One of astronomy’s greatest attractions is that it connects us personally to the vast universe in which we live. One good telescopic look at the Moon’s stark, battered surface instantly transports you to a world utterly unlike the one we inhabit. Seeing Saturn’s stunning rings for yourself is like meeting a celestial celebrity. And it can be humbling to observe the faint light of a distant galaxy and realize that the photons you’re absorbing through the eyepiece at that moment have been travelling across space far longer than there have been humans on our planet. The universe is, indeed, a magnificent place — not only for its visual splendour but for what it truly is. Getting started in astronomy is your ticket to exploring and understanding that magnificence.

Click here to go to Part 1 of our Getting Started series.

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