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A quick and dirty guide to backyard astronomy

Elizabeth Fish | April 1, 2013
You might be put off by the cost of telescopes, or the amount of research you have to do to navigate the sky. But astronomy for beginners doesn't have to be expensive or difficult. We'll show you how to get started, and share some apps and gadgets that might be useful.

Asteroids, meteor showers, and comets are also visible without the need of telescopes and binoculars. All of these can be spotted throughout the year, but highlights include the Leonids and the Geminids meteor showers.

Binoculars

Binoculars (which are really a pair of mini-telescopes) are surprisingly useful if you're an amateur astronomer, and since they're compact, you can use them to observe the sky from just about anywhere.

For a good starter pair, pay close attention to the aperture--that is, the amount of light that the lenses can gather--and its magnification. Try to get a pair that has a magnification of no less than 7, and an aperture of about 50mm; specs of 7 by 50 or 10 by 50 are two great choices for beginners. They will be clearly marked on the side of the binoculars. You can go for something bigger, but the instrument will be hard to keep steady without a tripod.

Try to avoid binoculars with a zoom dial, as these can distort what you see. Plus, you'll find it harder to hold a pair steady without using a tripod.

Finally, look at the color of the optics--good binoculars are usually tinted to improve image brightness and reduce reflections.

What can you expect to see with binoculars? First off, expect to see the sky become absolutely covered in stars--binoculars can help you spot the stars your eyes can't see by themselves. The real fun begins when you see your naked-eye observations close up. The Seven Sisters will look stunning, and you'll be able to see the Orion nebula glow with green and blue hues.

Binoculars also allow you to study the Moon's craters. For the most part, Jupiter and Saturn will still look like bright stars, but you might be able to catch a glimpse of their moons, or Saturn's rings. Additionally, you'll see a brighter image of planets such as Mars.

Useful apps and websites

As it turns out, your smartphone or tablet can be your best friend when you go observing.

The Night Sky (free; Android and iOS) uses your phone's camera to show you what's happening right above you, right now. It doesn't just show you constellations and stars, either; it also helps you spot planets, satellites, and some nebulas. The app is straightforward and easy to use: just point it in any direction, and you'll get an augmented reality map that shows you where stars and other celestial objects are in the sky relative to your location. Zooming into an area can give you even more details on distant objects. Its "night visibility" mode tints the screen red so it doesn't mess up your night vision.

 

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