Absolute beginners . Advice for February.

An old friend asked me to forward advice to a teenager who had been to a local meet and got bitten by the observing bug.

It would certainly make an interesting open discussion topic. I thought my answer might be of interest,
You’ve taken the most important step,coming to meetings and asking questions. (Hopefully we might get to observe and break the cloud curse . Rosliston does have impressive dark skies. )If you’ve just started out, this might be of interest. This is just a kick off, hopefully some star hopping charts will be posted and some simple equipment guided. These are all better explained when out observing together.

 

Starting in February 

Practical advice.
First wrap up warm. Most heat is lost from the neck. So a scarf is good . February is the coldest month , don’t stop out too long. If the stars are really twinkling , it won’t be much good. Views high up are better. Low down and you’ll be looking through 90 miles of air , instead of 5 straight up.

Sit out in the garden with a red torch / head torch and a sky chart. It takes about 20 Minutes to get your eye dark adapted. Don’t look at anything bright ! Avoid observing when the moon is full. You can get good views by looking at the sky opposite the moon, if it’s bright.

Get to know the constellations and their shapes and where they are in the sky.Find their shapes and major stars. Keep a notebook put useful info down. It’ll all be confusing to start with. Easiest way is to concentrate on one constellation at a time.Get to know it’s shape , stars and where it is against neighbours.


This is one of the most useful starter guides around. It’s quite cheap on Amazon. Another good buy is the Collins Gem

This little book has loads of easy information and is pocket size. Astronomy is not better by spending lots of money. Simple equipment will get you results, it’s the sky that will give you good views.

Find your directions in your garden. Stars rise in the east and set in the west. Planets move along a line called the ecliptic , it runs east to west along the southern sky. Venus and Mars are visible by eye just now . Jupiter is very bright before dawn in the south.
Avoid any direct light when observing, that includes house lights, streetlights and the full moon.

Don’t squint with one eye at the scope. It affects your vision. Either hold your hand over your other open eye or use an eye patch. It really makes a difference .

For the best advice have a look at stargazerslounge.com . There’s a beginner’s section on there and lots of useful stuff. The free app. ISS spotter will tell you when the ISS comes over, quite a sight.

 

Righto, let’s start. Find the Plough and the two pointer stars point to Polaris. This is due north and the sky rotates around it ( well nearby ). In winter the earth points away from our galaxy ( the Milky Way) and out into space. It’s the time of year to spot galaxies. In summer we point towards our galaxy . You can see this as a wide band right across the sky. It’s the time of year to see clusters of new stars and the great dust clouds of the Milky Way.
The same stars will be in the same positions every year, just learn them once ! There’s a lot to learn, take it slowly . Best way is one constellation at a time. Make notes of each constellation, it’s easier than the whole sky. I’ve repeated that , in case you’re confused already.

Targets.
You’ll notice that the main galaxies , clusters etc. are given M numbers to identify them. These are Messier numbers , after the astronomer who found them. There’s a lot of history in astronomy. All objects are catalogued and referred to by numbers , such as the NGC and other catalogues. A simple chart will show where to find these targets . The easiest way is to hop from star to star checking with your chart. Use angles , compass and clockface times to get to your target. It’s much easier from the edge of town to begin with. The constellations are easier to find.

Dark sky will blow you away with dense star fields. Use low magnification , like x50 to spot these in the scope.

 

Galaxies.
Need some dark sky, M51,M81 and M82 are up at the moment. Use x50-x80 on these faint targets.

Nebulae.
Many types, the Orion Nebula , M42 is visible by eye under the belt of Orion. You’ll need a bit of dark sky and reading to get to into dark, emission , reflection and planetary nebulae.

Double stars.
Real gems , point the scope at Mizar / Alcor in the handle of the Plough . Find Cor Caroli for another lovely double. Near this is the galaxy M94.

Planets.
Venus and Mars are up in the early evening. Venus gives a lovely bright crescent. Mars is small at the moment. Every two years the planets are opposite the sun and look bigger in the scope. These are oppositions. Some oppositions get the planets close and a lot of detail can be seen.

Moon.
However bright, it won’t hurt your eyes, it’s the same brightness as a rainy road on a sunny day. However a moon filter won’t tire your eyes out. Look at the shadow line across the moon ( terminator) . This will show craters, shadows, peaks and volcanic rills in the surface.”Moon globe” is a great app.

Comets.
There have been some so bright to be visible by eye in the last few years . There’s a morning one in Bootes at the moment. It’s very faint ( C/2012 V2 Johnson) and in a big scope I haven’t caught it.

Read as much as you can and keep notes.

Astronomy is the sort of pastime that the more you put in, the more you’ll get out. That includes planning your sessions and making lists of what you’d like to see, a clipboard is great .”

(I also advised about getting  the ” Pocket Sky Atlas” and the “2017 guide to the night sky”. )
Good luck and clear skies !
Old Nick.