One of my main goals with this blog has always been to make amateur astronomy accessible to newcomers. So it’s probably past time that I post a list of the top 10 things I think a beginning stargazer needs. I’ve ranked them here roughly by my perception of how important or useful they are, especially for people just starting out. Almost everything on the list is something I’ve either owned or used myself, and the important exceptions are noted.
1. A Planisphere
Yes, you can get a free app for your phone that will show you thousands of celestial objects. If you get one with a good night-vision mode AND turn the brightness way down on your phone, it might not destroy your night vision, but it will still only show you a small slice of the sky at one time. At best, you’ll be outside under the stars and still looking at a dadgummed screen. Here’s a thought: put all the devices away, get out a lawn chair or just lie down on the grass, grab a planisphere, and spend a quiet half hour picking out the constellations. One of the chief advantages of a planisphere over an app is that you can see essentially the whole visible sky displayed at once, so you can figure out how the constellations relate to each other. Planispheres aren’t just for newbies, either – I know a lot of experienced observers, myself included, who keep one handy to do a quick check on what’s up, or will be up, at a given time. There are lots of planispheres on the market but I prefer the simplicity and utility of The Night Sky series by David Chandler, which come in different models for different latitudes. I suspect that most readers of this blog will want the 30-40 degree one (link) or the 40-50 degree one (link); if you’re outside that zone, search for one that matches your home latitude. Cheap alternative: print out the free Evening Sky Map for this month (here), which in addition to a star chart has lists of objects for naked eyes, binoculars, and telescopes.
2. A Red Flashlight
Yep, I’m giving this the number two spot. Why? Because you’ll need one right away, and you’ll never stop needing one as long as you’re stargazing. For my first month as an amateur astronomer, all I had were a planisphere and a red flashlight, and I still had a lot of fun out under the stars. As with planispheres, there are lots of models available. I like this one from Orion (link) – it’s small enough to keep on you at all times and just bright enough to be useful (a lot of red-beam flashlights are too bright). Cheap alternative: get a regular flashlight and tape some red cellophane over the end, or even some brown wrapping paper or part of a paper bag. If it’s still too bright, do what I do and tape a coin over the bulb to block more than half of the light.
That’s right, not just any beginning astronomy book, but this particular one (link). Why? I wrote a whole post about that (here), but here’s the short version: no other single book covers so many aspects of amateur astronomy, from the kinds of celestial phenomena to naked-eye, binocular, and telescopic observing – and what kinds of binoculars and telescopes to consider buying. It even has star charts to get you started as an observer. The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide (link)treads similar ground, with more detail on the gear and how-to side at the expense of star charts or guidelines for finding specific objects. Cheap alternative: see if you can find a used copy, especially of one of the older editions (the current edition is the 4th) – some of the specific gear recommendations may be a little dated, but everything else will be just as useful.
I put binoculars ahead of a telescope for two reasons. First, if you’re on a tight budget, you can get decent binoculars for a lot less than you can get a decent telescope. Second, like the red flashlight, they’re something you’ll never outgrow. I am a committed binocular observer, but even if you’re not, binoculars can be a huge help at the telescope, mainly for finding your way around the sky before you attempt a star-hop in the ‘scope, but also for appreciated big extended objects like the Pleiades, the Hyades, the full extent of the Andromeda Galaxy, and so on. There are tons and tons of binoculars out there. Here are a couple of models that I own and use a lot, that I think are good values: for a general instrument, the Celestron UpClose 10x50s have decent optics and build quality and cost only $25-$30 (link). I spent one of my most rewarding nights of stargazing using only this instrument, a red flashlight, and a book I’m about to recommend (Gary Seronik’s Binocular Highlights) – here’s that observing report. If you’re really into binos and want to try some big guns, the Celestron SkyMaster 15x70s are a nice first step (link). They’re light enough that most folks can hand-hold them, but they’re easy enough to mount on a tripod if you’d like a steadier view. I use mine a LOT – I’ve seen almost all of the Messier objects with them, and probably close to 100 non-Messier NGCs and other deep-sky objects. Cheap alternative: whatever binoculars you already have lying around, or that you can pick up at a thrift store, or borrow from a friend. It was a view of Jupiter and its moons in the cheap 7x35s I’d had since high school that first got me hooked on stargazing. Any binoculars will be a useful and probably mind-blowing step beyond what your naked-eyes can show. That said, avoid binos with red-tinted “ruby” lenses if you can – they look and sound high-tech, but the tinting is pointless and crappy and only there to cover other optical faults.
5. A Decently-Sized, Solidly-Mounted Telescope
I imagine a lot of beginning stargazers must get frustrated when they ask what telescope to buy, and more experienced people keep saying, “Get a planisphere and some binoculars and learn the sky first.” We say that because you can get months or years out of enjoyment out of those things, for an outlay well under $50, whereas most of us would have a hard time recommending a telescope under $100 as a rewarding instrument. But if you’re here for scope recommendations, I have some.
A word about the qualifiers I put in the heading: by “decently-sized” I mean something with an aperture in the neighborhood of 4 inches (100mm) or larger. Yes, people can and do get a lot of enjoyment out of smaller telescopes, and some of us have a possibly unhealthy fascination with tiny telescopes. But if you’re just starting out, you need some early wins, and a 4- to 8-inch scope will make everything bigger and brighter. “Solidly-mounted” is crucial; on many objects rewarding magnification starts at 50-100x, and at those magnifications, every little shake in the scope or mount is going to be magnified 50 to 100 times. A shaky mount can make an otherwise decent telescope essentially unusable. I suspect that frustration with shaky mounts has probably killed more budding observing careers than any other single factor.
So what should you get? If you know you’re in for the long haul, follow the standard advice and get a 6- or 8-inch Dobsonian. I’m a big fan of the Orion XT6 (6 inches, ~$300) and XT8 (8 inches, ~$370), but Dobs are hard to screw up and you can’t really go wrong with any of them. If you’re less certain, or have less dough to throw around but still want a decent scope, get a smaller Dob or tabletop scope on a Dobsonian mount. Popular choices that don’t suck include the Orion SkyScanner 100 (4 inches, ~$125, observing reports here and here), Orion StarBlast 4.5 (4.5 inches, ~$200), Orion XT4.5 (4.5 inches, ~$260), and the Astronomers Without Borders OneSky (5 inches, ~$200, observing report here [as the Bushnell Ares 5 – same scope, different branding]). Personally, I’d avoid the Celestron FirstScope and Orion FunScope (3 inches, $35-70 depending on model and outlet), for reasons explained in this post. Cheap alternative: already covered – binoculars and a planisphere! Yes, you can probably find some rickety undermounted disaster on eBay or Craigslist for less, but it will almost certainly not be a good choice for a beginner. As a beginner you need something that Just Works, not a project scope. Wait to rescue one of those trash-heap darlings until you know what you’re doing.
6. A Moon Map
Depending on your tolerance for light pollution and willingness and ability to navigate when there are few visible stars in the sky, most other astronomical objects look less than stellar for at least one week each month, and maybe two, centered on the full moon. Also, the moon is one of the few objects that looks fantastic in almost any telescope. And you’ll enjoy looking at the moon more if you have some idea of what you’re looking at. Plus, moon maps are so cheap ($5-$12 for all of the models listed here) that there’s not much reason to pass on getting one. Sky & Tel have a couple of models available, their basic laminated moon map (regular, reversed) and the much nicer Field Map of the Moon (regular, reversed). As the links indicated, both are available in two versions, one showing the moon as it is in the sky, and the other with the moon reversed from left to right, to match the flipped orientation in most refractors and CATs. Cheap alternative: if not a moon map, how about a moon app? My favorite is Moon Globe by Midnight Martian. The basic app is free, and Moon Globe HD is a worthwhile upgrade for a couple of bucks. You can ignore my griping about apps wiping out your night vision, because the moon is bright enough most nights to wipe out your night vision all by itself. And for your computer, Virtual Moon Atlas is the reference standard (link); it’s been continuously updated for more than 10 years and is a very mature piece of software.
7. Books That Show You the Way
You can get a really good start with free resources like the Evening Sky Map and Stellarium (free planetarium software, get it here), but a lot of beginning stargazers find it helpful to have a book that not only tells you what to point the telescope at, but also tells you how to get there. Turn Left at Orion (link) is the standard recommendation here and indeed it will show you a lot; I own a copy and it was very helpful in carrying me along until I could fly for myself. A not-so-obvious choice that I also recommend a lot is Gary Seronik’s book Binocular Highlights (link) – almost every one of the 99 objects he shows you how to find in that book are dynamite targets for telescopes of all sizes, and the finder charts are very clear and well thought-out. Although I haven’t used it myself, Peter Birren’s Objects in the Heavens (link) is another popular choice–frequent commenter Doug Rennie calls it “the best observing guide out there”. If you’re a little more seasoned or just want more of a challenge, Sue French’s books Celestial Sampler (link) and Deep Sky Wonders (link) have zillions of things to find, organized by constellations or small areas of the sky, with targets appropriate for scopes of all sizes (Sue does most of her observing with a 4-inch refractor and a 10-inch reflector). Finally, the Deep Sky Companions series by Stephen James O’Meara is nicely organized and presented, with 109 objects per book plus a few bonus objects at the end; the individual titles are The Messier Objects (link), The Caldwell Objects (link), Hidden Treasures (link), The Secret Deep (link), and Southern Gems (link). Cheap alternative: a used copy of one of the above. Heck, used copies of the 2000 edition of Turn Left are currently going for a buck and a half on Amazon – observing guides don’t get much better or cheaper than that.
8. The Pocket Sky Atlas
Wait, if I just recommended books that will drive you to dozens or hundreds of objects in the sky, why do you need an atlas? Because no matter how nice the path that other authors have blazed for you, sooner or later you are going to want to step off it, and go wander in the wilds of the sky on your own. When you take that step, you’ll need an all-sky atlas.
Once again I’m skipping past a lot of other possible contenders to recommend a single book. There are lots of sky atlases out there, which cover a wide range of “depths” in terms of numbers of stars and objects shown. Some, like the Bright Star Atlas (link) and the Sky Atlas for Small Telescopes and Binoculars (link), simply show too few stars and objects to help you get on target with a telescope, although they are both fine binocular atlases. Others, like the Sky Atlas 2000.0 (link) and Uranometria (link), are overkill for a beginner – you’ll know when you need to move up to something like that. The Pocket Sky Atlas (link) hits a happy medium: for most of the hundreds of objects that beginners are likely to go after, it shows enough stars to get on target, but it’s still conveniently sized and intuitively laid out. The PSA has been my guide for the Messier objects, the Caldwells, the Astronomical League’s Deep Sky Binocular, Urban Observing, and Double Star observing programs, and the first 40% of the Herschel 400, and I’m still very far from exhausting the 1500 or so plotted deep-sky objects. (For the record, I also own the Bright Star Atlas, Sky Atlas for Small Telescopes and Binoculars, the Cambridge Double Star Atlas, and Uranometria, and I have used the Sky Atlas 2000.0; I recommend the PSA because it’s my most-used atlas, not my only one.). For a dissenting view and an alternative recommendation, see this post and its comment thread for a discussion of Eric Karkoschka’s Observer’s Sky Atlas (link). Cheap alternative: there are several nice sets of free, printable atlases that cover the entire the sky; these have the advantage that you can print only the pages that you need, and at the level of detail that is best for your equipment. My favorites are the Mag 7 Star Charts (link) and the TriAtlas (link); this last one is actually three atlases of varying sizes and levels of detail.
9. Books About the Why
Many books will tell you what’s in the sky and how and where to go find it, but only a few capture the “why” of stargazing. A lot of committed observers end up spending a considerable amount of time alone in the cold and the dark – what is it that keeps drawing us back out there? I am certain that there are almost as many sources of inspiration as their are stargazers, and what works for one may not work for the next. But this is my list and I have to recommend something. The two books that crystallize for me the wonder and romance of observing the night sky are Leslie Peltier’s Starlight Nights (link), and Timonthy Ferris’s Seeing in the Dark (link). The former goes in and out of print. Sadly it is out of print right now, and used copies are going for ruinous prices. Happily there is a Kindle edition that is not too steep. Seeing in the Dark is one of my favorite books of all time, and I wrote a whole post about it, which you can find here. Cheap alternative: used copies of Seeing in the Dark start at $0.01 plus shipping, so you’re not risking much by giving it a try.
10. An Almanac of What’s Up There
For cloudy nights and quick reference, it’s handy to have a book that just has tons of data. Say you want to find out how many moons in the solar system are bigger than Mercury*, or the orbital period of Neptune**, or the distance to the Orion Nebula***. Yes, you could just look all of that up on Wikipedia, but sometimes it’s faster and easier to use a book. Plus, everyone needs stocking stuffers, right? Now, there are shedloads of books that cover this ground, and if you have access to a Barnes & Noble or other large brick-and-mortar bookstore you can probably find any of half a dozen likely candidates on the bargain rack. I have a couple of favorites to recommend. First, the pocket-sized Smithsonian Handbook: Stars and Planets by Ian Ridpath (link) has a special place in my heart, because it was the first astronomy book I bought back in 2007 when I was first getting into the hobby. Although I couldn’t have known it at the time, I got lucky: the book has a simply amazing amount of information in a very compact package, and I’ve keep it close by ever since and referred to it often. If you want a big fat book to curl up with on a rainy evening, Universe: The Definitive Visual Guide is hard to beat (link). If there’s an important topic in astronomy that’s not covered, I don’t know what it might be. I wrote a whole post about this book, too – go check it out. Cheap alternative: A used copy of one of the above. Universe seems to be out of print now, but you can get new copies for under $20 and used copies for about a buck and a half, plus shipping.
Well, those are my top recommendations. If there’s something awesome that I missed, let me know down in the comments. And in the words of Cloudy Nights user gnowellsct, “May peace be upon your high end consumerism”.
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* Two: Ganymede (the largest moon of Jupiter, and the largest moon in the solar system) and Titan (the largest moon of Saturn).
** 164.9 Earth years.
*** Approximately 1344 light years.