Astronomy comes in two flavours: professional and amateur. Amateur astronomy is the more relaxed version of the science, where you use your own eyes, and some basic instruments, to experience and understand the night sky.
Professional astronomers are scientists who observe phenomena in the sky, come up with a theory to explain it, and test this theory using known laws of physics. They rarely go out to observe something for themselves. Instead, they use massive telescopes to take clear images of the sky, turn them into numerical data, and run this data through programs. They spend most of their time behind a computer screen, crunching numbers and analysing data.
Amateur astronomy lets you experience the universe more directly. You have complete control over what to look at and learn about. You’re not obliged to learn data collection or analysis. If you are interested in research, however, this is an option too. Many amateur astronomers have gone on to make important contributions to the field.
Why should I do it?
There’s nothing more humbling and awe inspiring than the feeling you get when you’re lying down and looking up at the starry sky. Getting a sense of the vastness of space is therapeutic, and it puts our human problems into perspective.
Astronomy forces you to get outside when it’s dark and quiet, find an object thousands or millions of miles away, and contemplate your place in this vast Universe. Most of us don’t do this nearly as often as we should.
Is it difficult?
Like anything else in the world, it’s only as hard as you make it. Most people initially get very excited, try to do everything in one night, and then end up intimidated and frustrated with the whole process.
The most important thing to remember when pursuing amateur astronomy is to start slowly. Don’t get discouraged. Learn and do things in small, manageable chunks. Technology is your friend, as is the Internet. There’s so much information and advice out there, it makes the process easy and accessible for everyone.
Do I need equipment?
Equipment can definitely enhance your stargazing experience, but you really don’t need much to start with. Test the hobby first with naked eyes, then go on to choose some binoculars, to explore with. When you’re fairly comfortable navigating the sky, you can invest in a telescope.
How do I get started?
It’s really important to get familiar the basics. Aim to understand:
- What you can see in the sky
- Why Moon phases are important, and how to track them
- Navigating the sky using Stellarium or a Sky Map application
- Dark adaptation
Amateur astronomy is arguably one of the most fulfilling and rewarding hobbies out there. Give it a shot. There’s really nothing quite like it.