Astronomy comes in two flavours: professional and amateur. Amateur astronomy is the hobby 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 something in the sky, come up with a theory to explain it, and test this theory using known laws of physics. You’ll rarely find a professional astronomer going out to observe something for themselves – they use massive telescopes to take clear images of the sky, turn them into numerical data, and run this data through programs. Most of their time is spent behind a computer, crunching numbers and analysing data to figure something out.
Amateur astronomy lets you experience the universe more directly. You have complete control over what to look at and learn about. You don’t have to bother yourself with data collection or analysis. If research is your thing, 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 that feeling you get when you’re lying down and looking up the starry sky. Getting a sense of the vastness of space is therapeutic, and it puts our tiny 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 enormous Universe. It sounds terribly cheesy, but most of us don’t do this nearly as often as we should.
Is it hard?
Like anything else in the world, it’s only as hard as you make it. Most peopleinitially get terribly 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 – there are loads of apps that make the process incredibly 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 out with. Test the hobby first with your 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?
Before you run outside and start spotting stuff, learn 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. If you’ve been thinking about it, give it a shot! There’s really nothing quite like it.