General information for everyone
Getting started in Astronomy
This document lists selected sources of reference material, including books, magazines, computer software, web sites, societies and distance-learning courses, for people interested in taking up astronomy as a hobby. It is particularly aimed at UK residents.
The enthusiast should find much of interest in our collection of astrolinks.
Astronomy can be a fascinating and rewarding pastime, whether you have a substantial telescope and accessories such as a CCD camera, or are a beginner observing with the naked eye. It is one of the few sciences where amateurs make genuine contributions to research, but many observers simply do it for the excitement of seeing with their own eyes the planets, star clusters, nebulae and so on that are familiar from books. Observing directly by eye with an amateur telescope, it is not possible to see most astronomical objects with the amount of detail and colour captured in the images recorded by large professional instruments. However, many experienced amateurs make beautiful drawings at the telescope, and some achieve spectacular results with photography and CCD imaging.
For anyone completely new to astronomy, the first step is to become familiar with the night sky, how it changes through the night and season by season, and how it varies according to the observer's latitude. A planisphere (or "star wheel"), monthly sky guide, or computer software will help with this. (The RAS Web site provides a list of software links.)
The next step may be to get some sort of optical aid. Keep in mind that good views of faint or diffuse astronomical objects will never be obtained from poor sites, such as urban locations. Furthermore, inexpensive telescopes sold by toy shops, natural-history stores, and other non-specialist outlets are often of poor optical quality and are very likely to give a disappointing performance.
Jodrell Bank's advice page: "Astronomical telescopes often come into the category of 'try a few times and then never touch again'. This is because thay are often bought rather hastily and it is not realised what they are capable of achieving. They will not, in general, provide you with the wonderful images that you see in the magazines." In the same spirit, our advice is: if you have little or no idea what telescope to get, consider carefully whether you really want get one at all! The best telescope for you is the one that you're likely to use most often.
A wide range of astronomical telescopes is available for purchase, but one which is large enough to be of much use, and which will give satisfying images, will cost several hundreds of pounds; it makes no sense to spend that amount of money until the observer knows enough to choose which type of observing is of interest. A good-quality pair of binoculars is a relatively economical alternative, and worthwhile experience can be gained with them. They are also useful for non-astronomical purposes! Sizes usually recommended are 8 x 40 or 10 x 50; while higher magnifications and bigger objective glasses may in principle reveal more detail, they increase the weight and bulk. Large binoculars can be difficult to use without a stand or tripod, because most people cannot hold them steady enough. High-power optically stabilized binoculars are available, but are expensive.
Good-quality terrestrial telescopes, such as those used by birdwatchers, generally offer good value, and can easily be pressed into use for casual astronomical observations; though not optimised for such purposes, they give excellent views of the Moon, and the rings of Saturn, Jupiter's major moons, and the phases of Venus can all be seen.
A very detailed book, covering almost every imaginable aspect of amateur astronomical equipment, is Star Ware, by Harrington. Other sources of information include articles in popular astronomical journals, such as Astronomy Now and Sky and Telescope. At the time of writing, the Sky and Telescope website features a "Tips" section, featuring recent articles on "getting started" topics, including choosing binoculars and telescopes. The Astronomy Magazine website currently has a similar section entitled "For Beginners". Members of local societies may be able to offer advice on choice of telescope (and perhaps evaluation of second-hand offerings), though this will not necessarily be unbiased or unanimous!
Reputable retailers specialising in astronomical telescopes will also be able to advise on what is most suitable for different circumstances. A list of suppliers of equipment can be found in the Handbook of the Federation of Astronomical Societies, and there is a list of links to equipment suppliers on the Society for Popular Astronomy website. Advertisements can also be found in the monthly magazine Astronomy Now.
"Careers in Astronomy, Geophysics and Planetary Science", "Studying and Working in Astronomy and Planetary Science in the UK", and our pamphlet "Careers for Girls with a Vision in Astronomy & Geophysics" (pdf file, 709k, also available in printed form).
Plans for do-it-yourself planispheres are available from:
Federation of Astronomical Societies supplies the following publications of particular interest to the beginner:
All these are inexpensive (under £5), and are available from the Publications Secretary (Malcolm Jones, The Willows, Hawkes Lane, Bracon Ash, Norwich NR14 8EW.
A glance at the astronomy section in any large bookshop will show how extensive is the range of available books!
Norton's Star Atlas and Reference Handbook. Dutton, 2004. ISBN 978 0 13 145164 3 (hardbound): from about £25.99. The standard handbook for the amateur astronomer for generations. The current edition is the 20th, and has been revised and updated by Ian Ridpath to take account of developments in observational astronomy.
The Monthly Sky Guide, 7th edtn. Cambridge University Press, 2006. ISBN 978 0 521 68435 4 (pbk): £9.95. Differently arranged, large clear chart for each month with practical notes on location and "what to see" with naked eye, binoculars and small telescopes; unusually, includes planetary positions and eclipses for up to five years ahead.
Collins Stars and Planets Guide, 4th edtn. HarperCollins, London, 2007. ISBN 978 0 00 725120 9 (pbk): £16.99. Excellent pocket guide, with extremely clear constellation maps and descriptions of notable objects in each ofr users of small to medium-sized telescopes; also gives mythological and some historical background, followed by descriptions of Moon, planets and the stars.
astrolinks pages include links to home pages for many magazines (and more technical journals). Among the most popular are:
Astronomy (ISSN 0091 6358). An excellent American magazine, heavily orientated towards the practical amateur astronomer, and full of stunning astrophotographs.
Astronomy Now (ISSN 0951 9726). A British magazine with a wide mixture of current astronomy, some space material, news reports and quite a lot on amateur societies' activities, all from a British viewpoint. Well illustrated, with some historical articles and a regular sky page. Available from bookstalls, price £2.70, or by subscription, currently £29.00 p.a., from Astronomy Now Subscriptions, AIM Ltd., PO Box 10, Gateshead NE11 0GA. Tel: 0191 487 6444; Fax: 0191 487 6333.
Sky and Telescope, (ISSN 0037 6604). The premier popular-level astronomy magazine, profusely illustrated and including historical and fairly technical articles, as well as excellent sky pages. The publishers, Sky Publishing Corporation, also publish and sell a wide range of books, software, and related products.
The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and some other papers, give charts of the night sky at the beginning of each month. These tend to be a bit on the small side, and can be rather difficult to use, but they have the advantage of including the brighter planets. By relating the well known star patterns or constellations on the chart (for example, the Great Bear, which is visible all year) to what you see in the sky, you can learn to identify other patterns.
All the magazines listed above have regular features which show star and planet positions, and forthcoming celestial events. Of these those in Astronomy Now and Sky and Telescope are among the clearest and most detailed, although the latter concentrates on the special events visible from North America.
astrolinks pages include links to lists of astronomical software manufacturers. Among many products suitable for home use, two of the most popular are:
Starry Night [CD-ROM], Ivybridge: Guildsoft (three versions: Beginner, Backyard, Pro).
Suppliers of astronomical software include:
Lambda Publications, 194 Cheney Manor Road, Swindon SN2 2NZ, Wiltshire; Tel: 01793 695296; email, Ray(@)lambdapub.demon.co.uk; Ray(@)AstronomySoftware.co.uk.
Midland Counties Publications, 4 Watling Drive, Hinckley, Leics. LE10 3EY; Tel: 01455 254450; Fax: 01455 233737; email: midlandbooks(@)compuserve.com.
Sky Publishing Corporation, the publishers of Sky and Telescope magazine, sell a wide range of books, software, and related products. They can be contacted at 49 Bay State Road, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA; Tel: (001) 617 864 7360; Fax: (001) 617 864 6117; email: Custserv(@)SkyandTelescope.com.
The Society for Popular Astronomy (SPA), which publishes Popular Astronomy, is particularly aimed at encouraging people starting out in astronomy. The SPA website has a list of links including astronomical equipment suppliers, software manufacturers, and general astronomy.
At a later stage the observer may wish to join the British Astronomical Association, which publishes a Journal, and a most useful annual Handbook.
The Federation of Astronomical Societies' website features links to local astronomical societies, which are also listed in the Federation of Astronomical Societies Handbook, and they supply several handy aids to the beginner.
Local astronomical societies frequently have interesting speakers, and will usually have someone who is able to help the beginner. Details may be obtained from the Federation of Astronomical Societies, or the address may be available from the local library.
Fieldview Guest House, run by the managers of the book suppliers Earth and Sky, Simon Batty and Christine Parker (although they now sell jewellery!).
Madog's Wells, Mid-Wales. Accommodation in 2 bungalows and a caravan.
Michael Reed, Madog's Wells, Llanfair Caereinion, Welshpool, Powys, SY21 0DE. Tel./Fax: 01938-810446.
COAA Astronomy Holiday Centre, Algarve, Portugal.
Galloway Astronomy Centre, Scotland
These should provide access to suitable instruments, knowledgeable and enthusiastic advice, and help with observing, weather permitting.
Jodrell Bank Observatory, University of Manchester, Macclesfield, Cheshire SK11 9DL, T: 01477-572650; F: 01477-571618; E: DL-INFO(@)jb.man.ac.uk.
Liverpool John Moores University, Astrophysics Research Institute, Twelve Quays House, Egerton Wharf, Birkenhead CH41 1LD, T: 0151-231-2900; F: 0151-231-2926; E: enquiry(@)astro.livjm.ac.uk.
University of Central Lancashire, Dept. of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics, Preston PR1 2HE, T: 01772-893540; F: 01772-892996; E: info4pasm(@)uclan.ac.uk.
(These three universities collaborate in the "astronomy.ac.uk" distance learning consortium – E: info(@)astronomy.ac.uk.)
Open University, T: 01908-659521.
Planet Earth Centre, Bacup Road, Todmorden, Lancashire OL14 7HW, T: 01706-816964; E: planetearthcentre(@)btinternet.com.
University of Glasgow Department of Adult & Continuing Education, St Andrew's Building, 1 Park Drive Glasgow, G3 6LP, Tel: 0141 330 4394; Fax: 0141 330 3525; email: enquiry(@)educ.gla.ac.uk.
University of Hertfordshire, Dept. of Physical Sciences, College Lane, Hatfield, Herts. AL10 9AB, Tel: 01707-285560; Fax: 01992-503498; email: observatory(@)herts.ac.uk.
Local evening courses are another possibility, and details are provided by public reference libraries, or, in the London area, by Floodlight. University College London offers a part-time course leading to a Certificate of Higher Education in Astronomy.
Earth and Sky. Extremely helpful firm with detailed knowledge of astronomy and books.
Midland Counties Publications
The Waterstones chain has branches all over the country. In 2001, they formed a strategic alliance with Amazon for online sales, and the website for both is now http://www.amazon.co.uk.
Foyles, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0EB, Tel: 020 7437 5660; Fax: 020 7434 1574; email: orders(@)foyles.co.uk.
Stanfords, 12-14 Long Acre, London WC2E 9LP; Tel: 020-7836-1321; email: customer.services(@)stanfords.co.uk.
http://www.ras.org.uk, features an extensive 'astrolinks' section in addition to pages concerned with Society business. This section includes pointers to astronomical news, societies, software, and magazines, including all those mentioned above.
Society for Popular Astronomy, http://www.popastro.com, provides good help and advice for those starting out. It also has lists of links to astronomical equipment suppliers, software manufacturers and general astronomy.
Federation of Astronomical Societies, http://www.fedastro.org.uk. Features links to local astronomical societies and FAS publications.
Astronomy, http://www.astronomy.com. Features: "For Beginners" section (recent articles on "getting started" topics, including choosing binoculars and telescopes).
Sky and Telescope, http://www.skyandtelescope.com. Features: "How To" section (items on "getting started" topics, including choosing binoculars and telescopes, CCD and astrophotography techniques); "Resources" section (including product reviews); wide range of products for sale online or by catalogue (situated in USA).