Starting out in Backyard Astronomy

1. Learn the night sky with the unaided eye.

Astronomy is an outdoor nature hobby. Go out into the night and learn the starry names and patterns overhead. 

Even if you live in a densely populated, light-polluted area, there's more to see up there than you might imagine. The ability to look up and say, "There's Cruxs" or "That's Saturn" will provide pleasure, and perhaps a sense of place in the cosmos, for the rest of your life.

The Internet has put a gateway to the entire astronomy world on everybody's desktop. But what beginners really need is a coherent starting place, and that usually means books.

2. Ransack your public library for astronomy basics.

Astronomy is a learning hobby. Its joys come from intellectual discovery and knowledge of the cryptic night sky. But you have to make these discoveries, and gain this knowledge, by yourself. In other words, you need to become self-taught.

The public library is the beginner's most important astronomical tool. Comb the astronomy shelf for books about the basic knowledge you need to know, and for guidebooks to what you can see out there in the wide universe. Read about those stars and constellations you're finding with the naked eye, and about how the stars change through the night and the seasons.

Even lightweight binoculars will reveal hundreds of cosmic wonders, from lunar craters and double stars to galaxies millions of light-years away.

3. Thinking telescope? Start stargazing with binoculars instead.

Binoculars make an ideal "first telescope" — for several reasons. They show you a wide field of view, making it easy to find your way around — whereas a higher-power telescope magnifies only a tiny, hard-to-locate bit of sky. Binoculars show a view that's right-side up and straight in front of you, making it easy to see where you're pointing. (An astronomical telescope's view, by contrast, is often upside down, is sometimes mirror-imaged as well, and is usually presented at right angles to the direction you're aiming.)

Binoculars are also relatively cheap, widely available, and a breeze to carry and store. And their performance is surprisingly respectable. Ordinary 7- to 10-power binoculars improve on the naked-eye view about as much as a good amateur telescope improves on the binoculars — for much less than half the price.

For astronomy, the larger the front lenses the better. High optical quality is also important, more so than for binoculars that are used on daytime scenes. Modern image-stabilized binoculars are a tremendous boon for astronomy (though expensive). But any binoculars that are already knocking around the back of your closet are enough to launch an amateur-astronomy career.

4. Dive into maps and guidebooks.

Once you have the binoculars, what do you do with them? You can have fun looking at the Moon and sweeping the star fields of the Milky Way, but that will wear thin pretty fast. However, if you've learned the constellations and obtained detailed sky maps, binoculars can keep you happily busy for years.

They'll reveal dozens of star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae. They'll show the ever-changing positions of Jupiter's moons and the crescent phases of Venus. You can identify dozens of craters, plains, and mountains on the Moon. You can split scores of interesting double stars and follow the fadings and brightenings of numerous variable stars. If you know what to look for.

A sailor of the seas needs top-notch charts, and so does a sailor of the skies. Fine maps bring the fascination of hunting out faint secrets in hidden sky realms. Many guidebooks describe what's to be hunted and the nature of the objects you find. Moreover, the skills you'll develop using binoculars to locate these things are exactly the skills you'll need to put a telescope to good use.

Plan indoors what you'll do outdoors. Spread out your charts and guides on a big table, find things that ought to be in range of your equipment, and figure out how you'll get there. Plan your expeditions before heading out into the nightly wilderness.

5. Keep an astronomy diary.

This one is optional. But we notice that the people who get the most out of the hobby are often those who keep an observing logbook of what they do and see. Keeping a record concentrates the mind — even if it's just a jotting like "November 7th — out with the 10x50 binocs — clear windy night — NGC 457 in Cassiopeia a faint glow next to two brighter stars." Get a spiral-bound notebook and keep it with the rest of your observing gear. Being able to look back on your early experiences and sightings in years to come gives deeper meaning to your activities now.

For some people, anyway. If this isn't your thing or becomes too much of a chore, never mind.

6. Seek out other amateurs.

Self-education is fine as far as it goes, but there's nothing like sharing an interest with others. Hundreds of astronomy clubs exist worldwide. Call or e-mail a club near you, or check out its web site, and see when it holds meetings or nighttime observing sessions — "star parties." These events, some of which draw hundreds of amateurs, can offer a fine opportunity to try different telescopes, learn what they will and will not do, pick up advice and new skills, and make friends.

Astronomy clubs range from tiny to huge, from moribund to vital, from ingrown to extremely welcoming of newcomers. You'll have to check them out yourself. But none would be publicizing themselves in our directory if they weren't hoping that you would call.

7. When it's time for a telescope, plunge in deep.

Eventually you'll know you're ready. You'll have spent hours poring over the ads and reviews. You'll know the different kinds of telescopes, what you can expect of them, and what you'll do with the one you pick.

This is no time to skimp on quality; shun the flimsy, semi-toy "department store" scopes that may have caught your eye. The telescope you want has two essentials. The first is a solid, steady, smoothly working mount. The second is high-quality, "diffraction-limited" optics.

Naturally you'll also want large aperture (size), but don't lose sight of portability and convenience. Remember, the best telescope for you is the one you'll use most. Sometimes gung-ho novices forget this and purchase a huge "white elephant" that is difficult to carry, set up, and take down, so it rarely gets used. How good an astronomer you become depends not on what your instrument is, but on how much you use it.  Many new telescopes have built-in computers and motors that can, in theory, point the scope to any celestial object at the push of a few buttons (after you do some initial setup and alignment). These "Go To" scopes are fun to use and can certainly help you locate sights you might otherwise overlook. But opinions in the amateur-astronomy world are divided about whether "flying on automatic pilot," at least for beginners, keeps you from learning to fly on your own. We think it's important, at least for backup purposes, to be able to use your charts and constellation knowledge to find telescopic objects by yourself — especially if the scope's batteries die after you've driven 50 miles to a dark-sky location!

And as Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer say in their Backyard Astronomer's Guide, "A full appreciation of the universe cannot come without developing the skills to find things in the sky and understanding how the sky works. This knowledge comes only by spending time under the stars with star maps in hand and a curious mind." Without these, "the sky never becomes a friendly place."

It's true that telescopes can cost thousands of dollars, but some good ones can be had for only a few hundred. Can't afford the scope you want? Save up until you can. More time using binoculars while building a telescope fund will be time you'll never regret.

If you choose to start with a small but high-quality scope, it can serve as your traveling companion for a lifetime — whenever it's impractical to bring along the big, more expensive scope that you eventually buy after your commitment to the hobby has passed the test of time.

8. Lose your ego.

Astronomy teaches patience and humility — and you had better be prepared to learn them. Not everything will work the first time. You'll hunt for some wonder in the depths and miss it, and hunt again, and miss it again. This is normal. But eventually, with increasing knowledge, you will succeed.

There's nothing you can do about the clouds that move in to block your view, the extreme distance and faintness of the objects of your desire, or the special event that you missed because you got all set up one minute late. The universe will not bend to your wishes; you must take it on its own terms.

Most objects that are within the reach of any telescope, no matter what its size, are barely within its reach. So most of the time you'll be hunting for things that appear very dim or very small, or both. You need the attitude that they will not come to you; you must go to them. If flashy visuals are what you're after, go watch TV.

9. Relax and have fun.

Part of losing your ego is not getting upset at your telescope because it's less than perfect. Perfection doesn't exist, no matter what you paid. If you find yourself getting wound up over Pluto's invisibility or the aberrations of your eyepiece, take a deep breath and remember why you're doing this. Amateur astronomy should be calming and fun.

Learn to take pleasure in whatever your instrument can indeed show you. The more you look and examine, the more you will see — and the more you'll become at home in the night sky. Set your own pace, and delight in the beauty and mystery of our amazing universe.


 Sesotho lexicon - Sesotho- English astronomy lexicon


The astronomy terms have been translated by T W D Mohapi a translator and former Head: Translation and Editing: African languages at the former Department of Arts and Culture now Department of Sports, Arts and Culture.

matheba a letsatsi: sunspot
Leqhama la makolobe: Orion belt
Selemela se setona: Archernar
sekgutlo sa hora: hour angle
kgwedi e halofo: gibbous moon
Tosa: Jupiter
palo ya bolele ba Lefatshe le Letsatsi: astronomical unit
sepakapaka: universe
molahare wa sepakapaka: celestial equator
dinaledi tse hole: sidereal
Mphatlalatsane: Morning Star
sabole ya makolobe: Orion’s Sword
Letsatsi: Sun
lejwe le wang sepakapakeng: meteorite
moralo wa dinaledi: star map
moralo wa sepakapaka : celestial map
motjhotjhonono : meteor shower
sebaka se ka hodima hlooho sepakapakeng: zenith
sedikadikwe se theohang leboya ho ya borwa lefatsheng: meridian
leru le kganyang la kgase lenang le lerole le tswang naleding: bright nebula
leru la kgase le nang le lerole le tswang naleding: nebula
leru le letsho la kgase la lerole le tswang naleding: dark nebula
sehlopha sa dinaledi: constellation
sedikadikwe sa sepakapaka: celestial sphere
sehlopha: cluster
sehlopha sa pokello ya dinaledi: galaxy
sehlopha sa dinaledi tsa kgale tse bapileng: globular cluster
teropiki: tropic
letsatsi la pele la lehlabula kapa mariha: solstice
naledi: star
naledi tse pedi tse kopaneng: double star
Kgwedi: Moon
kgwedi e shwang le e ntjha: crescent moon
thuto ya dibopeho tse sepakapakeng: astronomy
ntlha e ka leboya le e ka borwa lefatsheng: celestial pole
paseke: parsec
Torobela: Sirius
ntlo ya dinaledi: observatory 
bobatsi: latitude
phapano e tlase ya dipotolohi: inferior conjunction
phapano e hodimo ya dipotolohi: superior conjuction
sekete sa dikete: billion (10)
sepotolohi: planet
sepotolohi se senyenyane haholo: dwarf planet
sepotolohi se senyenyane: asteroid
sepotolohi se ka tlase: inferior planet
setataisi sa sepakapaka: sky guide
Selemela: Pleiades (Seven Sisters)
Motsotso sekgutlong: arc minute
thelesekoupu: telescope
thelesekoupu ya seyalemoya: radio telescope
sekete sa dikete: billion(sa Amerika) 10
nako e lekanang ya bosiu le motsheare: equinox
ferekeikere: binoculars
dibopeho tsa Kgwedi: phases of the Moon
motjhotjhonono: meteor
ho sirwa: occultation
molatelele: longitude
boholo ba lesedi la se bonwang ho tloha lefatsheng : magnitude
boholo ba sekgutlo: angular size
Sefalabohoho(hopola e ntse e le Mphatlalatsane: Evening Star
kganare ya Letsatsi: solar flare
ho feta ha sepotolohi se seng pela se se seng: transit
phifalo ya Letsatsi: solar eclipse
phifalo ya Kgwedi: lunar eclipse
bophahamo: altitude
ha letsatsi le tjhaba: sunrise
Kgwedi e tolokileng: Full Moon
ha letsatsi le dikela: sunset
mateanong a lehodimo le lefatshe: horizon
molahare wa lefatshe: equator
kopano: conjuction
bohole bo tsamailweng ke lesedi sepakapakeng selemong ka seng: light year
sefapano sa borwa: Southern Cross
molala: Milky Way
tsela ya letsatsi: ecliptic
sediko: orbit
motsotswana sekgutlong: arc
bohole ba sekgutlo ka hodimo le ka tlase molahareng wa lefatshe:declination
sekgutlo ho tloha molahare wa lefatshe ka botjhabela: right ascension