Astronomy 101

A lot of time is spent marvelling at natures grandeur, be it Niagra Falls or Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. However very little time is spent looking at what lies above us. This is normally due to the perception that expensive equipment is needed; I hope to address this and introduce you to the night sky.

A clear night sky has a lot to offer to even the most casual observer; our satellite, the moon, and the constellation are easily seen with the naked eye, and given the right time of year various planets are also easily visible. Knowing where everything is can be difficult and for this there are various tools, the first of which is Google Sky Map (available on Android phones, for iPhones there is an equivalent app), this allows you to simply point your phone at the sky and see what the star/planet/constellation is called, it also has features whereby it will guide you across the sky to your desired stellar object. This normally reveals that one of the brighter ‘stars’ is actually a planet, for example in November, Jupiter is easily viewable in the southern sky. For those without a smart phone there is a great application for Windows/Mac/Linux called Stellarium, which is also free. This can show the night sky around you, what you can see in various directions and information about each object, such as how far away they are.

Moving on from just looking up unaided, we add binoculars and with these you can see a whole lot more. From craters on the moon to our nearest galaxy Andromeda (scientifically known as M31) and even Jupiter’s Galilean moons. Just pointing them at a seemingly empty piece of space will reveal countless stars, giving some idea as to the vastness of space. Combining this with the software mentioned before is a great way to look at the sky with little investment.

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Moving beyond casual observing means the investment in a telescope, which isn’t as expensive as you might think. Even Argos sell an introductory telescope for £30, although I would strongly advise against getting this as in astronomy you really do get what you pay for! For around £300 you can get a decent telescope that will allow you to see most of the nearby planets with some detail. A good example is Jupiter, where you cannot only see its bands but also the four largest of it’s Galilean moons. This is a truly brilliant sight and definitely something to been seen with ones own eyes. The rings of Saturn are also clearly visible through such a telescope, examples of which can be seen below. While a small telescope is suitable for seeing objects such as planets, to see anything further afield, such as galaxies, a larger telescope is recommended as it collects more light and therefore can see fainter objects.

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Surprisingly the most expensive part of a telescope is the mount, which can cost nearly twice as much as the ‘scope’. There are two main types of mount: equatorial and azimuthal. The azimuthal mount is the traditional up/down/left/right mount that is commonly used for cameras, while the equatorial mount is specially design for astronomy and, when set up correctly, the axes are aligned with the rotation of the earth making tracking objects far easier. It is even possible to get motorised mounts that, when calibrated correctly, will ‘slew’ to your desired object making viewing extremely easy.

Astrophotography is the photography of the night sky and with most telescopes you’re able to connect a camera and take photos through them. While some pretty decent pictures can be taken using a normal ‘point and shoot’ camera, by simply aiming it down the eye piece, using a DSLR allows you far more control over the settings and can therefore be used to get the perfect exposure and a crisp, final image. Having a tracking mount really helps with astrophotography as some long exposures are sometimes needed, which can result in blurred images as the planets move across the sky due to the Earth’s rotation. With this technique some fantastically detailed pictures of the Moon and Jupiter can be taken which are well worth the rather steep investment required.

As you can see enjoying the night sky does not have to cost an arm and a leg, it can be enjoyed for free with your own eyes or cheaply with a pair of binoculars. I encourage everyone to spend a little time having a look up over the Christmas period, perhaps impress your family by pointing out Jupiter or our nearest galactic neighbour Andromeda. Enjoy the holidays!

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