Astronomy for Beginners, Part 1 - The Solar System

As long as you have good vision, anyone can learn astronomy, telescope or no.  Read on for a beginner's primer to one of the most rewarding science hobbies!

Learning Constellations

Trust me, taking the time to do this will make everything else much easier!  You can print out a free monthly star chart from a website like What's Out Tonight? or Sky Maps.  If you have a smartphone or tablet, you can also download an app that will match up a star chart to what you're pointing the device at.  I use SkyGuide but there are many options available.  Once you have a chart, get yourself a picnic blanket or lounge chair and start practicing.  Here's a tip for recognizing what you're seeing--most constellations are WAY bigger than you expect.  And a second tip--use a red flashlight to look at your chart, so that you will still be able to pick out dim stars.

 

If you want a kid-friendly guide to the sky, I recommend H.A. Rey's Find the Constellations (yes, by the author of Curious George!)  You can borrow it from the Main Branch of HCPL.

Understanding the Solar System

Our solar system, creatively named "The Solar System," consists of everything that orbits around our sun (called Sol by more creative folks).  That includes planets, moons, asteroids, comets, planetoids, and more.  Every star you see in the sky is a distant sun!  And just think, almost every one of them has planets of their own.  How many alien worlds would that be?

 

So what can a beginner see in the Solar System?

 

The Moon (Luna)--Download a moon map, such as this one from Mr Printables, grab a pair of binoculars, and start identifying mares ("seas"), craters, rilles ("canals"), and mountain ranges.  As the moon progresses through its monthly phases, the Earth's shadow will fall on different features, changing their appearance.

Photo by Gregory Revera via Wikipedia

The inner planets, Mercury and Venus--Mercury is often hidden in the light of the Sun, but Venus is easy to see.  It's the brightest planet, glowing like a torch or a distant streetlight.  To the naked eye, planets look like very bright stars, but if you pay attention you'll notice that they don't twinkle like stars do.  Take a look with your binoculars and you'll see these pinpricks of light turn into tiny circles.  Try it with a telescope, and you'll find that Mercury and Venus go through phases, just like the Moon!  A smartphone app such as SkyGuide will show you where to find the planets each night.  Here's a crescent Venus:

Mars--When Mars is at its closest to Earth, you can use a telescope to see its red soil and its white ice caps.  Here's an image from the Hubble Space Telescope.  Sorry, but your view at home will never be this good:

Jupiter and Saturn--With binoculars, Jupiter and Saturn can just be made out as small circles (oblong in Saturn's case).  If your hands are steady enough, you'll be able to see four of Jupiter's moons as well--Europa, Io, Ganymede, and Callisto.  These are called the Galilean moons.  With a telescope, you can see Jupiter's cloud bands and, in good conditions, make out the Great Red Spot, a storm so gigantic that the Earth could fit in it 2-3 times!  As for Saturn, a telescope will easily reveal its rings, as well as its largest moon, Titan.

Photos by Rochus Hess

The Sun--But if, and ONLY IF, you have the appropriate protection!  You can use solar eclipse glasses to view the Sun year-round, or you can make or purchase solar filters for your binoculars or telescope.  If you're handy, you can make a Super Solar Viewer that lets multiple people safely view the Sun at once.  If adjusted correctly, you can use the SSV to view sunspots.  Try tracking their progress across the Sun's surface day by day.

Uranus, Neptune, dwarf planets, minor planets, and asteroids are usually only visible with a telescope.  Since you have to use detailed star charts (and they're not that impressive once you've found them), I don't recommend that beginners try it.

Check out these other nature articles:

Astronomy for Beginners, Part 2 (Hunting DSOs)

Owls of Indiana

What's in a vernal pool? (Fun With Plankton)

Birding at the library?!

What's Blooming Now? Hayswood Nature Reserve

What's Blooming Now? Woodland Edition

Frogs and Toads of Harrison County

Spider Identification

Springtime nature tips for the family

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