Backyard Astronomy

Introduction: What is backyard astronomy?

"There are more stars in the Universe then there are grains of sand on every beach on Earth"

What is Backyard Astronomy? Well it’s exactly that; buying your first telescope and setting it up for the first time in your backyard. In backyard astronomy, you hardly ever use long math equations or even calculate long impossible numbers (leave that to the professionals). Instead of complicated study of the sights of the universe (geography if you will), backyard astronomy is the pleasant sightseeing or touring of the universe; with a smattering of valuable scientific contribution if you would like.

The orion nebula is a backyard astronomical target

In this page is solid advice for the beginner who wants to start exploring the universe. I will describe a quick yet meaningful trip towards the infinite and three solid ways to be prepared for them. Just like you wouldn't want to hike the Appalachian Trail before you've done a day hike, you should take an initial tour of the universe with your eyes open, and your mind open for learning on how to search the stellar void; after all the universe is a very big place.

I will then give some solid advice about an initial telescope and a new alternative approach that has been the big buzzword of the hobby for a couple decades now (and revolutionized everything). I give some suggested targets at the end; some of which I am currently studying.

Once you are exploring space, feel free to compare notes and let me know what your seeing. feel free to use the talk page to ask for directions, and for additional resources

Initial experiences edit

Prepare to observe edit

The Constellation, Ursa Major and Ursa minor

Every beginner wonders Where do I begin?? The answer seems all too simple. Astronomy is a hobby of looking at distant splendors with a telescope and the unfortunately result for too many people (and worst of all; kids) is the ubiquitous skinny telescope in the closet; never used.

The truth is that for people that neither know what to look for, or how to see, the telescope is a very poor tool for both. So whatever you do, Don't begin with the telescopes, begin with the sky. The sky?

Right, the sky. Your first job is to begin the psychologically hard step of finding the major constellations.

So the first thing you will need is a dark place where you intend to observe, a chart to show you the constellations, and a plan to get your bearings. I would suggest you time your initial observation to coincide with some interesting astronomical sight.

we will discuss each in better detail.

Choose a location edit

The Basics; no blinding neighborhood lights, a clear sky, and a low horizon

Most people that think about observing celestial objects think of far-away skyscapes in the desert where the man-made lights are eliminated. While this might be useful later on, such a place is a Hard place to get your bearings. More likely (anyway) you live in the town and city and your backyard is a good enough place to learn the constellations. Here's the basics of what you need.

  • you need to keep all (local) bright lights out of your eyes. Turn off the porch light, find some kind of shadow to get the neighbors security light out of your eyes. Use a red flashlight (or make a flashlight red with cloth), to read charts and make notes.
  • you need a clear sky. Even broken clouds will prevent you from seeing the patterns you need to see to start learning how to recognize constellations.
  • you need a good horizon. You need to be able to observe most of the way to the horizon without trees or buildings. The North horizon is particularly important.
  • lastly close is a good thing. Close means comfortable, it means you can do it more often (important when your learning new stuff)

Sometimes the backyards isn't the best place. But often a neighborhood park, river, lake shore, or overlook is great. If your nearest place is particularly dark, you will actually work a little harder. Darker skies means more stars, Which will make it tough to see the basic patterns of the bright stars that form the constellations. Take heart, A little difficulty beginning is rewarded later on- When particularly beautiful cosmic sights is in the back yard or around the corner instead of hours away.

A chart (and other equiptment) edit

A planisphere is a chart that can be turned to the correct time and date to produce a reasonable copy of the stars in the sky

So if you were going on a trip, one of the more indispensable items would be a map, and preferably one showing the major intersections. Similarly in the night sky, you need a map as well. Unfortunately the earths' wobble through the season creates some definite changes in the sky over time. What happens then is that the sky rotates around a star in the north called Polaris (or the North star). You will either need a chart that rotates (called a planisphere) or you will have to use the correct chart for the year.

It is important that the chart is oriented correctly in the sky. Often this holding the chart above you as you view it. You might become disoriented and confused if you sit the chart on a table. Remember, It is also very important to Use a red light to view the chart at night. This allows you to read in the dark without spoiling your night vision for looking at the sky.

Another option is to use webpage that shows the position of the stars from your location at a particular time. One example can be found at

Software to run on your computer is also available for this purpose. The free Stellarium ( is a great tool. With it you can determine what will be visible when you will be going outside.

A plan edit

Your goal in Astronomy will determine what you try to identify first. Some good initial projects could include:

  • Identifying the constellations of the Zodiac
  • Identifying the planets
  • Identifying different features on the Moon's surface

When you know what you wish to find, you can more effectively plan your astronomy time. Using a chart, software or a website, determine when the features you wish to identify will be visible.

If you are using a telescope or binoculars, you should practice with them during the day or inside before trying to use them in the dark. If you are unfamiliar with the controls on your telescope, trying to find a planet in the dark will be a frustrating process.

A deeper experience (sampling) edit

Choosing an interest edit

Records of your exploration edit

The boundary of known space edit

Corroborating with other amateurs edit

Resources and media edit

Video edit

  • Carl Sagan’s Cosmos Series
  • Neil Degrasse Tyson's "Cosmos: A Space Time Oddesy" and "Cosmos: Possible Worlds"
  • BBC’s “The Planets” Series
  • BBC’s “Space” Series
  • Discovery Channel “Understands the Universe”

Books edit

  • NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe, Terence Dickinson, 3rd edition
  • The Stars: A New Way to See Them, H.A. Rey, Enlarged World-Wide Edition, Houghton-Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-24830-2

Magazines edit

Internet edit

Glossary edit