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Stargazing for beginners

Comet Keya Zhang and trees Comet Keya Zhang and trees Photo: © Chris Baddiley

Mark Thompson offers his top tips for would-be astronomers.

Mark has appeared on several BBC programmes including BBC's The One Show, and in 2010 was elected to the Council of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Don’t buy a telescope…
If you’re just starting out, the worst thing you can do is go out and buy a telescope. A cheap one won’t let you see much detail, and good ones can be costly and complicated – which can be discouraging. A better starting point is a pair of binoculars. They’re easy to use, and give you enough detail to see nebulae, star clusters and galaxies. Once you’ve decided that you want to stick with it, then you can look at investing in a quality telescope (£200-£300).

…unless it’s for a child!
Conversely, for children and young people I’d say that buying a cheap telescope is exactly the right thing to do, even if they won’t get to see much through it. It’s more about inspiration at that stage. When I was young I felt there was something romantic about looking at the sky through a telescope – and I would have been terribly disappointed if I’d been fobbed off with binoculars!

Learn your way around the sky
Turn Left at Orion, by Guy Consolmagno and Dan Davis, is a good introduction to astronomy, with lots of detail about what you can see in each constellation. There are also some great free or low-cost smartphone ‘apps’ that will help you easily locate and identify stars, planets and constellations.

Be sociable
Joining a club or society will really enhance your enjoyment of the subject. As well as regular meetings, where you can get advice from more experienced people, there are often special events such as barbecues or observation nights.

Head for the country
Ideally, you need to get away from towns and cities otherwise your view of the night sky is going to be hampered by light pollution. The darker the spot, the better.

Get a red LED
One of the most important bits of kit for night-time astronomy is a red LED torch. You often need some light to check a star chart, but using a bright white torch will ruin your night-adapted vision – and it will take another hour for your eyes to re-adapt.

Find out more:
Federation of Astronomical Societies – lists all societies by region and county, so you can find the one nearest to you.

Society for Popular Astronomy – resources and information aimed at people new to astronomy.

When I was young I felt there was something romantic about looking at the sky through a telescope.

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