Starry Nights

Become a backyard astronomer in five simple steps



It hasn't fallen, exactly. But, for most of us, it most definitely has dropped out of our lives.

Urban light pollution and our reluctance to go outside at night and look up have left many of us estranged from the star-spangled night sky our ancestors knew so well.

The good news is, there's still plenty to see. And there has never been a better time to get to know the beauty of the night sky again. With help from astronomy magazines, home computers, the Internet and amateur astronomers eager to share their passion, anyone can rediscover the heavens. And they are.

Baltimore's intrepid "sidewalk astronomers," Herman Heyn and Darryl Mason, still delight in the astonished reactions of passers-by in Fells Point or at Harborplace when they see Jupiter and its moons or Saturn's rings for the first time.

You never know where that can lead, Heyn said. "I'm guessing there are Ph.Ds at the Space Telescope [Science] Institute who got their start in astronomy by simply seeing Saturn or some other sky spectacular through a shaky backyard telescope."

I am the most amateur and casual of backyard stargazers. But I occasionally roust people from The Sun's newsroom and lure them onto the roof of the company garage to watch the International Space Station fly over the city at 17,500 mph.

They're amazed they can see it and amazed that its appearance is so predictable. And most seem delighted when I'm also able to point out Venus, Jupiter or Saturn amid the urban glare -- objects they'd probably seen before without realizing what they were.

It's free entertainment, and kids love it. Heyn remembers getting a homework assignment from Audrey Wicker, his science teacher eons ago at Baltimore's Garrison Junior High School.

"One day she drew the Big Dipper on the blackboard and instructed the class to find it that night," he recalled. "I found it, thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen and ... have been hooked ever since."

Tim Hickman is hooked, too. He photographs comets and aurorae and markings on Mars and Jupiter -- all from his backyard in Timonium.

"Why do I do it? ... The thrill of astronomy is sitting in your backyard looking at the glow of a faint galaxy with the utterly amazing awareness that you are looking at the light of 10 billion stars that took 15 million years to reach your eye. I experience the perspective that the Earth we live on is a tiny island in a vast universe."

It doesn't have to be difficult, or expensive, to discover the night sky. And there has never been more information or better technology at our fingertips to get us started. So here's a primer:

First: Don't buy a telescope. At least not yet. Cheap telescopes that promote their "power" or magnification will invariably disappoint, no matter what the ads say. They're feeble and shaky, and sure to douse your enthusiasm.

"The point of a telescope is to see things clearly. [And] a cheap 'scope at high power makes things too fuzzy to recognize," Hickman said. "How many kids get a cheap, poor-quality 'scope for Christmas and, after frustration trying to use it, get turned off from astronomy?"

When your time comes, there are lots of good telescopes out there, and prices and quality have never been better. There's no need to spend thousands. Expect a "first" telescope worth owning to cost about the same as a home computer: You won't get much for less than $400; but you can do very well for way under $1,000.

But get your feet wet first. For now, stick with your own eyes or perhaps a decent set of binoculars. I was transfixed by my first view of the moon's craters through a pair of 10x50 binoculars. Even the less-powerful 7x35 provides an advantage over the naked eye, and they're easier to hold steady.

You'll be amazed. Binoculars will unveil dozens of stars in the Pleiades cluster, reveal Jupiter's disk and four of its moons, and separate a double star at the bend in the Big Dipper's handle.

Second: Start reading. While you're whetting your appetite for the stars and planets, start reading about stargazing. Check the library before you spend money.

For beginners, area amateurs recommend The Stars: A New Way to See Them, by H.A. Rey ($12); The Backyard Stargazer, by Patricia Price ($20); or NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe, by Terence Dickinson ($45).

Most astronomy magazines are pitched to more experienced amateur astronomers. But there's plenty for the rest of us. And the ads -- for hardware, software, books and gadgets -- will become your candy store.

Try Sky & Telescope, Astronomy or a new magazine geared for beginners called NightSky. They're all available at libraries, newsstands, by subscription or online. Read and learn.

If you're into computers, try the basic edition of Starry Night ($50), which is among the best of many software guides to the night sky.

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