Space is just so beautiful and inspiring. There’s something about looking up at the sky and watching the stars that make us feel connected to the universe and each other. It’s no wonder so many people are interested in getting into astronomy as a hobby. The problem is, with all the information out there, getting started can seem overwhelming and expensive.

We have great news for you. You can actually just look at the stars for free!. You don’t really need to spend a lot of money or effort to get your feet wet with astronomy. We have collected a list of tips for beginner stargazers that will let you enjoy the night sky, understand what you are looking at and if you like it, will get you started with astronomy.

If you have a kid that has shown interest in astronomy, these tips will also help you introduce them to it so they can decide if it really is something they want to spend time and effort into. This is the best of getting started with astronomy for kids since it will allow you to really see their level of interest before spending money on an expensive telescope that will end up gathering dust in a few weeks if they decide it’s not for them.

1. Go camping and simply enjoy the view

Living in cities has made it really hard to enjoy the night sky from home. Light pollution (the excess of artificial lighting) reduces the number of celestial objects you can see in the sky as the city lights brighten up the sky, hiding the light coming from stars and planets. Even smaller towns where you used to be able to recognize the milky way with the naked eye a few decades ago (ask your parents) have lost these beautiful starry backgrounds at night.

If you want to enjoy the view from the stars these days you need to get away from the city and go places with lower light pollution. Camping is an excellent pretext to do this for a night or two with your family. You will not need to bring any special equipment, just look up and enjoy the magnificent view. For kids that have lived all of their lives in cities where you can only see a few stars, simply watching a starry night will already be a great show.

If camping seems like too much work, you can always rent a cabin and have a relaxing trip.

This light pollution map will help you find places near you that have lower levels of light pollution.

2. Visit a planetarium

Hayden Planetarium, NYC. Photo by Noga Lewenstein

A planetarium is a theater the movies are usually projected into a dome to simulate the sky. A lot of cities have at least one planetarium showing movies and documentaries focusing mostly on astronomy every day. Some planetariums are featured as part of big museums or exhibitions like the Hemisfèric in Valencia, Spain which is part of La Ciutat de Les Arts I Les Sciences (The City of Arts and Sciences) or the Hayden Planetarium in New York, located in the American Museum of Natural History.

Planetariums do a great job at introducing people to astronomy in a very visual and interactive way. Some exhibitions are even guided by astronomers that will answer questions visitors might have about the content of the show.

Tickets for planetarium exhibitions are usually reasonably priced and students can almost always get a discounted price or even free admission. The profits usually go into supporting the planetarium and producing new movies and exhibition so it’s money well spent.

Some planetariums also have telescopes available for the public to try out and the staff will guide you on how to use it.

Here’s a list of planetariums around the world so you can check out if there’s one close to you.

3. Learn to identify constellations

In ancient times people took groups of stars that looked like certain animals or objects and grouped them together into constellations to help them map and organize the sky. For example, the twelve zodiac signs come from constellations that are visible at certain points while earth goes around the sun and helped ancient greeks determine the time of the year.

Learning to recognize constellations and learn their names and stories is a fun, easy way to get started with astronomy and it doesn’t require any special equipment.

All you need to get started with constellations is to get a star chart. In the old days, star charts were basically big printed maps or a rotating multi-layered device where you would choose the time of the year and it would rotate to show you the stars that were visible at that point in time. Thankfully, in this day and age, star charts have evolved and now simply come in the form of free phone apps that automatically detect your location and show you the shape and position of the stars you should be looking for. Our current favorite app for this is Star Chart (Android / iOS)

4. Watch some documentaries

Documentaries are an excellent way to learn a new subject. The fact that it is a visual medium makes them much more engaging and they can compress a lot of facts into a small amount of time.

There are lots of documentaries with great production value and for every kind of audience.

Our recommendations to get started are the Cosmos series (available on Netflix), BBC’s Wonders of The Universe and Nat Geo’s A Traveller’s Guide to the Planets.

5. Join an astronomy club

Photo by Jared Capco

Astronomy is a science that makes you really excited to share with other people. Most astronomers, both professional and amateur are nice people willing to help newcomers learn and get into astronomy.

This is why there are many astronomy clubs around the globe where people get together and organize stargazing trips, talks, and discussions.

Some clubs host special newbie nights where they welcome everyone who wants to learn and they’ll let you use their equipment and show you the ropes. To find them your best tool is Google, simply try “astronomy club in [your location]” and you should get some good results.

6. Take a stargazing tour

If you have a vacation coming up or you happen to live nearby an observatory, scheduling one night to take a stargazing tour might be for you. There are lots of organizations and institutes that organize events where you will be able to use advanced telescopes that would usually be out of range for beginners and they will guide you through the whole experience.

New Zealand and Spain are two of the best countries for this type of astronomy tourism but there are plenty of other options around the world. Some events will also allow you to tour state of the art observatories.

Make sure to check the weather forecasts previously as having the best experience in these tours depends on having clear skies. Sometimes they will even be canceled if the weather does not cooperate.

7. Help discover new planets and stars

The amount of data captured by telescopes in modern days is so much that there isn’t enough processing power and astronomers to analyze all of it. This is why agencies like NASA have turned to crowdsourcing for help and thousands of volunteers around the world have joined the effort to help them discover new planets and stars. All you need to do this is a computer and an internet connection. There are many programs you can join. Currently, the TESS program created by NASA and Zooniverse is one of the most popular ones and is looking to discover new planets. All you need to do is look at some images with lots of dots (light data) and try the patterns explained in their tutorial. Other programs are about “distributed computing” and simply require you to lend computing power to analyze data. All you need to do is install the software and leave it running in the background. An example of this is the SETI@home program; its purpose is to analyze radio signals to try to find signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

8. Get inspired by science fiction

There’s no doubt science fiction plays a big role when it comes to getting people interested into astronomy. Ask most astronomers and they will tell you their interest in space sparkled when they watched Star Wars.

Watching or reading science fiction can serve as the inspiration to get someone interested in the stars, even if sometimes it is not a very accurate representation.

Some of our favorite fiction works about space are:

Books:

  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  • The War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells
  • Robot Visions – Isaac Asimov

Movies:

  • Star Wars
  • Interstellar
  • The Martian

Conclusion

As you can see, there are plenty of ways to get into astronomy without committing to buying a telescope until you are absolutely ready. We hope this list has helped you on your path to becoming an astronomer. Let us know in the comments if you have any more ideas we should add to the article.

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