By J. Harvard Feldhouse
Astronomy can be both daunting and fascinating for the average person to explore outside of the classroom. With complicated expensive equipment and billions of stars in the galaxy, aspiring astronomers often don’t know where to start.
John Feldmeier, interim director of the Ward Beecher Planetarium and astronomy professor at Youngstown State University, and Curt Spivey, planetarium engineer, have a few tips for getting started with astronomy: learn the sky, use phone applications, buy binoculars, join an astronomy club and visit a planetarium.
Learning the sky and constellations is Feldmeier and Spivey’s first step to successful stargazing. Feldmeier suggests every new astronomer should have a copy of “The Stars” by H. A. Rey, a hand drawn constellation book. Spivey suggests going outside and getting used to looking at the sky with the eyes rather than a telescope.
“It’s like moving to a new town for the first time,” Spivey said. “You don’t know where the grocery store is. You explore and learn the landmarks. It’s the same with the night sky. Get familiar with some basic patterns, like the Big Dipper. Then you can use them to move around and find other things in the sky.”
Feldmeier and Spivey encourage the use of phone applications to learn the night sky. There are several free and inexpensive apps such as “Sky Guide” and “Night Sky” that use augmented reality to show where constellations, planets and other space objects are in the sky in real time.
“It takes your GPS and it puts up a map. When it loads, it’ll actually move around the sky and match the direction you’re facing. If a satellite is going over, it’ll tell you which satellite,” Spivey said.
After learning where objects are with the eyes, both Feldmeier and Spivey suggest new astronomers should buy a pair of binoculars rather than a telescope. Their wide angle lenses show more of the sky than a telescope.
“Binoculars basically are a small telescope,” Feldmeier said. “They aren’t very hard to use. You can use them for other things and they’re cheaper. If you’re not sure you want to get into this, but you don’t want to spend a lot of money, buying binoculars is actually better than buying a telescope.”
New astronomers can join astronomy clubs to meet other hobbyist astronomers and look at the stars together at “star parties.” Ashley Lemasters, senior astronomy and physics major, joined the Mahoning Valley Astronomical Society because of the community and the opportunities the club provides.
“MVAS has expertise on the best way to view the night sky,” Lemasters said. “You get to have a myriad of experiences from speakers to public outreach to star parties. The people are beyond kind, want to learn and discover and share my passion for astronomy.”
The last way new astronomers can learn more about astronomy is by visiting a planetarium. The Ward Beecher Planetarium schedules free educational programs every season. “So You Got A Telescope” is a workshop with MVAS that teaches new telescope owners how to use their equipment.
“Often people buy a telescope over the holidays, but they don’t quite know what to do with it,” Feldmeier said. “The MVAS people will help them get their telescopes operational, show how to make them work and what sort of things to look out for.”
“So You Got A Telescope” is scheduled for Feb. 16 from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the Ward Beecher Planetarium. Even those without telescopes are encouraged to come learn more about stargazing and to make new connections with MVAS members.
“The great thing about astronomy as a hobby is that you can dip your toe into it, and you get something out of it,” Feldmeier said. “It’s a very approachable science even though it’s abstract.”