Seeing Saturn’s rings through a telescope in Eskridge, Kansas at the North East Kansas Astronomical League August star party was enough to pique my interest, huddled with two dozen people on a concrete slab in rural Kansas peeking through the eyepiece under a dazzling night sky. Perhaps, this is your story too. You’ve been hooked. Like me, you want to get out there and learn about the starry night sky. Also, like me, you’ve done a cursory search of the internet just to find an overwhelming scourge of sponsored content and product reviews for telescopes that cost more than your net worth. Or, perhaps, you’ve stumbled on the complex theoreticians whose physics calculations would make any nonscientist’s head spin.
The truth is, stargazing is for anyone.
We asked Gary Hug, amateur astronomer from the Northeast Kansas Amateur Astronomical League about what it takes to get started in amateur astronomy. Here is your absolute beginner 5 step guide to jump starting your astronomy hobby and, maybe even your astronomy career.
1). Location: find a clear, dark spot away from light pollution
Stargazing can be done anywhere. But astronomers are provided the most vivid panorama when the sky is clear and dark. One of the greatest challenges of being an astronomer in Kansas? “Cloud coverage”, Gary sighed. “It’s important to avoid light pollution if possible.” Altitude is another way to get the best view of the night sky. The higher up an astronomer picks a spot the more likely he or she is to escape light pollution and turbulence. That’s why the best places to stargaze are quiet, dark, elevated areas in rural Kansas. Avoid nights with a full moon. The best times to star gaze is when the moon is at its crescent phases.
Observatories are typically great locations to start, operated by astronomy clubs as nonprofit organizations. Often, equipment is available for use by visitors. Farpoint Observatory, 30 miles southeast of Topeka, where I attended my first star party, was a perfect spot. The Warkoczewski Observatory on the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus, also throws its doors open in the summer to the public. Powell Observatory, near Louisburg, operated by volunteers has a similar summer program for aspiring stargazers. For Kansans, opportunities abound.
In addition to observatories, state parks and nature and science centers are also great places to get your feet wet. Banner Creek Science Center in Holton, Hillsdale Lake State Park, and Fall River State Park are recommended areas (Salazar).
Staying local? There are a few great apps that help locate areas with limited light pollution and give reviews, sky charts, and directions. I downloaded the Dark Sky Finder app recently on a trip outside Kartchner Caverns State Park in Sierra Vista, Arizona, just to run into….a bright and full moon.
2). Gear: a minimalist approach
No matter where you go, you’ll need some gear. But, don’t worry. Like me, you’ve probably been persuaded by your internet searches that stargazers are for hobbyists with cash flow. Not so! Amateur astronomy is accessible even for the cash-strapped newbie.
“Learning the sky requires nothing more than your eyes,” says Gary. “The constellations, meteors, planets, and our own galaxy, the Milky Way…It is even possible with a dark sky away from city lights to see a galaxy outside our own. The Andromeda Galaxy is 2.3 million light years away and can be seen on a clear dark night as a faint patch of sky in the fall-with no optical aid at all.”
To be oriented and know what you are looking at, any amateur astronomer’s greatest tool is a star map. Thankfully, there’s an app for that too and several to choose from. Forbes magazine names Star Walk 2, Star Chart, and Sky View among the top free stargazing apps that maps the night sky right from your phone.
If you are using an app, don’t forget to bring along some red paper. Why? To help maintain dark adaptation to night viewing. Astrophysicist and blogger Brian Koberlein explains: “It only takes a brief exposure to bright light for your rods to over expose. Once that happens, you have a half hour or more to regain dark sensitivity, which can seriously hamper your astronomy experience. Since rods are less sensitive to red light, you can use a red light source (or filter) to view things without ruining your night vision” (“Blinded by the Light”). To construct a filter, use red construction paper, tape or a rubber band.
Gary Hug suggests that the next step for an amateur astronomer is a good set of binoculars. Binoculars can magnify vision up to 50% of what a telescope can. Wide lens binoculars are best to help collect more light. They can be used to view large star clusters, star clouds, and even the moon will show major craters and lunar maria which are moon plains filled with solidified lava. “No, don’t go out and buy an expensive telescope.”
There are enumerable free resources for the novice star gazer on the web. The web hosts thousands of blogs from astronomers, astrophysicists, and astronomical groups who educate and share their experiences. Skyandtelescope.com offers a free e-book on getting started in astronomy. YouTube has some helpful basics to introduce the constellations and how to differentiate stars and planets.
Your local library is another prime spot for research. Check your local library for National Geographic Space Atlas. With captivating pictures, vivid descriptions, and detailed star maps, it will be sure to pique your curiosity. If the library doesn’t have it, see if you can access it through interlibrary loan services.
Gary Hug’s interest in astronomy which began when he was 12 years old was solidified when he took astronomy classes at Washburn University. If you are interested in pursuing knowledge at the collegiate level, Kansas University has several observational astronomy classes at the 200-level. Kansas State University offers a few classes as well.
“Astronomy is a learning hobby. When you learn, it builds on itself.” Gary describes his storied career as an amateur astronomer a satisfying one. His pursuit in learning astronomy and his observations have expanded the boundaries of knowledge and helped shape and refine astronomical data.
4). Get Connected
The most important step is to get connected. Yes, astronomy is an individual event and endeavor. But, as a beginner, it’s important to plug into a community that can help you learn the ropes. Kansas is rich in astronomical clubs and societies. These communities can offer equipment use, inspire interests, and provide knowledge, support, mentorship, and training to novice stargazers. In 1977, Gary Hug and Brian Schaff started the Northeast Kansas Amateur Astronomical League which is still active today. They frequently host educational events at Farpoint Observatory that can be found on the Meetup app. Last week, Gary showed me the command center and we collected data on Near Earth Objects using the Tombaugh telescope (pictured below). It’s an experience I’ll never forget.
5). Ready. Set. Stargaze
You are now equipped to begin stargazing. Immerse yourself in the starry night and have fun. Over time, your experience could lead you to discoveries like Graham Bell who co-discovered the Hug-Bell comet in 1999 after only 18 months of stargazing. It was the first comet discovered in Kansas and earned Hug and Bell the Edgar Wilson Award.
The stars are truly limitless.
Written by: Maggie Cody
Hug, Gary. Personal Interview. 27 November 2018.
Salzar, Daniel. “Clear skies, full hearts, can’t lose: Where Kansans go to stargaze.” Wichita Eagle, 10 June 2016. URL: https://www.kansas.com/news/local/article83159567.html