Observing the Sky

With so much to see in the sky, why not get involved in astronomy and gaze up at the sky!

What should I look for?

As a beginner, it is best to start by looking for constellations - specific patterns of stars in the sky. By learning where these are in the sky, you will find it easier to find your way around the night sky. Interesting sights which are easy to see on clear nights include nebulae, galaxies and planets. Luckier astronomers may even see rare events such as meteor showers.

The Hale reflecting telescope at the Palomar Observatory, California

What telescope should I use?

There are two main types of telescopes, refracting telescopes (refractors) and reflecting telescopes (reflectors). Refractors use an objective lens and an eyepiece lens to magnify an image, whereas reflectors use an objective mirror at the base of the tube to reflect light to a second mirror which reflects the light through a lens in the eyepiece.

Refractors are generally cheaper than reflectors and work very well for looking at specific objects (e.g. Jupiter and its moons). Reflectors are usually slightly more expensive than refractors, however they collect much more light and provide much wider views. There are also telescopes called catadioptric telescopes (or cats for short) which combine the two sets of optics to obtain detailed, high contrast images of dim objects, though these tend to be much more expensive than both refractors and reflectors.

What do professional astronomers use?

Amateur astronomers tend to only look at the visible light from objects. Professional astronomers will consider other wavelengths of light such as gamma rays and radio waves. Different telescopes are needed to detect these wavelengths which is why radio telescopes (see right) look a lot different to optical telescopes (see above right).

The Parkes radio telescope in Australia which featured in the film "The Dish"

James Gooding, 2017

All image credits go to NASA (and respective centers/universities)