Starting out in Backyard Astronomy

Starting out in backyard astronomy sounds simple in theory: Get a telescope, point it at the sky and look. But gaze into the night sky and you’ll see countless points of light. How do backyard astronomers find a star cluster, a nebula or even a galaxy out of the vast expanses of space? What equipment should you use? It can all be a little intimidating but we want you to get started right in this very rewarding hobby. Here we’ve compiled a list of resources to guide you along the way.

Shown below is an all sky map, called a Planisphere, which shows the sky over Philadelphia, which is close to our location. You can make one for your location by clicking on the Your Sky link.


The sky over Philadelphia, courtesy of Fourmilab’s Your Sky page,
by John Walker.

Tonight's Sky

Having a plan before you go outside to experience tonight’s sky will greatly increase your success in backyard astronomy. So important in fact that there are software programs and websites dedicated to just that, planning. Here’s a list of helpful websites that will show you what to look for in the sky tonight.

  • Sky Maps. To help find your way around the night sky, makes available for free each month The Evening Sky Map.
  • Earth and Sky. Updates on your cosmos.
  • This Week’s Sky At A Glance. Check out Sky & Telescope’s weekly observing update, Sky at a Glance, published every Friday.
  • Tonight’s Sky. Helping the amateur astronomer plan their night by showing what you can see and what it will look like. (This site is a little more advanced).
  • Observation Planning. Just a collection of tools for planning an observing session under the stars.