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Astronomy is for people who are night owls.

These people stay up until the wee hours of the morning to look at the night sky and all its wonders, such as stars and galaxies. They will also eagerly get out of bed before sunrise to see a comet or meteor shower.

Amateur astronomers are fascinated by the night sky and observe space objects as a hobby. Even though they don't have the powerful telescopes and super computers that astronomers use in observatories, they can see a lot of wonderful things.

They observe sunspots and flares, moon craters, meteor showers, comets and fireballs, and peek in on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn's rings.

All astronomers need is a dark sky and a clear night to see stellar objects. Ski hills and the countryside are favorite spots for stargazers because artificial light doesn't interfere with observations.

Rachel Cyr is an amateur astronomer. She has built a dome on the roof of her cottage so that she can observe the stars in comfort.

Others do their astronomy right from their backyards. When night falls, Michael Boschat takes his telescope into his backyard to observe the stars. "The street lights are a pain, but I can block them off with no problem," he says.

Stargazers often take trips to the country and away from city lights for better viewing. A few even travel to spots around the world if they hear of some phenomena that they want to see but can't observe from home.

People have always been fascinated by the night sky. As long as there are stars up above, people will be gazing up and wondering about them. The Federation of Astronomical Societies represents 232 astronomical societies with 17,000 members across the U.S.

While stargazing is popular in North America, it's more popular on other continents. "We're not, in my opinion, as astronomy-oriented as Europe or the Far East," says Boschat.

With a growing interest in outer space, there is growing interest in astronomy. Boschat hopes that more people will be captivated by the night sky.

"I know that people here should learn more about it," he says. "I've heard so-called astronomers say that the northern lights were reflections of sunlight off icebergs." This is, of course, not true!

Many people go outside on a bright night to try to find a constellation, look up, get desperate and quit. Going to a local observatory is a great way to get started finding constellations.
Courtesy of: Canadian Astronomy Data Center

All you need is a dark sky and your eyes to see the constellations, the moon and the Milky Way. After observing the night sky with the naked eye, an amateur astronomer usually purchases a pair of binoculars.

You can see star clusters, nebulae and planets with a standard pair of 7 x 50 binoculars. (The first number refers to how many times the binoculars magnify something. The second number states the width in millimeters of the viewing lens of the binoculars.)

Some amateur astronomers buy telescopes to see even more of the night sky. A 10-centimeter [four-inch] reflector telescope costs approximately $400. "This is probably considered to be a high-end model by most of the general public," says Mark Daugherty in Indiana. "It's actually a very low-end beginner's scope."

Many amateurs use an eight-centimeter [three-inch] refractor or a 20-centimeter [eight-inch] reflecting telescope. They cost about $700 each.

Depending on what your interest is, a telescope can be much more expensive. Daugherty is making his own.

What are the physical requirements in this hobby?

Usually, amateur astronomy just requires you to be able to turn up your head and gaze at the night sky. Good or corrected vision is necessary.

Depending on how serious you are about the hobby, you may have to lift heavy telescopes and have the dexterity to fine focus the scope or binoculars. A physically challenged person would have little or no difficulty getting involved.

One great aspect to this hobby is the great sense of community. There's a strong connection between amateur and professional astronomers.

"Professional astronomers seem to be readily accessible," says Steven LaFlamme of Massachusetts. "You can e-mail a famous astromer and get a personal reply. There's a relationship between the professionals and the amateurs."

This shouldn't come as a surprise. As it turns out, amateurs play an important role in the world or professional astronomy. They regularly discover phenomena of great interest to the pros.

"Amateurs have a very important contribution to make," says LaFlamme.

If you're really interested in the night sky, you could get a day job working with stars. You can go to university to train to be an astronomer or astrophysicist. An astronomer observes objects in space. An astrophysicist usually develops theories about what makes these objects tick.

Amateur stargazers can work in science shops, at a planetarium or at a science museum. Other related careers are scientific journalism, space photography and radio astronomy.

Getting Started

Viewing the night sky is a fascinating hobby. All you need is a clear night to see objects, such as the moon, and to trace constellations in the sky. Many more space objects can be seen with a pair of binoculars or a telescope.

Most deep sky objects require a binocular to view. However, some clusters of galaxies can be seen on bright nights with your bare eyes.
Courtesy of: Canadian Astronomy Data Center

Joining a club is a great way to learn more about the stars and get advice from other astronomers. You'll also be able to share your discoveries with others.

Many communities have local amateur astronomy clubs. Check with your school or neighborhood recreation center to find out more.

There's always more to learn and more to see in astronomy. Sometimes you don't have to look up into the night sky to learn about celestial objects. Visit science museums, tour observatories or go to a planetarium. Check out your library for books on the subject.

Some colleges offer short courses on viewing the night sky. Keep your eyes open for opportunities.

If you live in the city, you'll probably have to learn how to block out street lighting. But when you get out in the country, take the time to look at the night sky. Combine other activities with amateur astronomy. On camping trips, enjoy the scenery by day and by night.

You might want to record sightings of stars and other objects. This will help you locate the object again, and help you share your find with others.

Remember, wherever you are, look up every once in a while and just enjoy the starry sky.


American Association of Amateur Astronomers

Amateur Astronomer's Association of Princeton


Why is the Sky Dark at Night?
A fun way to learn the answer to this question

Star Journey
Star charts with images from the Hubble Space Telescope

Surfing the Solar System: A Treasure Hunt and Puzzle
Put your astronomy knowledge to the test

Turn Out the Lights!
Light pollution discussion and activities

Maria Mitchell Association
Named for America's first woman professor of astronomy who believed that students learned best by doing real research projects

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