I recently gave a “Night Visions” presentation at the Salt Lake City REI store on the subject of how beginners can learn to enjoy the night sky.
Because the presentation was given in a dark room I promised the audience that instead of having them attempt to take notes and write down web addresses in the dark, I would give all the links to the various resources I talked about in a post to the planetarium’s web site.
Here they are:
Planispheres are the cute little rotating plastic or cardboard disks that allow you to depict the sky above you for any time and date of the year. With a planisphere you just rotate the top circle until the time of day corresponds to the date you want and the cutout window in the planisphere shows you the sky above you for that date and time.
They’re available from several retailers. We sell them here at Clark Planetarium, and you can buy them online from several other vendors. I recommend the plastic kind rather than the cardboard kind, and larger versions (typically around a foot in diameter) rather than the small ones. Bigger disks are generally easier to read and manipulate, and the plastic disks will last a lifetime while the cardboard disks will wear out after just a few uses.
If you want to go the cheap and disposable route, you can also make your own.
Monthly Sky Calendars
The grand-daddy of Sky Calendars, and in my opinion still the best for amateur stargazers, is the Abrams Sky Calendar. $11 per year to have monthly calendars delivered to your mailbox, and completely worth it. Come on, you know you spend a lot more each year on far less useful things. Subscribe – you won’t regret it.
Planetarium software for your Windows/Mac computer
“Desktop” planetarium software has advanced dramatically and can give you a personal guided tour of the heavens that will both educate and delight you.
A program called Starry Night is my personal all-time favorite, and it’s what everyone in the Clark Planetarium Education Department prefers for their work. Starry Night is available in a variety of complexity levels with corresponding prices.
Astronomy Apps for your iPhone/iPad/Android, etc.
I’m an iPhone & iPad user, and my Apple iOS devices are full to bulging with astronomy apps. My favorite sky simulator for both iPhone and iPad is “Sky Safari.”
I also recommend an app called “Lúan” for Phase of the Moon information for any date, “Daylight” for sunrise/sunset/twilight times, “Moon Globe” to learn about the surface features of the Moon, “Exoplanet” to keep track of all the amazing planets being discovered around stars throughout our little corner of the galaxy, “Meteor Shower Guide” for keeping track of meteor showers, and “Sunlight” to show what parts of Earth are currently in daylight and where it’s nighttime.
And of course, the excellent “NASA” app.
Many of these apps are also available for Android phones, or there are Android equivalents available.
Coolest of all, most of these apps are free or extremely inexpensive.
I recommend a good quality pair of 7×50 binoculars. The first number refers to the magnification power of the optics, the second number refers to the diameter in millimeters of the lenses that gather light. Bigger lenses = more light gathering. Think of the objective (front) lenses of binoculars as buckets for gathering light. Bigger buckets are better.
You want the biggest “bucket” to capture light that you can comfortably have easily on hand. Monster binoculars (some as big as 25 x 100) are huge, heavy, and with so much magnification they require a tripod to hold them still enough for a good view. For what you’ll spend on a monster pair of binoculars and a proper tripod to hold them, you could buy a nice telescope.
Binoculars that are 7×35 (7 power, 35 mm diameter objective lenses) are nice, but in dark skies you’ll appreciate the extra light gathering capability of 7×50.
Make sure any binoculars you buy feature “fully multicoated optics.” Optical coatings are crucial in order to maximize the amount of light entering the binoculars that actually make it out of the binoculars and into your eyes, while minimizing distortions due to the light’s passage through an array of prisms and lenses. “Fully coated” is not the same as “multicoated”, and “multicoated optics” doesn’t mean “fully multicoated optics.” You want all the glass components in the optics to have multiple coatings.
Also look for “BAK-4” prisms. Binoculars featuring BAK-4 prisms have superior light transmission with minimal distortion. If the binoculars you’re considering buying don’t say “BAK-4” then they’re probably using the cheaper and lower quality “BK-7” prisms, which may be OK for watching a football game in a stadium, but not for teasing out details in star clusters while lying on your back in a patch of wildflowers on a warm summer night.
We sell all kinds of good binoculars here at the planetarium, but you can also find them at many reputable stores and online retailers.
If you want to know when you can next see the International Space Station in the sky, or one of the brilliant “Iridium Flare” satellite flyovers, there is no better place to find this information than in the excellent and easy to use “Heavens Above” web site.
Sunspots, Solar Flares, Northern Lights and other space news
If you want to know about when you can watch sunspots, expect a bright aurora (“northern lights”) and a generally wide variety of astronomy news, check out spaceweather.com.
The go-to site for comprehensive information about eclipses is the official NASA eclipse site.
“Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Happy viewing, and please be sure to leave comments if you want more resources or care to share a cool astronomy information web site or app that you’ve found.