How to be an Astronomer

At the TARG club meeting on Friday 3rd July, we welcomed Phil Bourke M0IMA who gave us a talk on one of the oldest questions ever asked of any astronomer, “How do I become an astronomer?” Phil has had an interest in astronomy ever since he was a young lad, a hobby which has grown to the point where he now has his own viewing area in his back garden. I have purposely avoided using the term observatory in this paragraph as it implies a massive structure with a domed roof which opens to reveal a telescope the size of which would be worthy of Jodrell Bank! In point of fact, an observatory can be as simple as an area of concrete which has been installed level and flat on which you can set a telescope with the minimum of fuss.

So, the question often asked is not so much How do I become an astronomer as I want to be an astronomer, this is almost always followed with “What telescope should I buy?” Well the simple answer is that at this stage it would be an expensive mistake to rush out and purchase a telescope! To start with, do you know enough about the hobby to know what you are looking at, after all one point of light in the sky will look much the same as any other to the untrained eye and you will soon become disillusioned with astronomy when reality does not live up to expectation. A telescope is a highly specialised instrument which needs a degree of knowledge and experience to both choose the right instrument and promote its effective use.

This is what most people expect to see.

This is what most people expect to see.

This is what you can see with a little experience.

This is what you can see with a little experience.









The two images above are an example of expectation over reality, picture one is in fact a composite of multiple photos which have been overlaid to create the image shown where picture two is what you are more likely to see with an 80mm refractor telescope once you have mastered using it.

So, how then do you get started on the road to becoming an astronomer? Believe it or not, you already have the basic tools to become an astronomer, two eyes and an ability to learn! Astronomy has much in common with amateur radio, apart from the obvious where radio amateurs use radio telescopes to look at the sky, when you first came into amateur radio I expect you will have joined an amateur radio club and learned about how the hobby works and what equipment you would need long before you ever went out and purchased your first radio, well the same is true with astronomy, there are clubs within easy reach of most of us where you can go and make contact with other astronomers who have already made the mistakes you will inevitably make as you start out. The clubs may have open evenings where telescopes are trained on known planets and features in the sky for you to look at as you set out on what will be a fascinating and lifelong hobby. Whilst you are learning, there are things you can look at in the night sky which you don’t need a telescope to be able to see, You can start with studying our moon, the contours and craters are easily identifiable and well documented in books and magazines, a visit to your local library will undoubtedly turn up a whole host of books on astronomy and more than a few which deal with our moon as a specialist subject. Most magazines will have a current star chart on the centre page showing what may be visible for the coming month or so, as well as information on how to find them and what to look for.

Phil had several examples of star charts and books for the budding astronomer for us to look at, starting with a chart from the early days of astronomy.

Although lovely to look at, charts Like this are difficult to use.

Although lovely to look at, charts
Like this are difficult to use.









Right up to some of the most modern charts available today

Norton Star Atlas by   Arthur Philip Norton

Norton Star Atlas by
Arthur Philip Norton

Bright Star Atlas by   Wil Tirion

Bright Star Atlas by
Wil Tirion











There are also virtual charts available such as Sky Map Pro, this is a computerised charting system which is available as both a light and full function version but is not available as freeware, and the cost for this type of charting system is £33 for the light version rising to £84 for the full version.

There is also a software package called Stellarium which is available as freeware, an excellent charting system which is well suited to both beginner and advanced user alike.

Phil then went on to discuss the use of modest optical aids such as binoculars to improve your view of the sky and what you may be able to see using them. One of the simplest aids to using binoculars is a home-made tee piece which, although looking like a budgies perch, will support the weight of your binoculars and eliminate some if not all of the shake which will spoil your view with prolonged use, the longer you hold your binoculars the heavier they will seem to become and the more you will shake, by simply having a support for your binoculars you will enjoy the experience of sky watching so much more as the image

Graham G7JYD demonstrating the use of binoculars

Graham G7JYD demonstrating the use of binoculars

A simple Tee Perch for resting binoculars on.

A simple Tee Perch for resting binoculars on.








In time, as your knowledge grows, you will inevitably want to progress to making your first purchase of a telescope, this decision will be tempered by a number of factors, not least your wallet. Remember what you will have learned at the astronomy club, about the different types of telescope, and what the benefits of each are. If you are lucky enough to have been allowed to look through other members telescopes, you will have noticed that there are some fundamental differences between refracting telescopes and reflecting telescopes, reflecting telescopes tend to be smaller in length and easier to manoeuvre then refracting telescopes because of their use of mirrors to reduce the optical path within the telescope.

A Refracting Telescope

A Refracting Telescope

photo 9photo 10





The Lens Arrangements for Refracting Telescopes


photo 11

A Reflecting Telescope

photo 12

The Lens Arrangements

photo 13

for Reflecting Telescopes






Phil warned us that no matter how good a telescope you buy, with Earth bound equipment you are never going to get Hubble Space Telescope views, to start with Hubble does not have the Earth’s atmosphere to contend with which will distort any view from the planet’s surface, not only that, most Hubble pictures are an amalgam of hundreds of photo’s which have been taken as a timed exposure over time spans ranging from several tens of minutes to many hours for each shot! If you remember our pictures from earlier in this write-up where we showed you expectation versus reality, the reality shot was one taken by Phil using an 80mm refractor telescope and is also an amalgam of several photos overlaid on each other to achieve the shot you can see, if you were to look through the same telescope at the same object, you are more likely to see just a ball of light on the view finder with no real definition because of the distance to the object, (in this case a constellation called M15) and the distortion caused by the shimmering effect of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Our moon as seen through an 80mm Refracting telescope.

Our moon as seen through
an 80mm Refracting telescope.












Phil then showed a photo of our moon as seen through the same 80mm refracting telescope; note the detail of the craters and the high mountains on its surface. Again this is the result of multiple photos which have been laid over each other which is why the moon’s surface appears quite dark, when viewed through the telescope the surface would appear much brighter and the missing bottom right hand corner is a result of the multiple imaging processes used to compose the photo.

photo 15photo 16





Star charts showing that should have been visible from Jubilee Hall on the night of Phil’s talk.

To round the evening off, Phil showed us star charts which contained information of what should have been visible on the night of his talk, sadly we were unable to go outside and look at the stars as just as Phil finished his talk South Essex was treated to another of Mother Nature’s most fascinating examples of light shows in the form of one of the best electrical storms seen in this area for some time

Typical of the scene which greeted us when we left Jubilee Hall. Photo was obtained from Google, unknown photographer.

Typical of the scene which greeted us
when we left Jubilee Hall. Photo was
obtained from Google, unknown photographer.

After Phil’s talk we had our now customary tea break where tea and cakes were served, this was followed by the TARG raffle where the prizes were,

1st prize a book on Radio Astronomy for Beginners won by John Lamb our newest member who is waiting to sit his foundation licence with us,photo 18






2nd prize was a book entitled The Night Sky and was won by Bruce Saunders M0XBS,photo 19






3rd prize was a TARG Baseball Hat and a packet of Lucky Stars chocolate won by Jacky Gibbs wife of Geoff Gibbs 20






Our thanks go to Phil M0IMA for what was a very interesting talk which judging by some of the questions asked at the end of the evening, sparked a lot of interest or maybe rekindled an interest which had, maybe, been forgotten. One thing is for sure, with Crowsheath camping fast approaching, I for one will be taking my trusty telescope with me and reacquainting myself with the night sky, although if previous trips to Crowsheath are anything to go by, it won’t be the telescope that causes the blurred vision!

Hope you enjoyed the evening as much as I did,

73 de Mark M0IEO.





This entry was posted in Talks at Club Meetings and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.