The Ignorant and Bumbling Beginner’s Guide to Looking at things in Space, from Earth, With Eyes

Confused about stargazing? Not sure where to start? Karl Anthony Mercer explains stargazing from a beginner’s perspective.

I am Karl Anthony Mercer and what do I know about astronomy, stargazing and all things cosmic? Nothing. Nada. Zero. Fuck all!

Well, that’s not strictly speaking true. I know a few things. Space is huge. Not huge like Wembley, your aunty Jean’s house, an aircraft hangar or the fee Real Madrid would pay for a man who can kick quite well. No, it’s huge as in everything we’ve known and an awful lot of stuff we don’t know fits inside it, with room to spare. It’s also, for the purposes of perspective “up”. There’s a Moon in it, I know that. Oh and there’s a Sun.

Okay, so I’ll admit, I don’t know nothing. I’ve just never been a ‘”space” person. I’ve always enjoyed space, I always liked the idea of it. I just never got into it. I was always zoos and Attenborough, not planetariums and Patrick Moore.

So if you’re an experienced skygawker this guide is unlikely to give you any meaningful advice. If anything, I hope it gives you a few moments of wistful nostalgia as you remember starting out. If not, well then I hope you can at least laugh at the dickhead. What I do want you to do is consider that friend who always wanted to get into it, but didn’t know where to start. Think of sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, nieces, nephews and all those other assorted folk. This guide is for them, from one complete novice, just starting out to, hopefully, countless others.

It all starts by opening your eyes and looking up. There, now that wasn’t so hard, was it? Or did you look directly at that incredibly bright orangey-reddy-yellow thing? If you did then it probably was quite hard, and you should heed this warning, do not look directly into that thing ever again!

RULE 1: DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN, NO MATTER HOW PRETTY IT IS!

Looking up at a daytime sky can be pretty dull. The most interesting celestial body in it is the Sun and without some equipment with some fancy filters it is well beyond my grade. I can’t look at that. Let’s assume you’re out at night. Let’s also assume it’s a clear night, because otherwise all you’ll see is fluffy flying water.

There’s a lot you can see, right? You can likely see the Moon, unless it’s in a new Moon phase, when the Earth decides the old one was out of date and gets the new model with the improved crater detail and better WiFi. There will be many twinkling pin-pricks of light, some bigger than others. They could be aliens, fireflies or pranksters in a stealth hot air balloon shining a small torch. What is most likely is that some of these are planets (lumps of stuff that orbit stars), some are stars (like a gas hob only huge, in space and nuclear) and some may even be galaxies (collections of the two former things) or nebulae (clouds of gas and dust from when stars decide they’re too hot and need to explode). Some of these stars are in formations. You may even recognise some of these “constellations” – Orion is quite a prominent one in the winter northern hemisphere sky. There’s the Big Dipper. You can even make some up if you don’t learn the official names.

If you are lucky you may see a meteor (a lump of stuff that enters Earth’s atmosphere, usually burning up) streak the sky, if you are unlucky you may have that meteor fall on top of you as a meteorite (when a lump of that stuff doesn’t burn up, and hits the planet). There’s lots to see up in the sky, a lot of get acquainted with, like I still haven’t.

I bet you’re like me though. It’s not a proper hobby until you’ve spent silly money on a piece of equipment to do the hobby with. I know! Let’s buy a telescope! Then I’ll be able to see the disappointment in the eyes of aliens in far off galaxies as they look back at us and wonder quite how we’re making such a hash of custodianship of a planet.

The telescope market is baffling, and operating them even more so. There’s Newtonians, Dobsonians, reflectors, refractors. What’s a “three-mirror anastigmat”? It sounds like an eye-disease you get from the strain of looking at recursive copies of yourself in three reflecting mirrors. No, this will not do.

I get the feeling telescopes are much better once you’re better acquainted with the sky, further entrenched in the hobby and able to try them out somewhere first so you can be taught what you’re doing with them. If only there was something like a rudimentary telescope you could hold up to your face – even better, if there were two, such that you could obtain a magnified stereoscopic view that works better with human, binocular vision.

Oh my, there’s my “Eureka!” moment! I’ve just invented the binoculelescope! Wait? They already exist? They’re called binoculars? Well I suppose I’ll just get some of those. I can’t win one, can I?  

Maybe that’s not so bad. You see, this whole thing started because my niece, who is five, has been getting into this whole space lark. I think they have been learning about it in school and she thinks it is cool. I’m a supportive Uncle and I wanted to encourage her and sought advice from people in the know (some friends, some acquaintances, some random searches via the internet) for the best way to go about it. Binoculars were always mentioned.

So I ordered her and myself a pair of incredibly inexpensive 10×50 binoculars. As I understand it binoculars label themselves with numbers, the first being the magnification (so 10x magnification) the second being the measure, in millimetres, of the diameter of the objective lens. That’s the big one at the end, and it is especially important in astronomical binoculars because the bigger that is, the more light can get in (in this case, 50 mm).

I know next to nothing about optics, so that’s about as much information I can give on the matter. What I did hear is that 10×50 are great for starters, but 15x70s will get you much more detail. For true nerdbags, higher magnifications and objectives exist, although a tripod is recommended.

From my experience I would say be very careful buying online at places like eBay, Amazon, or particularly if you are the adventurous type to use a Wish or AliExpress. There are many, many bad traders out there who want to sell you junk for more than it’s worth. I saw a lot of fanciful claims of magnification and clarity that were pure lies. In fact, AliExpress was hilarious for it, because many of their binoculars have amazing model names like 15-25×100. They were 8-10x50s. They just had a model name that indicated they were better. All pure lies. So be careful, Google them, there are plenty of reviews and if you find some that are wholly lacking reviews you should probably avoid them.

The ones I obtained for my niece and I were Auriol 10x50s. In the UK these are sold by Lidl supermarkets from time to time, for around £15. I found them on eBay for that plus postage and packing.

I wasn’t expecting much, so I was very surprised when they arrived that their image was sharp and clear, they were easy to setup and focus, came with a bag, necessary straps etc. They’re of hefty weight, but feel a little rubber-plasticky, but what do you expect for under £20? For just getting started I think they will do fine.

But remember what I said earlier? It’s not a real hobby until you’ve spent silly money on it? I also bought myself a pair of second hand Helios “Stellar” 15x70s for around £50. This was probably an unnecessary extravagance for a beginner but partly it was because I was scared of missing out on some amazing sights with the 10x50s, and partly it was so I could have a bigger, more impressive “grown-up” pair to impress my niece with.

These were actually in quite remarkable shape for being a second hand pair. The seller had warned of the rubber grip on the focus wheel being loose, but that’s nothing a little glue won’t fix. Other than that their optics are clear, the lenses seem unscratched. Looking through them the magnification is a world apart from the 10x of the other set, although the field of view is clearly more limited. I was expecting these things from the research I had done. In all I am quite pleased.

I hope you enjoyed this small guide to why you should definitely get cheap binoculars if you’re just looking at getting started with amateur astronomy. Next time I hope to tell you all about what I learned from looking at random stuff in the sky.

Unless the weather doesn’t clear up, in which case it’ll be clouds.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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