How to Become a Better Amateur Astronomer

"If people sat outside and looked at the stars every night, I'll bet they'd live a lot differently." - Bill Watterson

Astronomy has always been one of the most accessible sciences to man. A sheep herder in the hills of Macedonia 2500 years ago could mark the progress of the heavens each night, and in doing so question his place in the world. Such questions have often allowed astronomy to lead the vanguard of scientific understanding, and at times questions stemming from astronomical uncertainty have almost single-handedly wrenched mankind's collective knowledge forward. This progress has only recently become the primary domain of professional astronomers. Well into the 20th century amateurs continued to play an important role in the science. Even today, astronomy remains a science available to amateurs and filled with potential for significant amateur contributions.

So You Want to Be a Better Amateur Astronomer?

In this writeup, I will outline the basic steps to becoming a better practicing Amateur Astronomer. Any person who pursues astronomy as a hobby or pastime and, most importantly, not as their primary means of employment, is considered to be a part of amateur astronomy. However, when I refer to being an Amateur Astronomer, certain specific behaviors and expectations are included. Someone who uses a telescope to view the clouds of Venus is participating in amateur astronomy, someone who views the clouds of Venus in a methodical way with a predetermined set of reporting standards and a method of collating and submitting those reports is practicing Amateur Astronomy. If you fall into the first example, don't be afraid to continue reading! Many of the points made in this writeup can be beneficial to even the most casual observer.

Step 1: Develop a Habit of Observation

Astronomy, like all science, is founded upon the principle of observation. In this case, a multitude of tools and nifty gadgets are available to the Amateur Astronomer. Binoculars, telescopes, cameras, radios, and even the naked eye are all useful instruments for observing the heavens, but do little to advance our knowledge if not used systematically. As a hobbyist, I may use a telescope to view the cloud belts of Jupiter one night. To be a better Amateur Astronomer, I might view the same cloud belts 15 times in a month. Preeminent to Amateur Astronomy is creating a habit for yourself of regular observation.

Developing a habit of observation can initially be as little as noting the phase of the moon and its relative position each night at the same time. After several weeks, the habit will become natural, and it will be much easier to determine where and how bright the moon is in the sky. This may seem simple, but greatly affects serious observation of some objects (especially those of a photographic nature).

To facilitate regular observation, it can be beneficial to create an observing preparation routine. Many Amateur Astronomers attempt to increase their comfort level by building dedicated structures for observation (such as small backyard observatories). Others merely establish a timeframe built around other activities. For instance, in the past I have used the following on a regular basis:

  • Lunchtime at work: check the afternoon forecast, determine likelihood of good observation weather
  • Driving home from work: determine most likely observation target (in cases where you have more than one project underway)
  • Before my evening meal: double check the weather, collect any needed reference material and observing log templates, assemble telescope so that it can cool down outside
  • Late evening after family time: change into warm clothes, begin observations

Your routine may be completely different. The important thing is to develop a habit of observing that most easily allows you time to regularly complete observations.

Step 2: Identify A Topic of Study

The universe is a big place. It is easy (and sometimes desirable) to get lost in a multitude of the heavens during an observing session. However, to really get results from an observing program, it's important to narrow your focus to a manageable topic. This will be directly related to when you can observe and what methods you will be using to do so. If you only have early evening available, then selecting a topic that is best visible at midnight is probably not the best idea. Similarly, if you really hate the cold (and if you do, woe unto to you) then selecting a topic of study that only occurs in the night sky during the wintertime may work against you.

Additionally, to maximize the fruitfulness of your labor, try not to duplicate an observing program that is currently underway with professional equipment. Many programs have relationships with the amateur astronomy community in which their observations reinforce those being done by professionals. Examples of observing programs where amateur astronomers can still have an impact:

Whatever you choose, bring focus to your observing program by narrowing your topic.

Step 3: Locate Information Sources Related to Your Topic

After selecting your topic, gather as much information as you can about it to give yourself an idea of how best to proceed. For instance, if the topic you have selected is observing variable stars, then a quick search would bring you to the American Association of Variable Star Observers. This organization provides a large amount of resources for variable star observers, from tips for observing to templates that can be used to record observations. This will not only improve your chances of actually doing something useful, it will also allow you to get a glimpse into what the current issues for that topic are and how they are being studied.

Some examples of great resources for amateur astronomers include:

American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO)
Professional and Amateur collection, research, and analysis of variable star observations.
www.aavso.org

The Association of Lunar & Planetary Observers (ALPO)
A medium for advancing and conducting work by both professional and amateur astronomers who share an interest in Solar System observations.
alpo-astronomy.org

The Astronomical League
Learn more about observing the many fascinating galaxies, planets, moons, and stars in our universe with a telescope.
www.astroleague.org/

The International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA)
lunar-occultations.com/iota/iotandx.htm

Step 4: Standardize Your Observations

One of the best ways to improve your observational skills is to record your observations while doing them. At first, this can be as simple as taking an empty notebook and recording basic information about the observing session (the date, time, location, instruments used, sky conditions, etc.) followed by a couple of notes on each item observed. To increase the value of your observations to others, it will be important to standardize your written records of each observation. Depending on your topic of study, good templates may already exist and be freely available (see some of the websites above for great examples of these). Another option is to create your own template tailored specifically to your situation. In any case, be sure to include critical information related to the item you're observing.

For instance, when observing double stars, it is important to note the separation and relative angle between each star. So when creating a template, it is helpful to create a predefined entry to record these pieces of information. Similarly, deep sky observations can be greatly affected by the conditions of the atmosphere, so creating a default section for temperature, seeing, and cloud conditions allow others to compare your observations to those of the same object by other astronomers in other places.

Step 5: Compile and Share Your Results

Finally, share your observations with others studying the same object. Amateur astronomers can provide significant value to the professional community because, as a group, we can provide 24 hour observational coverage from across the globe. Combining the results of the worldwide amateur network allows professionals to fill in gaps where no professional equipment is available for specific times. Many amateur organizations already contain automated submission processes. So get out there and get to observing!

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