So, how do you get started? There is simply too much info out there and it is easy to get lost.
So, here’s a really simplified way to get going.
As a rank beginner, there are three things I have learned. I call these the 3 Looks.
1. Look UP.
Before buying gadgets, worrying about eyepieces and filters, declinations, the ecliptic, all of that, just look up. See what is up there and ponder it. Remember constellations you are already familiar with and try to find them. Try to find the man in the moon. See if you can identify planets vs stars (hint: the planets don’t twinkle). Watch for shooting stars (which are seasonal). Just spend some time getting lost in the stars and noticing what you can notice. Engage your curiosity. Ponder who we are in relationship to the universe. Engage the WHY of astronomy.
2. Look AROUND.
Find resources. In the US, find your local member society of the Astronomical League. Go to a Star Party and look at the stars through what equipment they bring and ask questions. Find a mentor. Join and participate in your local member society. Read intro books. Get knowledge.
Also, get resources. Find a nice, flat place to view the stars that is away (if possible) from metropolitan areas and that allows people after dark (GOOD LUCK). Let people know where you are before you go, bring a reclining beach chair and/or a blanket, and have fun. It is far more fun if you are able to go with others.
3. Look THROUGH (Viewing Aids).
Telescopes are sexy. But start simpler so you can get your bearings. Use just your eyes. Use a project such as the Astronomical League’s Constellation Hunter Observing Program to learn your way around the constellations, or use a planisphere (here‘s how to use one) or a book such as Nightwatch. That and a jacket, warm hat, gloves (all as needed), and flashlight with red cellophane tied onto it with a rubber band (to allow you to keep your night vision), and you are good to go.
Before you go, though, be sure to use the Clear Sky Chart for your area, which tells you whether or not you are going to have a productive time or if you will be looking at clouds all night. In the example below, Sunday night looks horrible. Monday night doesn’t look too bad.
If you absolutely must engage your inner geek at this point, consider an app for a smartphone such as Star Walk (as of January 2014, it is available for a whopping $2.99), or, if you have a laptop, consider Stellarium (http://stellarium.org), which is FREE. Make sure you use “Night Mode” when using it, to preserve your night vision.
Then, consider upgrading to binoculars. 7×35 porro prism binocs will do just fine and are nice for looking at constellations. I have a set of 10x50s that I use which are in general recommended in astronomy forums as the standard, but find these to be about at the limit of handheld usability (due to shakiness). My 25x100s really bring things up close, but need a very stout tripod. Start with the 7x35s or similar. Easy to hold, don’t shake much, easy to transport, and if you don’t like astronomy, you can use them for other purposes. 7x35s, especially wide angle ones, are excellent for introduction to the starry skies. Flea markets and garage sales are good places to get them cheap. Just be sure to check mechanical functions and alignment before buying. Also, stay away from fixed focus binos and zoom binos–your ability to get crisp images will be limited. While binos don’t have the reach of telescopes, they provide more contrast and you will see more using them.
Later on, consider telescopes, considering a Dobsonian (good bang for the buck) as an entry option. At this point, you should have someone helping you select, as there are many telescopes you simply want to avoid.
For more information on raw beginner stuff, this is the beginning of a decent video series: (Eyes on the Skies Stargazing Basics). You can get lost on the Internet with information on astronomy. Have fun, but consider using the forums at http://www.cloudynights.com/ as a bookmarkable entry point.
Have fun. Look UP, Look AROUND, and Look THROUGH, and you will be good to go.