Internet Resources for the Amateur Astronomer
The best part about this hobby is the community itself. Once an amateur astronomer learns that you are interested, WATCH OUT! We love to share the wonders of the heavens. That would be the reason for the many types of Web sites dedicated to amateur astronomy. There are sites for preparing your viewing session, sites dedicated to looking for satellites, sites set up to predict the evening’s weather conditions, and of course, sites to purchase equipment, plus much, much more. Here are just a few of my favorites in several categories.
Amateur Astronomy Clubs
I got started in amateur astronomy when I lived in Virginia. There I worked with the Virginia Peninsula Astronomy/Stargazers and they were only one of several clubs in my area that I had access to. I think it’s safe to say that regardless of where you live, you are reasonably close to where an amateur astronomy group meets – particularly in and around large cities. I only included a link to the VPAS site to provide an example of what you can find at a group’s site. Yahoo! and Google groups are a great place to find fellow amateur astronomers. Other clubs I’m personally familiar with include the Back Bay Amateur Astronomers (BBAA), based in Virginia Beach, VA and the Minnesota Astronomical Society (MAS), based Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN.
The Astronomical League is a non-profit organization of member amateur astronomy clubs throughout the country. The link provided will bring you to a page where you can find a club near you. Yet another site that maintains a database of amateur astronomy clubs is Astronomy Clubs.
The Clear Sky Chart site is used to get the most up-to-date weather conditions for a given area. The weather data is very focused and only forecasts a 48-hour time frame. They tend be be quite accurate in their forecasting. Even, I daresay, more accurate than most weather reports from the news stations!
They currently have clear sky charts (or CSCs) for over 3,500 sites in North America, so there will likely be one near you. Though the data seems very cryptic at first glance, the author did a great job of explaining what you’re looking at. CSC is a must-have link for astronomers, and one I check out frequently before going out viewing.
If you’re interested in viewing the Sun, then NASA’s SOHO satellite web site is a great source to find out when to look for sunspots. Remember, never look at the Sun directly or point any optical equipment at the Sun without proper protective filtering!
I’ve included this link in the software section also, but part of getting ready to go out observing is figuring out what you plan on looking at. Aside from star atlases, planetariums are another tool to plan your observing session. Sky & Telescope’s (S&T) Interactive Sky Chart is a great – and free! – way to figure out what you can look at any evening.
Sky & Telescope magazine, or S&T, is one of the best and most well-known resources out there for the amateur astronomer. It has pretty much everything – no exaggeration – you could need to prepare you for your observing session – and for learning all about everything beyond our planet. They are known for their easy to read star charts, both on-line and for purchase. Their astronomy news is first rate and current, plus there are all sorts of guides for observing, how to use a telescope, and more.
Another big astronomy magazine that is also online is Astronomy magazine. Like S&T, this is a great site to go to for help on what to look at, and when and where to look at it. Astronomy magazine tends toward the more hard-science aspect of astronomy.
Telescopes and Other Hardware
As mentioned on the Equipment page, there is a lot of equipment available to aid the amateur astronomer. I purchased my telescope from Orion. Like most of the telescope stores, they not only have telescopes, but also binoculars, filters, lenses, star charts, and many, many more items.
Finally, I have to include Cloudy Nights. A favorite of mine for those, well, cloudy nights! It’s main focus is equipment (mostly telescope) reviews. All done by everyday amateur astronomers.
Learn More About the Night Sky
Stars – a deceptively simple name, this site has loads of information such as legends behind the constellations and explanations of how some of the stars got their names – a very informative site.
Observational Astronomy is full of observing tips, both naked-eye and with equipment. It goes over not only what to look at, but how to look at it.
The Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) site, run by NASA, has, as you have probably guessed, a new picture of something astronomy-related every day. I highly recommend visiting this site and spending some time searching around. Though the site is mainly set up as a picture viewing site with information about the picture secondary, the information included is very interesting.
It’s no coincidence that Sky & Telescope is showing up in four of the categories here. S&T is full of very informative articles about all things astronomy: weather, planets, comets, current science news, even about our vision and how we can optimize it for astronomy.
There are many very good commercially available planetarium programs for purchase, but true to the amateur astronomer’s “code” of share, share, share, there is a lot of very good freeware available to download and also to use online.
The first site I go to when looking for free astronomy software is always a site simply named “Astronomy – Free Software“. It has all sorts of programs such as planetarium software, data calulators, calendars, planet viewing, plus a lot more.
Lastly, David Paul Green’s Free Astronomy Software Site has some great programs to aid in planning an observing session, recording your observations and a couple of other very well-done programs.
There are just so many resources out there for the amateur astronomer – from the beginner to the veteran. These items are other sites that are just as helpful as the others listed above.
Skymaps provides free maps of the current month’s sky that you can download and print out. Very newcomer-friendly, yet informative enough that you will likely find copies of them floating around at most any star party. It includes highlights of things to look at for telescopes, as well as binoculars and naked-eye observing.
Finally, many of the images seen on this guide’s pages can be produced with three things: a telescope, a camera, and some software. Astrophotography can be expensive, but to get started, it doesn’t have to be. A regular digital camera works just fine for those just starting out in astrophotography. Catching the Light, a site by astrophotographer and author Jerry Lodriguss has great information for those either just getting started in astrophotography or those who need more information on how to improve their results.