What Exactly Is Amateur Astronomy?
There is a lot of misunderstanding about amateur astronomy. Let’s clear that up.
All too often when the subject is first brought up with someone unfamiliar with the hobby, they equate it with astrology. Here’s a hint: that’s one way to make an amateur (or professional) astronomer cringe and likely immediately correct the person. But it’s not really the person’s fault. They (and maybe you, too) don’t know that there is a difference!
“What is the difference between ‘astrology’ and ‘astronomy’?”:
There is an excellent article discussing the differences between astrology and astronomy at the Cornell University website. You can read the article here, but we’ll keep things short and simple and discuss the main points here.
“Astrology” is a pseudo-science that claims that the positions of certain celestial objects in relation to each other have a direct effect on our lives and events here on Earth. The horoscopes in the newspaper use astrology to make their “predictions”.
“Astronomy” is the study of all celestial objects using the laws of physics as its basis. Astronomers use telescopes of varying kinds that can see visible light, radio waves, x-rays, etc. to study the movement of celestial objects and how they affect each other – not us, at least directly. Astronomy seeks to learn more about celestial objects to understand how those objects were created in the past. Conversely, astrology seeks to learn about future events. Ironically, to make their predictions, astrologers get their information from the work that astronomers do!
Never call an astronomer (amateur or professional) an astrologer!
“Okay, astronomy isn’t astrology and I’ll likely get a telescope thrown at me if I confuse the two in front of an astronomer. But what’s an amateur astronomer?”
Good question – I’m glad you asked! Amateur astronomy is a hobby that everyday people like you and me take up to look at the stars, planets, nebulae, galaxies, comets, etc. and learn more about them. We use telescopes, binoculars, and even just our own two eyes to do this. The equipment that amateur astronomers use is readily accessible at many web sites (and a few stores). Companies like Orion, Celestron, and Meade sell telescopes, eyepieces, filters, and other equipment to help the amateur astronomer in his or her hobby. You can get a good overview of the equipment amateur astronomers use in our Astronomy Primer.