This beginner astronomy guide takes the viewer/reader through the most important aspects of getting up to speed on amateur astronomy by covering telescope basics and stargazing basics. The beginner amateur astronomer will learn about equatorial mounts, the types of telescopes, all about the basic accessories, calculating magnification, and most importantly, three videos that help you learn how to find one's way around the night sky.
At the end, there is a list of some of the best apps / software / books for those starting out, and tips on improving planetary and deep sky object detail at the eyepiece - all in a little over an hour's time. In short, this is the...
Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Telescopes & Amateur Astronomy
First, if you have alt-az mount (up/down / spins like a photographic tripod), skip these first two videos. If you have an equatorial mount, those things look confusing don't they?!? So then learning how to align it with the celestial pole will help you use it much more easily - watch this next video to learn how to set up your equatorial mount telescope.
And what to do if your view of Polaris is blocked by trees / building / something else? What about if you live in the southern hemisphere and there is no bright pole star? No problem - just do this to align your equatorial mount for visual use:
However, once aligned, some people are confused on how to use an eq mount; the video just below here will help. Do this during the day first, to learn how to manipulate your mount so it is easier to do when the sky is dark and you cannot see the mount as well.
All about telescopes
Basic Types of Telescopes, explained
The following video is an overview of the basic types of amateur telescopes. This will help you understand the three major types, and what the advantages and disadvantages are compared to other types of telescopes, as well as a basic tutorial on how they focus light.
Finderscopes for telescopes and aligning them, explained
Finderscopes are how we aim a telescope, because as you'll learn a couple videos down from here, most telescope show a pretty narrow portion of the sky. To aim the telescope quickly and accurately, a means of pointing the telescope exactly where we want it to be aimed is an absolute necessity to avoid frustration.
Calculating the magnification of a telescope, explained
Then there are a few things to calculate. I know what many of you may be thinking, "Wait... what, you mean MATH?!" Yes, but it's *easy* math. Begin with determining the focal length of your telescope; that is usually listed somewhere near the nameplate by the focuser. It may be listed under "F" or "F/L" or something similar. The other number, if one is listed (perhaps with a "D" or "A"), will be the aperture of your telescope in diameter.
Common eyepieces for beginner telescopes, explained
With the focal length, you can determine magnification based on the eyepieces you have. Those should also list a focal length on them, usually on the top or sides. Divide the focal length of the telescope by the focal length of the eyepiece to determine the magnification each eyepiece will provide you.
How much sky you will see through YOUR telescope, explained
It helps to know the field of view that your eyepiece will provide to you. Unfortunately not all telescope manufacturers tell you the apparent field of view or eyepiece type in order to determine this. You can probably estimate it though; this video can help you learn how.
Barlow lenses for telescopes, explained
Your telescope may have come with a barlow lens. To be frank, most "included" barlow lenses that arrive with telescopes are very often either of poor quality or provide more magnification than the telescope can realistically handle - neither is a good situation. So if you're getting poor views with the one you have, that may be why! (And consider getting an aftermarket one.)
You can calculate magnification with the addition of a barlow by multiplying your previously calculated magnifications by the barlow multiplier. So if you get 50x from a given eyepiece, and your barlow is a 3x, then you would get 150x from that eyepiece with the barlow inserted into the telescope optical system as your instructions guide you to do.
But most any telescope has a maximum practical magnification; on the very best nights of atmospheric seeing, you can push your telescope to 50x per inch of magnification. So a 4.5" telescope can practically be pushed to 225x magnification, but no additional detail will be seen beyond that, and likely the image will just get fuzzy anyway.
However, no matter the size of the telescope, on many nights, 150x to 250x are the maximum practical magnification no matter what, due to the cells of air above our heads distorting the view.
Learning the sky
Simple tips to get oriented in the night sky for stargazing
Now you'll need to learn the sky, and how to find things in it. Understanding the basic directions and locations of places in the night sky will help you find the planets and other objects. Even for those not using a telescope, this is a useful video for learning where to look.
Understanding magnitudes for night sky objects
Knowing how the magnitude scale works will help with identifying one star from another when looking for different brightness between them. This video gives you a quick primer to help you understand the concept of magnitudes.
Measuring distance in the night sky, explained
But one area beginners often have some difficulty comparing is the relatively small distance between stars on a star chart, and how the stars appear in the sky. So learning to measure distance in the sky will help you find dimmer objects more easily from brighter ones.
One thing that beginners can do is download the free monthly Skymaps.com star charts. Use a ruler with millimeters to estimate degrees (the maps are 180 degrees across), then convert that to the sky using the techniques from the measuring distance link above. The objects listed there are often the best ones for beginners to view - start with those. Some people prefer to use a smartphone; if so, get one (or more) of these:
For a PC or laptop, download the free software Stellarium. Prefer to read a good book instead? No problem; here are some excellent beginner references:
There are also weekly videos right here on the homepage of Eyes on the Sky that detail how to find great objects to see in small telescopes.
How to see more in a small telescope
If you're still not seeing objects with as much detail as you thought was possible, there may be some ways to enhance your view at the eyepiece for both planets, and for deep sky objects (deep sky generally refers to objects like galaxies, nebula, and star clusters).
Some beginner and even intermediate telescopes are not as solid or well-made as they should be. They kept the telescope within a reasonable cost for you (or whomever purchased it), but some corners may have been cut in design or manufacturing to keep the price low. That means there may be some inherent problems like vibration or poor eyepieces, etc. But the good news is this: There are ways to improve many small telescopes.
First, if you have a small, tabletop telescope - but no suitable table - then a Super Simple Tripod 2x4 may just be the ticket for you. It is easy to build, and very solid.
For other telescopes, there are many ideas for area(s) your scope may benefit from improvement, such as tripod stability, eyepieces, finder, focuser, even a smartphone eyepiece bracket.