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New Astronomer Quick Start Guide

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New Astronomer Quick Start Guide

By Ed Anderson – June 2018  

Welcome to the wonderful hobby of astronomy.   The purpose of this guide is to help you become successful as you master some basic skills, start to learn the sky and enjoy what it has to offer.  While you can try this on your own I highly encourage you to work with a more experienced person so that your early attempts can be successful and you can advance quickly.  Find a local astronomy club if you can.  Besides, astronomy is more fun with friends, at least I think it is.   

Note that this document is under constant revision so take note of the date on the by line.   The first published version was November 2016.   There are later revisions, but all should be helpful to the new astronomer.  I just keep tweaking it as I find new resources, sport a typo or feel something could be better expressed. 

There are a lot of embedded links.  The document is intended to be distributed electronically so that the links will be live.   If you received a printed copy ask for the electronic version so you have access to all the resources.

Binoculars vs. Telescopes

While most people associate astronomy with telescopes, binoculars can be a simpler entry into astronomy and many people already own them.  The star hops discussed later are based on targets that can be seen using 7X35, 8X40, or 10X50 binoculars.   However, these exercises can also be performed with a telescope. 

You will learn about identifying major markers in the sky, typically bright stars.   You will learn a bit about star hopping to find things as well as using the field of view as a way to measure distances. 

If you own both binoculars and a telescope, I suggest you try finding the targets with the binoculars first.  You can go back later with your telescope to find the same targets and compare how they look.  Some of the targets look better in binoculars and some benefit from the higher magnification of a telescope.  

From this point on I will assume you are using binoculars.  The steps are the same.  Personally, I start most observation sessions with binoculars even if I plan to use a telescope.  And I typically perform my star hops with my binoculars first, before I do them with a telescope.

I have used the term “star hop” a number of times.  Let me define it.   Star hopping is like turn by turn directions when traveling by car.   You start “here” then go a distance to a point and then turn.  Most trips involve several turns.  So it is with star hopping.  Usually you will start at an easily identified bright star and then follow the steps, the hops, to get to the thing you want to see.   And, as with any car trip, don’t forget to watch the scenery along the way.   There are wonders to behold everywhere. 

If you have a telescope with a GoTo (computerized) mount I have provided M (Messier ) or NGC (New General Catalogue) designations for most targets, so you can enter them in your hand control.   However the procedures assume binoculars or a manual telescope.

Some things I mention are asterisms.  These are collections of stars that form a recognizable shape. Examples would be the summer triangle, the big dipper, Orion’s belt or the coat hanger.   These are not constellations, they are star groups that can be easily recognized.    

I have included lots of links to information that can help you understand the targets, most of which are star clusters or bright stars.  These links may be helpful in your understanding of how to find them and what they might look like when you find them.   


Direction and Time – Important

How I reference direction in this guide is important for you to understand.   I am not trying to adhere to technical accuracy of any celestial frame of reference as I assume my reader is not familiar with celestial frameworks.   So here is how I have written this guide.

Note that the position of the stars will change by season and time.   I assume you are viewing around 9 or 10 pm during the prime season for these targets.  The direction assumed is somewhat biased toward the East as that is generally the darkest sky direction where I live on Long Island, NY, USA.  Like the Sun and the Moon, the stars rise from the East and set toward the West as the Earth rotates West to East. 

Also note that the exercises provided are progressive which means that the targets discussed are not all visible at all times of the year.   I name the constellation so you can look up which constellations are in your sky at any given time.  The first few assume the June to September time frame with later exercises being better performed later in the year on into the spring or later in the night.

So, if I am facing East, toward the location where the Sun risers, then “up” is increasing in altitude above and away from the eastern horizon.  Down is toward the eastern horizon and decreasing in altitude above the eastern horizon.  Facing East, left is toward the North compass position and right is toward the South compass position.  

My instructions assumed you will be facing East, NE or SE to face the stars as they rise into the sky.  As the season progresses they will get higher and higher in the sky and eventually will be in the western sky.  But remember Up is away from the eastern horizon and down is toward the eastern horizon as I use it here.

These may not be technically in conformance with any astronomical framework but most people should understand them at the level that I have written this guide.


Binocular Tips:

·         You don’t need big expensive binoculars.   Almost any binocular 7X35 or larger will do.  My first 10X50s and my 7X35s cost about $25 each.  My later binoculars were more expensive.

·         Magnification higher than 10X is typically hard to hand hold steadily.

·         Watch the Youtube video How to adjust and use your binoculars  

·         Good advice on how to hold binoculars

·         Watch the video - Introduction to binoculars for Star Gazing 

·         Binoculars can be used for things other than astronomy. 


Astronomy is normally done during clear weather so waterproof binoculars are not required.  But if you plan to use them for sports, bird watching and the like I recommend you select waterproof binoculars as these activities can occur during rain, fog and in damp forests.   


Reference Materials

Learn how get oriented in the night sky for stargazing - Video

Skymap – Free maps of the sky provided every month with suggested targets

How to choose binoculars – good general overview

Using a sander as a monopod to steady your binoculars

Books that can be found in many libraries, purchased at book stores or on-line

Turn Left at Orion by Guy Consolmagno and Dan Davis
Stargazing with Binoculars by Robin Scagell & David Frydman
Stargazing : Astronomy without a Telescope
/ Patrick Moore
NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe by Terence Dickinson


Stellarium - This is free and a must have.  Runs on Windows, Linux with versions for smartphones.
Google Sky map for Android  
SkEye for Android

iPhone Astronomy apps

Early Targets


The Moon – Don’t overlook the Moon.   This is the easiest celestial body to observe whether you are using binoculars or a telescope.   You can download a free guide to the moon at:  http://www.eyesonthesky.com/Moon/FullMoonmap.aspx .


Planets are not like stars, they move around the Sun just as we do.  So they are not always visible.  Sometimes they are in good viewing position, sometimes poor position and sometimes they are on the other side of the Sun and we can’t view them at all.   So keep that in mind.  But when they are visible they will be in the southern sky.  They travel along a path similar to where the moon and Sun travel.  This imaginary line in the sky is called the ecliptic.  If you look at a star chart or a map of the sky the ecliptic will often be marked.  Once you get a feeling for this imaginary line, planets become easy to find.


Jupiter’s moons – Another rewarding target is Jupiter, when it is visible.  While binoculars will not show you a lot of detail of Jupiter you will be able to see up to 4 of its moons.  Give it a try.


Venus is the third brightest object in the sky after the Sun and the Moon.   It is covered in clouds so you can’t see any real detail even with a telescope.  But Venus goes through phases, like our Moon, and that you can see.


Mars and Saturn can be seen with binoculars but there is not much to see.  Mars will be a reddish dot and Saturn, at best, will be an elongated fuzzy ball with most binoculars.   To see anything interesting you are going to need a telescope and a lot more magnification than typical binoculars offer.  But even a 70 mm telescope will reveal the rings of Saturn and that is a spectacular site.


Exploration and discovery star hops

What follows are step by step introductions and demonstrations that assume you can find the starting reference point.  You can use a star chart, Stellarium, download the Skymap free map, use one of the phone apps I listed earlier, or get some help from a friend to find the starting point of each example.

They are based on viewing between 9 and 11 pm.  Naturally you will need to adjust according to the time of year, the time of sunset and your schedule.  I give some month ranges when I think these are optimum but remember that they move through the sky constantly so each night they will be higher at the same time as the season progresses.  Polaris is visible all year round.  Cassiopeia, Ursa Minor and Ursa Major are very close to Polaris so they too are visible much of the year.  

The sky seems to rotate but it is actually the Earth that is rotating such that the stars seem to move about 15 degrees per hour.   And what we see in the sky changes as the Earth moves around the Sun.  Constellations move and change and can be seen at different points in the sky at different times of the night as the seasons progress.  

Most deep space objects, DSOs, are best seen when the moon is not out.  And all objects are best seen when they are at least 30 degrees above the horizon.   Lower than that and you are looking through a LOT of atmosphere.  As they rise higher in the sky they tend to look better as there is less atmosphere and less light pollution impact on the sky.  Keep this in mind as you plan your viewing and try to focus on things that are 40 to 70 degrees above the horizon.  Higher than that can be uncomfortable with binoculars.

The exercises incorporate star hopping and use degrees and fields of view to explore the sky.   Again this assumes binoculars but this can be done with a telescope or a finder scope.  Take it slow and go for the brightest targets first. 

Another source of help is the astronomy forum community.   I highly recommend the forum “Cloudy Nights”.  http://www.cloudynights.com/index/   If you are doing this alone and have no club or star gazing buddies to help you, the people on Cloudy Nights are a huge source of assistance.   You will find me there as AEAJR.   Feel free to send me a note.  I am happy to help.

I reference degrees several times.  This link provides some good reference points for using your hand to measure degrees of sky.  For example a fist held at arm’s length spans about 10 degrees.  

If you are using binoculars they are often marked with a field of view measured in degrees.  That is to say that what you see from left to right will span some number of degrees.   Your binocular may also give a measure of X many feet at 1000 yards but that is not going to be helpful here.  If yours are not marked in degrees you can use these as a rough estimate.  They will be close enough. 

  • 7X35 - typically have about an 8 degree field of view.
  • 8X40/42 – 7 degrees
  • 10X50 - 6 degrees
  • 15X70 - 4.5 degrees

How do you use this information?   Look at a field of stars in your 10X50 binoculars which likely have a 6 degree field of view, FOV.  Pick a star that is at the left side of your field of view.   Now move the binoculars so that the star is in the center.  You just moved about 3 degrees.   If you move it all the way to the right you have moved 6 degrees.   If I say that something is 12 degrees away, you will move 2 fields of view to go 12 degrees.  Now look around, you should find the target.  This is fairly easy to do and will also be used when you are using a telescope.  

When I name a star as a reference point it will be a bright star.  You can look it up in Stellarium or a paper chart or use a phone app to help you identify that star.   I may give you a second star so that if you have trouble finding the target you can use the second star as another reference point.  I hope you enjoy finding these targets.  Many of these are favorites of mine that I visit often.


Constellation of Ursa Major February through September with Polaris visible all the time

Find The Big Dipper to the North.  We are going to find a surprise in the big dipper 

Look at the handle.  Second star from the end is Mizar which appears to be a single star.  However with binoculars we can see that it is really two stars that are close together.   The second star is called Alcor.  You can’t see that it is a pair naked eye but with a 7X or higher binocular we can split the double.

Using the big dipper we can find Polaris, the North Star which is the star that the rest of the sky seems to rotate about.   If you have an equatorial mount for your telescope you will need to know Polairs. 

Using the two bright stars at the end of the dipper bowl you draw a line from the bottom star (Merak) through the top star (Dubhe) and keep going about 30 degrees, about 3 fist spans.  This will take you to Polaris in the constellation Ursa Minor.  Make note of Polaris and use it as a guidepost for your observing. 

To confirm you have Polaris, look up your latitude.   I live at 40 .8 degrees North latitude, near New York City.   That means that Polaris will be about 40.8 degrees above the horizon, about 4 fist spans.   If you live near Houston Texas, about 30 degrees North latitude, then it will be 3 fist spans, 30 degrees above the Horizon.  

You may also be able to see the little dipper as Polaris is at the end of the handle of the little dipper if you have dark skies.   My sky is very light polluted so I have trouble seeing the little dipper.


Constellations of Lyra, Cygnus and Aquila – July through September

The first thing I do each summer evening is look for Vega to orient myself.  Vega is one of the brightest stars in the sky.  How do I know I am looking at Vega?  There is a star pair near to Vega that is quite bright in binoculars.  When I look at Vega I can see that star pair too.   The pair is called the Epsilon Lyrae or the Double Double.  So look for the bright star and the : next to it and you are on Vega.

Looking from Vega we can find two other bright stars, Deneb and Altair which form the The Summer Triangle.    Altair is about 30 degrees to the SW and Deneb is about 25 degrees to the NE of Vega.  You should be able to see these from almost any northern hemisphere location.  

Now look at Deneb and just below it you will see 3 stars that form the arms of The Northern Cross .   Draw a line from Deneb down through the center one then go about 15 degrees and find Albireo .    Albireo is called a double star. It looks like one white star but it is really a blue and a yellow star that are visually lined up so they look like one star.  In a telescope at about 20X we can split Albireo into two stars.  It is beautiful to see

Now draw a line from Albireo to Altair.    Approximately half way between them (10 degrees) is the The Coathanger or Cr 399.   Using my binoculars as an example that would be about 1.5 FOV in my 7X35s ( 8 degree FOV) , 2 FOV in the 10X50s (6 degree FOV)  and 3 in the 15X70s (4.4 degree FOV) from Albireo toward Altair.   When you find it, the coat hanger will look like a hook with a cross bar, a coat hanger, not the triangular shaped coathanger.

Constellation of Cassiopeia – Most of the year and Perseus Sept to February

Look to the North or NE for the big W (or big M) in the sky.  Around December, this is almost directly overhead where I live.  That is the constellation

Now look way down, toward the eastern horizon, about 35 degrees, about 3.5 fist spans, until you find a very bright star below it that seems to twinkle and change colors.  That is Capella, one of the brightest stars in the sky.    About half way between them (about 17 degrees) and slightly to the right is a bright star but not as bright as Capella.  This is Mirphak in the constellation of Perseus.   If we look just below Mirphak in the binoculars we will see a wonderful cluster of stars that can’t be seen naked eye where I live.   This is called the Alpha Persei Cluster or Melotte 20.  It looks better to me in binoculars than in a telescope. 


Constellation of Andromeda  - The Andromeda Galaxy – Sep to December

While it doesn’t look like the pictures in the magazines you can see M31, the Andromeda Galaxy.  Unless you are under very dark skies it will likely only look like a faint smudge in the sky in binoculars and is easily overlooked.  But think of the fact that this is millions of light years away and you are looking at it in binoculars.  Cool? 

To find M31 first I find the great Square in Pegasas.  There are 3 stars that lead from the square stretching toward Mirphak.  The middle one is Mirach.  If you go up about 3 degrees to the next less bright but still obvious star then three more degrees to the next star you will likely have M31 in view.  It is about 8 degrees up from Mirach.  That is 1 FOV in the 7X35s, 1.5 in the 10X50s and 2 FOV in the 15X70s.  Look for a white fuzzy patch.  That is the Andromeda Galaxy.

Having trouble?  Perhaps this article will help.  Star-hop to the Andromeda galaxy

====================================================================================CConstellation of Taurus the Bull  October through January

You may wish to watch this video on finding these targets. 

Look for the bright star Aldebaran.   This is the eye of the bull in Taurus.  If we look at that in the binoculars we see a great cluster of stars to the right called the Hyades Cluster or Mel 25 .  Notice the house made of paired stars.  

Next look about 15 degrees toward the West of Aldebaran and you should find a naked eye cluster of stars called The Pleiades, M45 or the seven sisters.   In my light polluted skies this stands out as a triangular formation that I can see unaided.  This is a beautiful cluster that I like better in binoculars than in a telescope.   


Constellation of Orion  – November through February

Look to the SE, South or SW, depending on the time of year, and find Orion’s Belt. This is one of the most easily recognized star groups/asterisms in the sky.   You can confirm you have it because to the left, about 10 degrees, is the bright red/orange star Betelgeuse.

From the belt, without aid, look to the right and down about 3 degrees and you should see 3 groups of stars, faint but clearly visible.  This is Orion’s Sword

The top most one is NGC 1981.   This is a nice star cluster. 

Next is a sort of fuzzy looking star formation.  That is the Orion Nebula/M42.   Very nice in binoculars and easily found and enjoyed in small telescopes.  This is one of my favorite targets.

The third bright group is NGC 1980.  Another nice star cluster. 

If you go back to Betelgeuse and then go more South, about 30 degrees you should see the very bright star Sirius, which is the brightest star in the sky.   Right between, about 15 degrees from either is a nice star cluster NGC2232.  You might not be able to see it naked eye but it should be visible in your binoculars.


Constellation of Gemini – November through February

Find the very bright star Capella that we used earlier.   Note that it seems to change colors as you look at it.  Now go toward the eastern horizon, about 30 degrees and you will see a bright pair of stars which are Castor (the top star) and Pollux (the bottom star), the famous twins in Gemini. To help confirm, they are also about 35 degrees toward the Eastern Horizon from Betelgeuse

The Beehive cluster/M44 is about 15 degrees below Pollux and about 20 degrees to the left of the bright star Procyon.  This cluster is not as bright as the Pleiades or Melott 20 (Mel 20) but it should be able to be recognized in binoculars even in somewhat light polluted skies.


Constellation of Canis Major – November through February

Look SE to South to SW depending on the time of year.  You will find and find the very bright star Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.  The next three clusters are somewhat low in the sky so they may be harder to see or may be obstructed by buildings or trees, but give them a try.

M41 is an open star cluster about 4 degrees toward the southern horizon, below Sirius

M47 is an open star cluster about 12 degrees toward the eastern horizon, to the left and about 10 degrees below Sirius

NGC2362/ The Canis Majoris Cluster is about 12 degrees toward the southern horizon, below and a little to the left of Sirius.


How did you do? 

Were you able to find the targets that are currently in the sky?   Was it fun?  If you had problems discuss them with your star gazing biddies or stop by at www.cloudynights.com and post a question in the beginner forum.  Some nights are better than others based on clouds, the moon and general atmospheric conditions. 

I encourage you to first try these star hops on a paper chart, with Stellarium or with the aid of a phone/tablet app.   Note that I sometimes refer to things being left or right of something else.  Naturally that all depends on where you are and how you are facing so I try to also make reference to the horizon direction.  




Getting to know the sky is fun, once you have a few guide posts and touch points.   And, while most people think of telescopes, binoculars can be a great way to get to know your way around the sky.

Once you have worked your way through these exercises you will:

  • Know quite a few bright stars
  • Have seen asterisms and star clusters
  • Have had experience with star hopping
  • Developed skills that you will use for life
  • Have tools to help a friend get started in astronomy so you can share the sky together


Next Challenge – The Loughton List

This is an observing guide for beginners and anyone else out there


Considerations when following this plan with a telescope rather than binoculars.

The benefit of binoculars is that they are very intuitive.  You look straight at the object just as you would with your eyes.  Compared to a telescope, binoculars have a very wide field of view so it is easier to find things.   Also binoculars give you more of a 3D view because you are using both eyes.

The downside of binoculars, used hand held, is that it can be hard to hold them steady.  They are typically fixed magnification and the higher the magnification the harder they are to hold.  You can mount them on a tripod.   

Zoom binoculars will allow you to vary the magnification but they have a less than stellar reputation for long term reliability.  Some people love them so don’t let me dissuade you from trying them.   The reports I have read are that they tend to lose coordination between the two sides which messes up the view.  They also tend to have narrower fields of view than single magnification binoculars.  I own two sets of zoom binoculars with no problems but I prefer my single magnification binoculars due to the wider field of view. 

The advantage of a telescope is that it is normally mounted so the view will be as steady as the mount the telescope sits upon.  And you can change magnification by changing eyepieces.   This allows you to get closer to see more detail.

The disadvantage of a telescope is that the field of view is smaller, in some cases a lot smaller. This means you see a lot less sky so it can be harder to find things and you have less of the surrounding sky to give you context.  However many telescopes have a finder scope that can help overcome the narrow field of view.  If you have a finder scope on your telescope you will probably use that to at least start your star hopping.  Be sure you align the finder scope to the telescope or it won’t work.


How to align a telescope finder scope



Look at the specifications of the finder to see what its field of view may be.  It could be a zero magnification finder, like a Telrad or a red dot finder, so this is the same as looking at the sky with your eyes but the light projected in the finder helps you aim the telescope.  Or it may be something like a 6X30 or 8X50 finder which work like half of a binocular.  Read your manual to find the field of view.

Also note that the image may be inverted or reversed in these finders.  And follow the procedure to align them to the scope during the day.  This is critical to successfully using them with your telescope.  Then practice with them during the day. 

Take the field of view of your finder scope into account if you are using a telescope rather than binoculars and you will do fine.  Happy star hopping! 

As you move through the sky from one target to another don’t forget to take a look at the stars between the objects I pointed out.   They may not be famous and they may not have a name but I have found so many interesting star groups as I moved from target to target and some I go back to just because I like them.

Graphite Galaxy – More for telescope than binoculars, this site is filled with sketches that will better reflect what you will see in your telescope eyepiece than the typical photograph. These are actual observation reports.    http://www.graphitegalaxy.com/index.cgi?showsketch=25

The Turn Left at Orion Web Site – This is a companion web site to the book I mentioned earlier. Sketches that closely approximate what you will see in the eyepiece.

I hope you have enjoyed this guide and found value in the exercises.    These targets will become old friends that you will visit over and over.  And they will serve as the tools you can use to help you get others started in astronomy.  Feel free to share this guide with friends. 

Clear skies!

  • leonidman63, starman345, leveye and 21 others like this


Excellent work, Ed.  As a perennial newbie who has restarted his quest multiple times (beginning with the purchase of used 6" Newtonian) I now have a much better plan that will surely help my progress toward knowing the night sky.  I'll get out my ancient birding 7x35's and get going on your program.  Do you have a favorite monopod?

    • aeajr likes this

This is the monopod I use.  LOVE it!



My 15X70s live on this monopod. 

FYI, I identified a number of typos/errors in the article that was posted in April 2018.   I submitted a corrected and updated article dated June.  Hopefully they will replace the original with the corrected article.



FWIW, a new version, June 2018 has been uploaded to replace the original April version that was there.   There were some errors in the first one that have been fixed.  But the overall document and intent is the same. 

Really well done. Please keep them coming. 

I have a set of posts around eyepiece strategy that I am working into an article. 

Comet 46p/Wirtanen will be visible with binoculars in December


Over Dec 14, 15, 16 and 17 and 18, weather permitting, 7X35, 8X40 or 10X50 should be enough to see the comet. From darker areas it may be visible naked eye.


If you have a telescope use your lowest power widest view eyepiece to find the comet.  Try to find it in binoculars first.


Finder Chart showing the path of the comet as a black line running from the lower right to the upper left.


Note the numbered Xs.  Between 15 and 18, where 16 and 17 would be is the brightest point.  At that time it will be near the naked eye visible star cluster called the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters.  This is a very recognizable naked eye cluster that looks wonderful in binoculars. 


Using Dec 6 as a reference, if you step out of your house around 7 pm and look to the SE at about 45 degrees above the horizon you should see a small, triangular group of stars.  That is
the Pleiades.  Just below it is a bright orange star.  That is Aldebaran.  The comet will pass between them, closer to the Pleiades.


Using Binoculars for Star Gazing - Seeing targets in Taurus



Be sure to give it a try.  Let me know if you are successful.

I spotted the comet with 10X50s and 15X70s last night from a Bortel 5 location.   Still hard to see from my Bortel 8 home location, but it is getting brighter.


If you want to try to find it with your binoculars, I lay out a method here that is specific to tonight.  However, if you follow the process I describe you can apply it to other nights.



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