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Comets Visitors From Beyond

(category: Astronomy, Word count: 730)
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The one thing we love the most in the world of astronomy is a good mystery. And if there was ever a mysterious and yet very powerful force of nature that we witness in the night skies, it is the coming of the mighty comet.

The arrival of a comet within view of Earth is an event of international importance. Witness the huge media attention that the Haley or Hale-Bopp have had when they have come within view The sight of these amazing space objects is simultaneously frightening and awe inspiring.

Above all, it is during these comet viewings that the astronomer comes out in all of us. But what is a comet? Where did it come from? And how does it get that magnificent tail?

We should never confuse comets with asteroids. Asteroids are small space rocks that come from an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. While still quite stunning to see, they pale in comparison to the arrival of a comet. Asteroids also have received considerable study by the scientific community.

Not as much is known about comets. As a rule, comets are considerably larger than asteroids. The composition of a comet is a mixture of nebulous, gasses, ice, dust and space debris. One scientist called the composition of a comet as similar to a "dirty snowball" because the composition is so diverse and changeable. The center or nucleus of a comet is usually quiet solid but the "snowball" materials often create a "cloud" around that nucleus that can become quite large and that extends at great lengths behind the comet as it moves through space. That trailing plume is what makes up the comet's magnificent tail that makes it so exciting to watch when a comet comes within view of Earth.

The origins of comets is similarly mysterious. There are a number of theories about where they come from but it is clear that they originate from outside our solar system, somewhere in deep space. Some have speculated they are fragments left over from the organization of planets that get loose from whatever gravitational pull and are sent flying across space to eventually get caught up in the gravity of our sun bringing them into our solar system.

Another theory is that they come from a gaseous cloud called the Oort cloud which is cooling out there after the organization of the sun. As this space debris cools, it gets organized into one body which then gathers sufficient mass to be attracted into the gravity of our solar system turning into a fast moving comet plummeting toward our sun. However, because of the strong gravitational orbits of the many planets in our solar system, the comet does not always immediately collide with the sun and often takes on an orbit of its own.

The life expectancy of comets varies widely. Scientists refer to a comet that is expected to burn out or impact the sun within two hundred years as a short period comet whereas a long period comet has a life expectancy of over two hundred years. That may seem long to us as earth dwellers but in terms of stars and planets, this is a very short life as a space object indeed.

Scientists across the globe have put together some pretty impressive probes to learn more about comets to aid our understanding of these visitors from beyond. In 1985, for example, the United States put a probe into the path of the comet Giacobini-Zinner which passed through the comets tail gathering tremendous scientific knowledge about comets. Then in 1986, an international collation of scientists were able to launch a probe that was able to fly close to Haley's comet as it passed near Earth and continue the research.

While science fiction writers and tabloid newspapers like to alarm us with the possibility of a comet impacting the earth, scientists who understand the orbits of comets and what changes their paths tell us this is unlikely. That is good because some comets reach sizes that are as big as a planet so that impact would be devastating. For now, we can enjoy the fun of seeing comets make their rare visits to our night sky and marvel at the spectacular shows that these visitors from beyond put on when they are visible in the cosmos.

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The Basics Of Buying A Telescope

(category: Astronomy, Word count: 708)
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There is a moment in the life of any aspiring astronomer that it is time to buy that first telescope. It's exciting to think about setting up your own viewing station whether that is on the deck of your home or having a powerful but mobile telescope set up to take to the remove countryside to really get a good shot at some breath taking star gazing.

The last thing we would want to do is to take away any of the "fun" of your hobby of astronomy because the joy of what we do as star gazers is a big part of the appeal. But unlike many other hobbies, ours is a passion of science, of learning and of discovery. And don't kid yourself, even a hobbyist with a limited telescopic set up can see some amazing things in the stars. So let's be sure you invest in a solid piece of equipment that you can continue to grow with as your knowledge and ability as an astronomer grows. But how do we do that?

Meet the Geeks.

Now we use the term "telescope geeks" lovingly because any of us who are devoted to our love of astronomy eventually become telescope geeks. And these are the type of people who will know exactly how to evaluate your needs in terms of where you are right now and where you want to go as your hobby grows with you. So if you have not yet associated with a local astronomy club, now is the time to do it.

Start rubbing elbows with people who live and breathe telescopes. Their input is a hundred times more reliable than what a sales brochure or that salesman might have to say because the "telescope geeks" have been where you are, made the mistakes and are eager to help you avoid those same mistakes.

Size Matters

In the world of telescopes, the sales people see, to try to baffle us with all the bells and whistles of their hottest selling model. One of the big check points that is often pushed is the amplification level of the telescope lens. While that is a factor that is worth noting, when it comes to a telescope lens, the old phrase "size matters" is a good guideline.

Just remember that your telescope lens works best when it takes in the most light it can from the object you are viewing. So the wider the diameter of the lens, the better a view you are going to get. So don't fall for the amplification level only. Carefully evaluate the lens size so you have the right fit for what you want to do.

It Has to Stand on Its Own Feet.

If you are going to set up a permanent telescope station, then you can bolt the unit down so it is well supported. But many of us have to take our telescopes out into the country for optimum use. So the stand has to be strong and flexible so we can set up the telescope on uneven turf but still feel secure that this important and expensive piece of equipment is going to stand on its own without fear of it falling during our observation time.

We already mentioned strong and flexible as evaluation guides for the telescope stand but add in ease of use as well. You have to be able to set your telescope up and break it down quickly and easily when you are on a remote viewing. You may even find yourself setting up or taking down your telescope in the dark or by lantern or flashlight if you are taking advantage of the great star displays in the late night sky that make this hobby so exciting.

These are the basics of what to look for in your new telescope. Finally, make sure the telescope can be enhanced and expanded without having to throw the first unit away and buy something completely new. You want your telescope to grow as your knowledge and skills grow. If your first telescope meets all of these requirements, you are off on the right foot on a long and enjoyable career as an amateur astronomer.

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The History Of Astronomy

(category: Astronomy, Word count: 730)
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If you have a passion for star gazing, telescopes, the Hubble and the universe and this thing we call "astronomy", you are far from alone. Of course, we know that astronomy is a highly respected science that has produced some of the most amazing accomplishments of the twentieth century. On top of that, it is a thriving area of fascination and one of the most exciting hobby areas going with thousands of astronomy clubs and tens of thousands of amateur astronomers watching the stars every night just like we do.

But did you know that astronomy is one of the oldest and most respected sciences of them all? As far back as before the times of Christ, the wise and thinking people of societies of the time were looking at the stars and finding ways to track and chart them. We who love the hobby of astronomy can chart a proud history of astronomers that tracks across millennia and through virtually every culture in civilization. So for the sake of having some really good trivia to toss around at astronomy club next week, let's highlight some of the big moments in the history of astronomy.

For many centuries the science of astronomy was not distinct from the practice of astrology. For clarity, astronomy is the study of the stars, planets, and the universe with a clearly scientific approach. Astrology is the study of the zodiac signs and how they influence our growth, our personalities and our daily lives. In modern times, we as people of science discount the astrological side and focus on the astronomy of the heavens. But they were one study for millennia before the age of science made them separate.

There is historical evidence that astronomy was a recognized science as far back as the Babylonian civilization hundreds of years before Christ. But the study of the stars was not limited to one country. There were similar movements going on in China, India, and Ancient Egypt and all over the Arabian Peninsula. The integration of astronomy and religion is so prevalent that we see it in the Christmas story in which the Magi, Zoroastrian priesthood probably from the equivalent of ancient Syria, followed a star to the Christ child. These astronomers were also astrologers and it was that mixture that lead them to be part of this historic event.

The first book on astronomy was written by Ptolemy during the Greek empire. Since that historic publication, the who's who list of great astronomers charts a path right through the center of modern science including Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Sir Issac Newton, Jung, Michelangelo, Benjamin Franklin and more recently even Einstein and Stephen Hawkings would join that noble list. It seemed that from the renaissance on to this day, virtually any man or woman of intellect dabbled in astronomy at least somewhat and it has always been considered a sign of the learned to know about the universe and things astronomical.

Astronomy has had an impact on so many areas of our lives that we really don't recognize. Many words in our language had their roots in astronomy such as...

*Influenza which comes from the Latin root word for influence. This reflects an early belief that the position of the moon and stars may influence health and cause or cure disease.

*Disaster which comes from the Latin for "bad star".

*Lunatic which has the root word "Luna" in it which is the Latin word for moon. This highlights the long held belief that is even prevalent today that irrational behavior and even wild and dangerous things happen during a full moon.

Astronomy and its interrelationship with astrology has also influenced culture, education and religion to a very large extent over the centuries. In the English language, the first two days or our week, Sunday and Monday are a reference to astronomy as their literal interpretations would be "The Day of the Sun" and "The Day of the Moon."

So if you have found astronomy becoming a consuming passion in your thoughts and what fascinates you about the world we live in, you are in great company as this area of study has been a major part of culture and thought virtually since the dawn of civilization. And it will continue to fascinate mankind for as long as those beautiful stars shine over our heads.

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Look Up In The Sky

(category: Astronomy, Word count: 633)
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When television was young, there was a hugely popular show based on the still popular fictional character of Superman. The opening of that show had a familiar phrase that went, "Look. Up in the sky. It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Superman!" How beloved Superman has become in our culture and the worldwide fascination with extraterrestrials and all things cosmic only emphasizes that there is a deep curiosity in all humans about nature and astronomy, even if many people would not know to call it astronomy.

Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences of all time. When archeologists unearth ancient civilizations, even as far back as the cavemen, they invariably find art that shows mans unquenchable fascination with the stars. To this day, you can easily get an animated discussion at any gathering on the topic of "Is there intelligent life on other planets?"

Many have tried to explain mankind's seeming obsession with outer space as a result of an ancient memory or as part of mankind's eternal nature. Whatever the cause, people of every age and every nation share this one deep interest, to know more about the universe that our tiny planet is just a part of.

It's rather strange because the actual conduct of a serious student of astronomy is really not the stuff of high adventure. You will never see a "Raiders of the Lost Arc" or "Jurassic Park" movie made about an astronomer. Excitement for lovers of this science is to stay up all night watching the cosmos through a powerful telescope. But that fact does not seem to discourage the tens of thousands to get into astronomy each year and the huge interest worldwide with the stars, the planets and the universe.

There may be no other universal human fascination that does so much to make national boundaries and even international animosity seem to evaporate. Other than the Olympic movement, international cooperation to achieve great strides for human kind in space seems to go forward without interruption even when the nations cooperating in those projects are virtually at war back on the surface of the earth. It is a strange thing to watch as Russian, American and other astronauts work together like brothers on space missions even as their home nations are busily pointing missiles at each other back at home. It almost makes you think that we should put more energy and money into the space program, not less because it seems to be a bond that heals tension rather than creates it.

Why is astronomy so exciting even though we have no dinosaurs, moving animals or any real danger to most who are obsessed with the discipline? It may go back to a basic curiosity that all human beings have about their natural habitat and this big mysterious thing out there called space. Maybe it goes back to that old saying at the beginning of Star Trek that space is "the final frontier".

But we all share that ongoing sense of excitement each time we take out our telescopes and gaze directly at the cosmos above us. We feel we are looking at the very dawn of time. And in light of the issues with the speed of light which means that many of the twinkling stars out there are really light from those stars that started their journey to us thousands of years ago, we are in actually looking directly at the past every time we direct our eyes skyward.

But we don't have to worry about ever conquering the final frontier and finding our curiosity satisfied. There will always be more to learn and discover in the world of astronomy. And it is likely that mankind's curiosity about astronomy is just as limitless as well.

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The Night Sky

(category: Astronomy, Word count: 689)
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No matter how far along you are in your sophistication as an amateur astronomer, there is always one fundamental moment that we all go back to. That is that very first moment that we went out where you could really see the cosmos well and you took in the night sky. For city dwellers, this is a revelation as profound as if we discovered aliens living among us. Most of us have no idea the vast panorama of lights that dot a clear night sky when there are no city lights to interfere with the view.

Sure we all love the enhanced experience of studying the sky using binoculars and various sizes and powers of telescopes. But I bet you can remember as a child that very first time you saw the fully displayed clear night sky with all the amazing constellations, meters and comets moving about and an exposure of dots of light far to numerous to ever count.

The best way to recapture the wonder of that moment is to go out in the country with a child of your own or one who has never had this experience and be there at that moment when they gaze up and say that very powerful word that is the only one that can summarize the feelings they are having viewing that magnificent sky. That word is - "Wow".

Probably the most phenomenal fact about what that child is looking at that is also the thing that is most difficult for them to grasp is the sheer enormity of what is above them and what it represents. The very fact that almost certainly, virtually every dot up there in the sky is another star or celestial body that is vastly larger that Earth itself, not by twice or ten times but by factors of hundreds and thousands, can be a mind blowing idea to kids. Children have enough trouble imagining the size of earth itself, much less something on such a grand scope as outer space.

But when it comes to astronomy, we do better when we fall into deeper and deeper levels of awe at what we see up there in the night sky. Some amazing facts about what the children are looking at can add to the goose bumps they are already having as they gaze eyes skyward. Facts like...

*Our sun is part of a huge galaxy called the Milky Way that consists of one hundred billion stars just like it or larger. Show them that one hundred billion is 100,000,000,000 and you will se some jaws drop for sure.

*The milky was is just one of tens of billions of galaxies each of which has billions of stars in them as well. In fact, the Milky Way is one of the small galaxies.

*If you wanted to drive across the Milky Way, it would take you 100,000 years. But you can't get there driving the speed limit. You have to drive five trillion, eight hundred million miles per year to get all the way across that fast.

*Scientists calculate that the Milky Way is 14 billion years old.

These little fun facts should get a pretty spirited discussion going about the origins of the universe and about the possibility of space travel or if there are life on other planets. You can challenge the kids to calculate that if every star in the Milky Way supported nine planets and if only one of them was habitable like earth is, what are the odds that life would exist on one of them? I think you will see some genuine excitement when they try to run those numbers.

Such discussion can be fun, exciting, and full of questions. Don't be too hasty to shut down their imaginations as this is the birth of a lifelong love of astronomy that they are experiencing. And if you were there that first moment when they saw that night sky, you will re-experience your own great moment when you was a child. And it might set off a whole new excitement about astronomy in you all over again.

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Radio Astronomy

(category: Astronomy, Word count: 624)
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For most of us, the idea of astronomy is something we directly connect to "stargazing", telescopes and seeing magnificent displays in the heavens. And to be sure, that is the exciting area of astronomy that accounts for it's huge popularity. So to the uninitiated, the idea of "radio astronomy" seems strange. There are two reasons for that. First is that humans are far more visual than audio oriented. And the second is that radio astronomy doesn't really involve "listening" to the cosmos except to the extent that scientists who use this sophisticated form of "stargazing" do not rely on visual study to conduct their work.

To appreciate what is really exciting about radio astronomy, first we have to shift how we view astronomy. That is because to professional astronomers, studying the universe is more about frequencies than it is about visual documentation of phenomenon. This takes us back to Physics 101.

Light, obviously, is the physical phenomenon that empowers our ability to use our visual confirmation system, e.g. our eyes to appreciate something, in this case the stars. So when we look up at the heavens, we can see the light emitting from a star or reflecting from a planet or moon. In many cases, if we see a far away star, we are actually seeing it hundreds or thousands of years ago because that is how long it takes for that light to cross the universe and be visible in our sky. That alone is a pretty mind blowing idea.

Now light itself is a pretty strange substance. But to our astronomy scientists, light is just another energy that exists in a certain frequency. Now, we tend to think of frequencies when we talk about sound waves. In scientific terms light, energy and sound are just a few forms of the same thing, frequencies of energy that are emulating from a source.

Now we get to why radio astronomy is so necessary. The range of frequency that light occupies in the big spectrum of frequencies is really pretty small. To put that more bluntly, we can only "see" a tiny part of the universe that is actually there. Now when you look up in the night sky and it is so overwhelming, when you then that we are seeing just a tiny amount of what is actually going on up there, again, our minds can get pretty overwhelmed.

Radio astronomy uses sophisticated sensor equipment to study ALL of the frequencies of energy coming to us from the cosmos. In that way, these scientists can "see" everything that is going on out there and so get a precise idea of how the stars look, behave now and will behave in the future.

For some of us who have heard about radio astronomy, we think of it in terms of "listening" for signs of life in the universe. And yes, SETI, or "the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence" is a part of radio astronomy, albeit a tiny part. But of much greater importance is how radio astronomy has empowered serious astronomers (that is those who get paid to do it) to study stars many light years away, to study black holes which we could never see with our telescopes and to gather research and data about the whole of the universe that otherwise would be impossible to know and understand.

This is important work that is constantly ongoing in the world of astronomy. It is worth keeping up with and learning more about as we have barely scratched the surface in our brief discussion today. But understanding how important radio astronomy is will only deepen and make more meaningful your love and grasp of this big field of knowledge known as astronomy.

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Pictures In The Sky

(category: Astronomy, Word count: 742)
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One of the earliest activities we engaged in when we first got into astronomy is the same one we like to show our children just as soon as their excitement about the night sky begins to surface. That is the fun of finding constellations. But finding constellations and using them to navigate the sky is a discipline that goes back virtually to the dawn of man. In fact, we have cave pictures to show that the more primitive of human societies could "see pictures" in the sky and ascribe to them significance.

Constellations also have been important in culture and navigation long before we had sophisticated systems of navigation. Early explorers, particularly by sea, relied exclusively on the night sky to help them find their way to their destination. In fact, when "Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492? and "discovered" America, he could not have done it without astronomy and the help of navigation of the cosmos, much of which is made possible because of the important constellations.

When learning to find the great constellations in the sky, we use the "find one, you found them all" system. That is because the easiest constellation to find will guide us to the rest of them. That constellation is The Big Dipper. Look to the northern sky on a clear night and widen your field of vision from just focusing on one star and it will pretty much jump out at you. In will look like a big kitchen pot or ladle, right side up in the fall, upside down in the spring.

When you have the big dipper under control, you can pretty easily find the North Star. This is the star that those ancient sailors depended on the most to find their way to land. Start with the far edge of the bowl of the Big Dipper, the side that is opposite the handle. There are two stars that make up that side of the bowl. So start at the bottom of the pot and mentally draw a line to the top star of the bowl. These two stars are "pointing" to the North Star. Just keep following that line, curving a bit with the sky and the bright star that you come to is the North Star. You can impress your friends or family if you know the scientific name for this star is Polaris.

The North Star can then take you to The Little Dipper. The key here is that Polaris is the tip of the handle of The Little Dipper and the bowl hangs down from the handle like it was hanging up in the kitchen. Be patient with this one as the stars that make up The Little Dipper are dimmer than The Big Dipper. But it pretty cool once you find it.

These are the obvious starting places but from The Little Dipper you can find the constellation known as "The Swan" or Cygnus. Just use the same system you used to find The North Star but continue drawing that line that started in those pointer stars in the bowl of The Big Dipper. Go about half as far as you went to find Polaris and you are there. You will see a trapezoid of stars about as big as The Big Dipper. This trapezoid forms the tail of The Swan.

That line that we are drawing from the pointer stars is our roadmap to another well known constellation which is Cassiopeia. If you use that line and imagine you are directly under the two pointer stars, you will se a big "W" just off to the left of the line. This is the constellation Cassiopeia, the wife of the king of Egypt, Cepheus, in Greek mythology. There are so many more wonderful constellations to find and a good star map can continue your quest.

Like Cassiopeia, all of the constellations have wonderful stories and myths related to Greek culture. It is just as fun to find the star clusters themselves as it is to enjoy the rich culture related to that constellation. For all of the signs of the zodiac, for example, there is a related constellation in the sky. So whether you are serious about astrology or not, its fun to find the constellation that relates to your "sign" (or that of your children) and be able to see how the ancients related to these pictures in the sky.

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How To Look Up

(category: Astronomy, Word count: 608)
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The beauty of astronomy is that anybody can do it. From the tiniest baby to the most advanced astrophysicist, there is something for anyone who wants to enjoy astronomy. In fact, it is a science that is so accessible that virtually anybody can do it virtually anywhere they are. All they have to know how to do is to look up.

It really is amazing when you think about it that just by looking up on any given night, you could see virtually hundreds of thousands of stars, star systems, planets, moons, asteroids, comets and maybe a even an occasional space shuttle might wander by. It is even more breathtaking when you realize that the sky you are looking up at is for all intents and purposes the exact same sky that our ancestors hundreds and thousands of years ago enjoyed when they just looked up.

There is something timeless about the cosmos. The fact that the planets and the moon and the stars beyond them have been there for ages does something to our sense of our place in the universe. In fact, many of the stars we "see" with our naked eye are actually light that came from that star hundreds of thousands of years ago. That light is just now reaching the earth. So in a very real way, looking up is like time travel.

Everybody knows how to look up. Children first discover the amazing light show on display for free every clear night by just looking up. You can probably remember that very first time you noticed that explosion of stars above you when you were a child. Now it is time to foster that same love of astronomy in your own children. You have to teach them how to look up.

While anyone can look up and fall in love with the stars at any time, the fun of astronomy is learning how to become more and more skilled and equipped in star gazing that you see and understand more and more each time you look up. Here are some steps you can take to make the moments you can devote to your hobby of astronomy much more enjoyable.

*Get out of town. The furtherest you can get from the lights of the city, the more you will see in the night sky.

*Know what you are looking at. It is great fun to start learning the constellations, how to navigate the night sky and find the planets and the famous stars. There are web sites and books galore to guide you.

*Get some history. Learning the background to the great discoveries in astronomy will make your moments star gazing more meaningful. It is one of the oldest sciences on earth so find out the greats of history who have looked at these stars before you.

*Get a geek. Astronomy clubs are lively places full of knowledgeable amateurs who love to share their knowledge with you. For the price of a coke and snacks, they will go star gazing with you and overwhelm you with trivia and great knowledge.

*Know when to look. Not only knowing the weather will make sure your star gazing is rewarding but if you learn when the big meteor showers and other big astronomy events will happen will make the excitement of astronomy come alive for you.

And when all is said and done, get equipped. Your quest for newer and better telescopes will be a lifelong one. Let yourself get addicted to astronomy and the experience will enrich every aspect of life. It will be an addiction you never want to break.

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Beyond The Naked Eye

(category: Astronomy, Word count: 645)
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It's hard to say when in our lives each of us become aware of this thing called "astronomy". But it is safe to say that at some point on our lives, each and every one of us has that moment when we are suddenly stunned when we come face to face with the enormity of the universe that we see in the night sky. For many of us who are city dwellers, we don't really notice that sky up there on a routine basis. The lights of the city do a good job of disguising the amazing display that is above all of our heads all of the time.

So it might be that once a year vacation to a camping spot or a trip to a relative's house out in the country that we find ourselves outside when the spender of the night sky suddenly decides to put on it's spectacular show. If you have had that kind of moment when you were literally struck breathless by the spender the night sky can show to us, you can probably remember that exact moment when you could say little else but "wow" at what you saw.

That "Wow" moment is what astrology is all about. For some, that wow moment becomes a passion that leads to a career studying the stars. For a lucky few, that wow moment because an all consuming obsession that leads to them traveling to the stars in the space shuttle or on one of our early space missions. But for most of us astrology may become a pastime or a regular hobby. But we carry that wow moment with us for the rest of our lives and begin looking for ways to look deeper and learn more about the spectacular universe we see in the millions of stars above us each night.

To get started in learning how to observe the stars much better, there are some basic things we might need to look deeper, beyond just what we can see with the naked eye and begin to study the stars as well as enjoy them. The first thing you need isn't equipment at all but literature. A good star map will show you the major constellations, the location of the key stars we use to navigate the sky and the planets that will appear larger than stars. And if you add to that map some well done introductory materials into the hobby of astronomy, you are well on your way.

The next thing we naturally want to get is a good telescope. You may have seen a hobbyist who is well along in their study setting up those really cool looking telescopes on a hill somewhere. That excites the amateur astronomer in you because that must be the logical next step in the growth of your hobby. But how to buy a good telescope can be downright confusing and intimidating.

Before you go to that big expense, it might be a better next step from the naked eye to invest in a good set of binoculars. There are even binoculars that are suited for star gazing that will do just as good a job at giving you that extra vision you want to see just a little better the wonders of the universe. A well designed set of binoculars also gives you much more mobility and ability to keep your "enhanced vision" at your fingertips when that amazing view just presents itself to you.

None of this precludes you from moving forward with your plans to put together an awesome telescope system. Just be sure you get quality advice and training on how to configure your telescope to meet your needs. Using these guidelines, you will enjoy hours of enjoyment stargazing at the phenomenal sights in the night sky that are beyond the naked eye.

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