If you live near San Jose, California, please consider the San Jose Astronomical Association. They have an informal beginner's astronomy class, monthly lectures, and public star parties in a city park.
You need some starter "tools" -- one or both of "Sky & Telescope" and "Astronomy" magazines. Both are very good, but the latter may be a little better for beginners. Buy a copy of both, and decide which is best for you. Commonly, astronomy clubs have a discounted group subscription to each of these magazines.
As the oldest of the sciences, astronomy has a rich culture and a long and interesting history. And, as any science, it has its special language and many technical terms. Naturally, one is able to best enjoy the discussions when one speaks the lingo, so begin by reading all that you can. The public libraries have many books on most aspects of amateur astronomy and telescope-making. And if one book doesn't grab your interest, or is too advanced, try some others. You'll come back to them later.
Be sure to read biographies of the old-timers: Galileo, Messier, William and Caroline Herschel, Halley, Newton, Einstein. Fascinating! The history of astronomy is a field of study in itself.
There is a ton of Good Stuff on the World-Wide Web. Go to SJAA's "Getting Started" page for a big list of topics.
The first job is to learn how the sky moves. Get a nice planisphere, (I strongly recommend the "Night Sky"), and begin watching. Notice that the constellations move along each night and that, each evening, they are already a little further along already at dark. Hit the library and find some beginner's books. There are many.
Start at the Big Dipper and work your way around the sky to other constellations. Pay careful attention to how they lie with respect to each other. Soon you will be able to identify the bright stars during twilight, just by knowing where they were the last few nights.
Computer planetarium programs are helpful, too. For IBM-class personal computers, look for SKYGLOBE, a shareware program that is superb, showing the sky with a realistic horizon. It's an old DOS program, but runs under Windows with little or no tinkering. Download SKYGLB36.ZIP.
Of course, you want to have a telescope. But make haste slowly! Buying a telescope is not so simple; it's not like buying a tool, but more like buying a musical instrument. Which one? It depends on your interests, your budget, the strength of your back, and the size of your vehicle. What sort of music do you want to play? Similarly, what sort of astronomical objects do you wish to see and study? If you will use it often, you want one that can be set up quickly. You see why astronomy clubs are so necessary. At a club star party (observing session) you'll have a chance to see various types and sizes of scope, look through them, ask lots of questions, see various objects -- planets, Moon, star clusters, nebulae, galaxies, all of the above!
Many astronomy clubs have "loaner" scopes, so you can get some hands-on experience with transporting, setting up, and using various types and sizes of telescopes. As members buy a new scope, the older one will be offered for sale in the club newsletter. So you can see and even try out the scope, and save some money too.
Avoid the little scopes that you see in department stores. In particular, if it comes in a box that makes such claims as "484 POWER!!" run the other way. The laws of optics restrict useful magnification to about 2x per millimeter of telescope aperture. Couple that with poorly-made eyepieces, and that 484 is a very large blur. And the mountings are even worse, wobbly things that never stop shaking.
Read at least one book on telescope making, even if you don't intend to make a mirror. For one thing, you'll be able to understand more of what's being said; and you'll better appreciate the skill that goes into it. Such books also discuss mountings, so you'll learn what to watch for when are ready to make choices. And just maybe, you may get the itch to push some glass yourself!
One quickly outgrows a very small telescope, so you'll probably want to start with a six inch reflector at least. Add a few eyepieces to give magnifications of about 50, 100, and 200 power. After that, the sky's the limit.
One other thing: please, do not try to "surprise" anyone by buying a telescope for them. It's too personal as to all the choices. Instead, buy a year's membership in the local astronomy club, about $15 to $25.
It's even tougher to buy for a child, as age, attention span, etc., are very important. As above, start with membership in a club, go to local observing sessions, to their beginner's class, and see if the interest holds up.
Clear Skies, and, keep looking up!
To JVN's home page. Mail to Jim Van Nuland.
2015 Feb. 3, 0015
Fix the pointer to SJAA's advice page