Astronomy Beginner Info

What is This?

I that this can be a helpful guide to people who are new to amateur astronomy. I meet people at ASKC events and quite frequently I wish I had a single place I could point them as a helpful reference to at least get them started. That is the goal here. If you are here because I sent you, I'm glad you made it. If you are here from somewhere else, I'm glad you made it too. Astronomy is a great hobby, I hope this is helpful to you and that this is just the start of a long journey in astronomy.

I'm going to try to keep this up to date as I talk to people and try to remember what they asked about and what I feel is lacking on this site.

You will probably notice that I will be mentioning being a member of ASKC several times. If you live in the KC area, joining and attending events is by far the best way to get into the hobby and get some direction. If you aren't from the KC area, finding a club near you is likewise the best way to learn.

Don't Buy a Telescope, Not Yet

If you already bought one, that's okay. You can do plenty of astronomy before getting a telescope to get a feel for the hobby. If you go to some events, you can even look through plenty of telescopes before buying one. If you are an ASKC member we have loaner scopes that you can use first to also test the waters.

I like the way that The Backyard Astronomer's Guide puts it, "Buy a telescope only when you know what it can show."[1]

Binocular Master Observer -- check this out to see just how much you can do with binoculars! -- "To prove that point, all 76 objects in Appendix A (Easy, Tough, and Challenge objects) were observed with a pair of 7×35 Tasco binoculars purchased at Wal-Mart..."[2]

The Lunar Observing Program has a bunch of naked-eye and binocular targets to start with.

Where to Start?

The single best thing you can do to learn is to find events you can go to, go, and then ask every single question that pops into your head.

Observing vs Information

Observing -- learn at least a few constellations, go to some star parties or public nights, try out binocular astronomy (especially if you already have binoculars), save buying a telescope until you have had some time with the hobby.

Information -- I like the Crash Course Astronomy series.

Intro to astronomy from the Astronomical League. Has some great overview info.

Astrophotography is a bit of an elephant in the room as far as starting. Generally, you will find people recommend against starting with astrophotography, myself included. That being said, there have been some scopes coming out recently that may make the barrier to entry a little lower. We will have to wait and see on that. For now, I still recommend against trying to start with astrophotography.

Astronomical League Observing Programs

What is the Astronomical League? It's an astronomy organization created by amateur astronomers for amateur astronomers. They have created a lot of certificates and awards that you can earn to help encourage you to look at different things when you go out.

Below I've listed some observing programs and observing resources. These are great ways to have a roadmap of things to do in the astronomy hobby. If you are a complete beginner I recommend starting with the Beyond Polaris Observing Program.

The Constellation Hunter Program asks that you go out at different times of the year and sketch out various constellations. There is also the Alternate Constellation Program which focuses on historical constellations and constellations from various cultures in different parts of the world.

Beyond Polaris, Constellation Hunter, and Alternate Constellations don't require a telescope or binoculars. Many folks will tell you the next best step is getting a pair of binoculars. It may seem like there wouldn't be much to see through binoculars, but the AL has an entire Binocular Master Observer Award that has several programs to do. One of them is the Binocular Messier Program

The Observer Award is the first part of the Master Observer progression and can be a great overarching guide for what programs you might want to do. Beyond Polaris and Constellation Hunter both count toward earning the observer award, so if you do those you'll be well on your way.

The Messier Program has you do observations of all 110 objects in the Messier catalog. It is also one of the programs required if you decide to work toward the Observer Award. It is important to note that you can do the entire program with a relatively small telescope (the program lists a 3-inch scope as being the minimum feasible size).

The Sketching Program is a great way to enhance your observing skills. Sketching forces you to take your time and really look at the thing you are observing. I am a proponent of it, even though my art skills are mediocre at best. I might add an image of one of my sketches here later.

There are also helpful guides for how to determine seeing and transparency and how to write good descriptions for your observation log.

In the case that you have decided to ignore my, and many others, advice against starting with astrophotography. I will at least point you to the Foundations of Imaging Program

If you don't have binoculars yet, you will find that there are several programs that have naked-eye observations. You can hop around programs and record observations for different ones as you go. I'll try to build up a list of some examples of this at some point.

By completing a program and submitting the information according to the program's page, you can get a certificate for completing it. You need to be a member of the Astronomical League if you want the certificate. If you are an ASKC member, you are already part of the Astronomical League. If you are in a different club, you may also be a member. If you don't have a club around you, don't worry, you can still join the Astronomical League as a member-at-large.

A warning I would give is to not feel too strongly coupled to completing observing programs. If they are up your alley, great. However, if they kill your enthusiasm to go out and look for stuff, then don't worry about them.

Alphabetical list of all AL observing programs

AL program selector grid

Landing Page for the AL Observing Program division

The RASC also has a few observing programs

Star Maps

Stellarium is my favorite star app. If you see me looking up stars on my phone, it's in Stellarium. And it's free. The free version for desktop has all of the features. The mobile app has a free version and a premium upgrade. Unfortunately, a lot of good features are behind that upgrade. However, you can do a lot of observing with the free version and the premium is a one-time payment for less than most star atlases. I think it's worth it. Try it out for free, see what you think.

The jury is still out for me on physical atlases and planispheres. I'm working on it. The star atlas I own is the Sky and Telescope Pocket Sky Atlas, this recommendation may change. Frankly, Stellarium is free, so you should just start with that, in my humble opinion.


Crash Course Astronomy -- Great channel focusing on telescopes -- Has great videos. Some of his videos have that Nat Geo / Discovery Channel feel. -- Does a lot of great videos about news in astronomy and explains them as an expert. She is also in some of the videos on Deep Sky Videos. -- focuses on helping beginners. has a great series on finding things such as Messier objects. -- By the amazing Brady Haran. This channel has a playlist of videos about every Messier object. -- This is a video by Dr. Becky on color-in-space images. I think it is mostly focused on professional astronomy setups, and I'm not familiar enough with astrophotography to know if there is a significant difference from amateur setups. However, this gives some great tools for you to use to talk about colors in the images of astrophotographers you meet. -- A Series from PBS, I haven't had a chance to check it out yet. Might be a great resource for parents as well.

Intro to Astronomy

Yale Astronomy

OpenStax Lectures

Professor Dave Explains Astronomy

A Reddit discussion about favorite podcasts and channels

Podcasts -- Podcast from some great folks down in Australia, they cover astronomy news and answer listener questions. -- Neil DeGrasse Tyson's podcast


If you are an ASKC member, you have access to the ASKC library. There are some great guides in there that are worth checking out. Also lots of other great books.

Your local library is also likely to have books on astronomy. Look for Dewey Decimal 520. Its neighbor at 530 is Physics, which will also have some great books that apply to Astronomy. If you are a student or have access to a university library, they will have some more in-depth stuff. Look for QB for astronomy and QC for Physics, assuming they use the Library of Congress system.

Your local library probably also has an app for eBooks and audiobooks. These are great. Ask your librarian about it.

Magazines -- this one is free

For Parents

Sky Puppy Observing Program -- An observing program from the Astronomical League aimed at giving kids 10 and under a starting point in exploring astronomy.

Youth Astronomer Observing Program -- This is an Astronomical League program aimed at giving people 17 and under a starting point in astronomy.

Citizen Science

Real Science Research you can help with: -- this is for measuring light pollution. Might be a fun one for when you are learning constellations. You can do it from home.

Zooniverse -- Various crowdsourced research projects.

This list from the Astronomical League -- this list has a few levels of involvement.

If You Are an ASKC Member

General Meetings are great to meet people and learn. We also do 30-Minute Astronomy before the meeting where you can learn even more.

We do events for members, keep an eye on your email.

Keep an eye on Cosmic Messenger. You'll find events both club-related and astronomical events. You'll also find some articles on astronomy.

Night Sky Network is an online calendar we use to track events. Night Sky Network is hosted by NASA's JPL and run by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, they do a monthly live stream that is also a great resource for learning. The public-facing version is here.

As a member, you can also reserve a private night at Powell Observatory.


Powell Observatory Clear Dark Sky Chart - this site is focused on forecasting astronomy-related conditions

Powell Observatory Astrospheric - this site also focuses on astronomy, its UI is a little more user-friendly. It's ultimately the same idea.

Winter Stargazing Tips - some tips here on braving the cold to stargaze.

Powell Observatory Civil Weather

Light Pollution

Light Pollution Map - you can find out what level of light pollution you have here. A lot of people will refer to the Bortle scale when referring to light pollution. You can find that on this map as well using the color.

What are Catalogs? Who is Messier?

Catalogs are lists of objects in the sky. Some of them have very specific focuses. Some of them are more general.

Charles Messier was an astronomer whose focus was primarily on finding comets. While looking for comets he created a catalog of objects that were 'not comets'. That catalog is called the Messier Catalog and is by far what Messier is best known for today. When you hear people refer to things as 'M 31' or 'M 1', they are using the Messier number for that object. Here is a cool site from NASA with info on all of them.

This convention of letter(s) followed by a number is used for many other catalogs that you may hear mentioned. I'll list some of the more popular ones:

The New General Catalog. Objects will be prefixed with 'NGC'. Ex: NGC 3982

The Bennett Catalog is kind of like the Messier Catalog for the Southern Hemisphere. Objects prefixed with either 'B' or 'Ben'. Ex: B 1

The Index Catalog. Objects prefixed with 'IC'. Ex: IC 1

The Caldwell Catalog. Objects prefixed with 'C' or just 'Caldwell'. Ex: C 1

Other Useful Links


Astronomical League

Calendar of Astronomical Events

Dark Sky International -- Advocacy organization for light pollution.

Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) -- They are also on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Nasa since 1995. Great way to get a daily tidbit of info.

Space Weather -- Great info about sunspots and aurora -- Another list of resources from the open stax free astronomy book.

Cloudy Nights -- A forum dedicated to amateur astronomy.

RASC -- the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada -- why is the sky blue


  1. Dickinson, Terence, and Alan Dyer. The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide. Fourth Edition., 2021.

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