10 astronomy mistakes to avoid

Asked for a telescope or a pair of binoculars this Christmas? We’ve highlighted the top mistakes in astronomy and how to avoid them well before you’ve had the chance to tear open that wrapping paper!


1. Using bad lighting

Use a red light torch. Once you’ve been in the dark for around twenty minutes or so, you eyes become naturally adapted to the low light levels. This helps you see faint stars and other objects. The moment you see a bright white light this sensitivity is lost and it will take another twenty minutes to get it back.

2. Forgetting the chart

If you’re not very familiar with the night sky, a star chart and/or a planisphere, a disc which shows you the constellations for each night of the year, is really helpful. Make sure you hold the planisphere or the star chart the correct way around. You’ll need to know where north, south, east and west are relative to your location.

3. Getting cold

 If you plan to spend a night out under the stars, make sure you are wearing good warm clothing. Pay particular attention to keeping your feet and head warm; many novice astronomers’ nights have been ruined by feeling cold and miserable. If you’re using equipment such as a telescope or camera, fingerless gloves are a useful aid.

4. Drinking alcohol

Although you may think a glass of wine will help keep you warm, it in fact has the opposite effect and makes you lose heat quicker. It can also affect your visual acuity. No, really! It is easy to have accidents in the dark by tripping over a tripod leg for example, so it’s important to keep alert. This is much easier when you’re stone cold sober.

5. Not checking your kit

From amateurs to professionals, we’ve all done it; driven miles to a dark sky site only to find that we’ve managed to leave our binoculars or our favourite eyepiece on the table at home. If you are planning to use a digital camera to take pictures, make sure you’ve got back-up memory cards and batteries. The cold can have a bad effect on batteries in particular.

6. Behaving badly

Good behaviour at a star party is a must! These gatherings of like-minded amateur astronomers are becoming increasingly popular and can be very exciting especially for first-time astronomers. Please be considerate of others, don’t use white light torches unless absolutely necessary and then keep them pointed downwards. Don’t grab other people’s telescopes without permission and, finally, keep the noise down, some folks are trying to sleep!

7. Pointing the wrong way

Another common mistake is misaligning the polar axis of an equatorial telescope mount. The polar axis of the mount must be lined up to the north celestial pole, especially if you plan to use your telescope for deep sky astro-imaging. The north celestial pole is marked by the pole star Polaris. Make sure you are quite certain which star this is, otherwise your long exposure images will show star trails!

8. Using too much magnification

A common desire for novice astronomers is to use as much magnification as possible on objects. As you increase magnification the field of view gets smaller and the image fainter. There will be a point where the image just looks a mess. Remember that you are also magnifying the problems. Often it’s better to use a lower power; even though the object is smaller it will be brighter and easier to see.

9. Rushing

Many beginners get frustrated when they can’t see through a telescope what they expect to at the first attempt. When looking through a telescope, take time to study the object you are looking at. It can take time for the eye to relax and the brain to understand what it is seeing if the object is very faint and sometimes, if conditions are not favourable, they may prevent you from viewing the object you hoped to see. Be patient and try again another night.

10. Unrealistic expectations

You’ve seen the wonderful colours in those amazing images of nebulae and galaxies, but it doesn’t look like that when you use your equipment to look for yourself! The colours are real (usually), but the human eye is not sensitive enough to detect them. But it is possible to see colour in objects out in space. Because of the eye’s limitations though, there are only some objects that show colour well.

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