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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Garner

Studying the Stars: Self-Learning Astronomy

Updated: Aug 1, 2023

Sometimes I am so deep in the stargazing adventures that I tend to remember to write about some basic astronomy and star-watching fundamentals. Today, allow me to take a step back and review some of the most common questions I hear about astronomy and stargazing. Let me share with you; a basic guide from a self-learning astronomer.

Studying the stars

How to Become a Professional Astronomer?

Starting to become an astronomer is an exciting journey where you get to learn about space and discover new things. It's a tough path that requires you to be good at math, physics, and computer science. You can start with a bachelor's degree in astronomy or physics. In college, you will take classes like calculus, physics, and astronomy, and you may also get to use a telescope or other equipment for lab work. Doing internships and research projects can also help you get more hands-on experience.

After you finish your bachelor's degree, you will usually need to get a Ph.D. in astronomy or astrophysics. During your Ph.D., you will study and do research in a special area that interests you, like planetary science, star evolution, or cosmology. After that, you can get a postdoctoral research position to get more experience and become an expert in your field. Working in astronomy can lead to jobs at universities, research institutions, observatories, or even at government agencies like NASA.

Night shot, Starry sky, Night sky image

What Is a Study of Astronomy?

Astronomy is a scientific discipline dedicated to the study and exploration of the universe beyond our Earth's atmosphere. It examines everything from the smallest particles in space to vast galaxy clusters, providing insights into the nature of celestial bodies and the physical phenomena that occur in outer space. The field of astronomy can be further divided into several subfields, each focused on a specific aspect of space science.

For instance, planetary astronomers specialize in the study of planets, both within our solar system and beyond. Stellar astronomers focus on stars, their life cycles, and phenomena associated with them. Galactic astronomers study our Milky Way, while extragalactic astronomers extend their research to other galaxies. Cosmologists explore the universe as a whole, delving into its origin, evolution, and ultimate fate.

Studying astronomy involves multiple methods, including observational astronomy, where scientists gather data from astronomical objects and phenomena, and theoretical astronomy, which involves developing analytical

models to describe these observations.

How to Learn Astronomy for Beginners?

For those starting their journey in astronomy, it can seem a bit daunting given the vastness of the subject. However, a systematic approach can make the process enjoyable and rewarding. Here are a few steps:

  • Begin with Basic Knowledge: Start by understanding the basic concepts, such as the difference between stars and planets, the composition of our solar system, and the cycles of the moon. Resources like books, online courses, and documentaries can be helpful.

  • Learn the Night Sky: Familiarize yourself with constellations and significant celestial objects visible from your location. Star maps and apps can guide you.

  • Invest in Equipment: Start with binoculars before moving onto telescopes. Learn how to use them effectively to observe celestial bodies.

  • Join a Club: Astronomy clubs provide opportunities for shared experiences, mentorship, and learning from more experienced stargazers.

  • Keep Learning: As you progress, delve deeper into topics of interest. It could be black holes, cosmology, or astrophotography.

Remember, the journey of astronomy is about curiosity, patience, and continuous learning. The more you learn, the more there is to explore.

Can I Learn Astronomy by Myself?

Yes, you can learn astronomy independently. The field is wonderfully accessible for self-learners, thanks to many available resources.

  • Abundance of Learning Materials: In today's digital age, a multitude of resources are available to the aspiring astronomer. Books covering everything from the basics of astronomy to more advanced concepts are readily accessible. Online platforms like Coursera and Khan Academy offer free courses tailored to various skill levels. Documentaries and podcasts provide additional insights into the latest discoveries and theories in astronomy. All of this readily available knowledge allows you to learn at your own pace and according to your own interest.

  • The Power of Technology: A variety of powerful and user-friendly astronomy apps are now available for your smartphone or tablet. Apps like Star Walk, SkySafari, and Stellarium can help you navigate the night sky, identify celestial bodies, and even simulate sky conditions from different locations and times. This use of technology can facilitate your understanding of astronomy and make your learning process more interactive.

  • Nothing Like Hands-on Experience: Astronomy is a field where practical knowledge goes hand in hand with theoretical understanding. Observing the night sky, identifying different celestial bodies, and understanding the functioning of your telescope can all be self-taught. This hands-on approach not only solidifies your learning but also offers the joy of discovery and the sense of being an active participant in the field.

  • Community Support: I discovered that various astronomy clubs and online communities welcome enthusiasts from all over the world. These platforms can provide a support network where you can share your observations, ask questions, and learn from more experienced astronomers. In addition, many of these communities organize star parties and other events where you can apply your knowledge and share your love for the cosmos.

 Stars, Constellation, Universe image

Three Fascinating Astronomy Facts That Might Surprise You

  1. Astronomy reveals the universe's age: By observing celestial bodies, especially the oldest known star clusters, and measuring the rate of the universe's expansion, astronomers have estimated the universe's age to be about 13.8 billion years old. This amazing fact tells us how long it's been since the Big Bang!

  2. Venus rotates in reverse: Unlike most planets in our solar system that rotate on their axis from west to east, Venus rotates from east to west! This strange rotation, known as retrograde rotation, causes the Sun to rise in the west and set in the east on Venus, the opposite of what we experience on Earth.

  3. There's a supermassive black hole at the heart of our galaxy: At the center of the Milky Way, there's a supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A*. It has a mass four million times that of the Sun and its gravitational pull keeps our entire galaxy in orbit. Despite its enormous size and mass, we can't see it with our naked eyes, and it was only confirmed by scientists in the early 21st century using powerful telescopes and sophisticated technology.

What Is the Difference Between Astrology and Astronomy?

Astrology and astronomy are two distinct disciplines that are often confused due to their historical connection. Astronomy is a science concerned with the study of celestial objects, phenomena, and the universe as a whole. Astronomers use principles of physics and mathematics to learn about the fundamental nature of the universe, including the sun, moon, planets, stars, and galaxies.

Astrology, on the other hand, is not a science. It's a belief system that suggests there's a relationship between the positions of celestial bodies and events that occur on Earth, especially those related to human behavior and destiny. Astrologers create horoscopes based on a person's birth date, time, and location, and interpret celestial patterns to provide advice or predictions. It's essential to note that astrology's claims are not supported by scientific evidence, and most scientists consider it pseudoscience.

Horoscope, Astrology, Zodiac image

How Can I Study the Stars?

Studying the stars begins with learning how to identify them and understanding their basic characteristics. Constellations act as a useful roadmap to the night sky. Get yourself a star map or a star-gazing app and start identifying key constellations and stars visible from your location. Binoculars or a small telescope can help you get a closer look.

Once you're comfortable identifying stars, you can delve deeper. Learn about different types of stars, their life cycles, how they form, and what happens when they die. Understanding these concepts can give you a deeper appreciation for every pinpoint of light you see in the night sky.

Why Do Humans Like Stargazing?

The allure of stargazing is a human experience as old as our species. There's a mesmerizing quality to the night sky that tugs at the human spirit, sparking our curiosity and awe.

Firstly, the sheer size and spectacle of the cosmos can make our everyday problems seem minuscule, offering a refreshing perspective on life. It’s a humbling and grounding experience that reminds us of our place in the universe.

Moreover, stargazing fosters a sense of exploration and learning. Each constellation has a story tied to human history and culture. Observing them connects us to the past and to different cultures around the world, who've used the same stars to navigate, tell stories, and make sense of their universe.

Another reason humans love stargazing is its potential for discovery. Even today, amateur astronomers make significant contributions, whether spotting a supernova or tracking an asteroid. It's thrilling to contribute to our collective understanding of the universe.

Finally, there's a meditative quality to stargazing. In a fast-paced world that's always buzzing with information and digital distractions, there's peace to be found in the silent stillness of the night sky. The act of stargazing allows us to unplug, unwind, and just be in the moment.

 Sky, Light, Outdoors image

Three Unexpected and Fascinating Facts About Stargazing

  • "Seeing Stars" Isn't Just a Saying: You might be surprised to learn that you're literally seeing into the past when you gaze at stars. Light from these celestial bodies takes time to reach us, so the starlight we see tonight actually shows us how stars looked years, decades, or even millennia ago, depending on their distance.

  • Stargazing Affects Your Health: Research has shown that stargazing can have a positive impact on mental health. The peaceful and contemplative nature of the activity can help reduce stress and promote relaxation.

  • You Don't Always Need a Telescope: While telescopes can bring distant galaxies within view, there's a lot you can see with just your naked eye. On a clear night away from city lights, you might spot the Milky Way, meteor showers, or even the International Space Station moving across the sky! Try it! And if you don't believe me, just check youtube and see so many guides about how to watch the stars with the naked eye!

What Age is Stargazing For?

To put it succinctly, stargazing is for everyone who's ever looked up at the sky with wonder — and that can be at any age!

Stargazing is a universally appealing activity that knows no age limits. It can be enjoyed by children, adults, and seniors alike. For young children, it's a wonderful way to spark interest in science and the natural world. Pointing out the moon, identifying a few bright planets, or spotting the occasional shooting star can ignite a child’s wonder and curiosity.

In adolescence and adulthood, this hobby can evolve into a more sophisticated understanding of celestial mechanics, astrophysics, or even a career in the space sciences. It's also a beautiful hobby for seniors, serving as a relaxing pastime that connects them with the grandeur of the universe.

Moreover, from our family experience stargazing can be a shared experience that brings people together! Families or groups of friends can bond over a shared night under the stars. It's also a way for people across generations to connect, learn, and create lasting memories.

Watching The Stars Is My Favorite Hobby Of All

I am not an astronomer, but the wonder of the cosmos is a never-ending journey for my boys and me! I hope you will discover this wonder yourself soon. This is a fascinating and never-ending field of knowledge!

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