Where and how do I start Astronomy? I hear question often. The short answer is to start simple and get the basics sorted out first.
Basic equipment to get you started.
There is much written about which "first" telescope to buy and how much to spend on those "starter" eyepieces. However a lot can be done before spending money on these more expen$ive items. For under $100 (not counting binoculars) the following essential items are all that's required to start observing and learning the basics about the night sky. Some good observing tips, a simple challenge, combined with some curiosity should be all that's needed. While it might be ideal to observe from a dark country location it is much more practical to observe from your own backyard. This is especially true when learning constellations and the brightest stars. Hunting for deep sky objects (DSOs) will come later. Just find a shaded corner away from the local streetlight and other annoyances.
Get one -or- get lost I say!
This simple device is a cardboard all sky map, usually wedge between two sheets of plastic to keep it dry (think dew), that shows what is overhead. Remembering that only half of the sky is visible at on time (ground is in the way) the planisphere first needs to be set for the current date and time. Then it will show which constellations are currently up and which part of the sky they will be found. To learn the night sky is to learn it is always moving. It progresses through both the hours of the night and over the seasons of the year. A planisphere shows only the brightest stars, includes constellation shapes and their names, a few easy deep sky objects of interest, and finally some navigational aids like N-E-W-S/hours/degress.
The brightest stars in the night sky are your friends and learning to identify them is akin to a geography of the sky. Think of them as bright markers that can be used to point the way to different areas of interest in the sky. Making out the brighter constellation shapes (stick figures) and associating stars names with thier constellations comes next. The exercise is like learning the map of Australia. Start with the major capital cities, then bigger regional centres, places of interest like the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru, Barossa Valley, Twelve Apostles, Kakado, LMDSS etc... Just take in the big picture and get the lay of the land (sky). Where are the seemingly empty voids, the busy and twisted milky way, the brightest star groupings, hazy patches that tease you into looking closer. Simple statements like Orion is rising will eventually have a whole new meaning to you.
Visit the "Teaser" page (at left) and click on the "36 Brightest Stars" task sheet. This will assist with learning these basics.
Amateur Astronomy is all about looking at faint objects in the night sky. This requires the eyes to adjust to the dark before seeing the finer and fainter details. This is called "Dark Adaptation" and eyes take a minimum of 10mins before they become sensitive enough to properly see in the dark. When needing to consult the planisphere or star chart the last thing you want to do is blast the eyes with a bright torch. As red is at one end of the spectrum, by using a faint red torch (fainter than you're used to) this preserves the green/yellow vision the human eye is most sensitive to, while still being able to read your map. Submarines go to red alert for just this reason. If the lights go out the crew will already be dark adapted.
Quasar Publishing has been producing this annual publication since 1991. Written by Australians for Australians. Designed for anyone who looks at the night sky whether they are using just their eyes, a pair of binoculars or a telescope. The book has something for everyone from the basic novice up to the advanced amateur astronomer. This includes those with a casual interest who might just want to know, "what is that bright start next to the moon?". Combined with a good planisphere these are powerful tools for those first learning their way around the night sky. This year a detailed Moon Map is included for easy identification of prominent features visible even in small scopes.
While not for everybody some people like to keep a logbook or diary of their progress. Writing things down helps order the mind and some find this helps them remember important details.
Astronomy Logbook links
At the very start binoculars are an optional item, but they will be used right through your observing years. $200-$300 will get you a decent pair so there is no need to spend a fortune. If you have a pair of sports binoculars laying around use them as the will most like do the job. As long as they haven't been dropped or damaged that cause a mis-alignment. Binoculars do two things, 1: Get you in a bit closer (eg...10x magnification) to show you more details, 2: collect more light (eg... 50mm light grasp) which makes fainter objects visible. Work your way through the 36 brightest stars using binoculars and you will notice some are double stars. There are also interesting fuzzy objects and small star clusters nearby if you take the time scout around nearby. 10x50 (example above) is a good size for Astronomy. Not too heavy to hold while at the same time capturing a lot more light than the eyes can (about 100x more). A tripod (or monopod) will steady the view greatly and many more stars become visible when that happens. The DIY alternative is believe it or not an indoor (soft bristle) broom. Turn it upside down with the handle on the ground and perch the binoculars on the soft bristles - perfect. Keep the strap around your neck lest they slip and the ground rushes up at them to whack them.