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Astronomy Beginner's Guide

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Would you like to get involved in astronomy, but you still feel a little unsure? Are you striving to become an expert, but you´re only just starting out? Are you looking for advice about observations, equipment to choose and about astrophotography? Astroshop proudly presents this list of tips for beginners.

29 useful pieces of advice from some of the best astro-amateurs around (in countries such as Italy, France and Spain) who, with their experience, will guide you into the fascinating world of astronomy.

We would like to say an enormous thank you to those who have already contributed to this guide, obviously we could not have done this without them. This Guide is a *WORK IN PROGRESS* and we are always open for further contributions. 


Table of Contents:

General Advice

Advice on Observation

Advice on buying Equipment

Advice on Astrophotography

Further Information



 - Lionel Bourhis, http://www.albireo78.com , A good start to astronomy 

To have a good start to astronomy, it’s necessary to know how to enjoy, as well as value, every single step. First of all, don’t try to compete with a few talented and well-equipped amateurs who have mastered their equipment and whose pictures get published in our favourite magazines.

The celestial sphere should be discovered with the naked eye and a map of the sky. It will teach you more about constellations and their main stars; you can find the planets, observe their movements over time, count shooting stars and observe satellites and the International Space Station.

With good binoculars, you can definitely discover numerous objects in the sky: lunar craters, Jupiter’s satellites, comets, as well as clusters, nebulae and galaxies. With a Dobson, it will then be possible, with a reasonable budget, to discover the beauty of the sky in more detail, for example, the appearance of supernovae in some galaxies.

At this point, some amateur astronomers will specialise in drawing, and they will achieve masterpieces, the eye on the ocular, hunting the smallest details.

Others will prefer to use the technology and will rush into astrophotography: Goto mounts, ultra-sensitive CCD cameras and powerful image treatment software, equipment and skills that only experience can bring, and about which you will have to learn a lot before you can think of mastering it. Experienced amateurs may also help professional astronomers. Some of them discover nebulae or follow the slow light decrease of supernovae, while others study the spectrum of stars, or observe the transit of an exoplanet. But when our telescope is focussed on getting images, we can take this opportunity to look up in the sky, mentally draw constellations, name stars, count shooting stars, and finally come back to the basics of amateur astronomy...

- Paolo Casarini, Dark Star, http://www.dark-star.it , Beginning in Astronomy 

First, being an astro-amateur is a way to have fun or to relax and to forget that means transforming a healthy interest into something stressful. Barely any of us is going to bring significant scientific contributions (but also not so mediocre): so enjoy your passion but don´t ignore how serious and committed you must be.

A high-quality optic helps, but the proper setting is even more important: the first expense must relate to the hype. If you pay up, you will be rewarded. Also remember that going for the "better" tool is almost always futile. Once my wife was observing the galaxy M31 at 1900 meters high, looking into the eyepiece of a massive 20 cm refractor and she asked innocently to me: "What am I supposed to see?"

And if you want to be an astro-amateur useful to the small community of which we are part, take notes of your observations. When you learn to do it, you can also connect a CCD to the equipment. But first of all, "learn to watch" and be critical with your results.

 - Giuseppe Petricca, http://astronomiapraticapertutti.blogspot.it/ , Preparing yourself 

The first essential requirement and the first tip I want to give is that in astronomy, as with other activities, you need a lot of patience. Both for mainly meteorological factors, and for purely astronomical factors. Sometimes you have to wait for days or months to find a night with the perfect weather according to the point of view of stability and to the atmospheric transparency. Or alternatively you could spend time trying to focus on objects - if you don´t have computerised frames - that might seem like a waste of energy. But trust me, it will never be!

The second one deals with a good knowledge of the sky. We can work day after day on it, because as people say, “nobody is born an expert”. Get a good but cheap (it’s useless to spend too much!) star map that will guide you in the night sky. Learn the easiest constellations like the Big Dipper, Orion, and the 'Summer Triangle' (that consists of Cygnus, Lyra and Aquila): through these stars you can move in the sky with your eyes closed, as if you have a GPS inside of you!

Another important thing is to learn to take advantage of your instrument. It does not matter whether this is just a small Galilean refractor or a large and handsome Schmidt Cassegrain. Everything has a potential to be fully explored! So don´t hurry wanting something more, in the meantime try to do everything possible to become 'experts' of the instrument. You will achieve a greater personal satisfaction in being aware that you are able to observe objects in the sky 'fighting against your limit'!

Finally, don´t get depressed. There are many times, especially at the beginning, where your expectations are not fulfilled, or you´re not able to complete your observation as you had planned because of external factors. Use these opportunities to learn from your mistakes or to be able to plan better for the next few observing sessions. The cosmos always has something to show!

- Asociación Astronomica Andrómeda, http://asociacionandromeda.blogspot.de/, Starting out in astronomy 

The first thing to feel when you look at the sky is a curiosity that makes you wonder, a curiosity that there is something up there that encourages you to look up and when you do, you stand in complete awe. You start to get goose bumps, your heart starts beating uncontrollably and you perceive that body and mind are inseparable to everything around you. If this doesn't start to happen, either an association or the best society in the world will do anything to reaffirm your love for the universe.

Do not buy anything for the moment - first of all you should contact an amateur or a local association, because nobody will give you better advice than them.

If it is not possible for you to go to an open field, go as far as possible out of the city with a basic book or star chart so you can start to recognise the sky and what the main constellations are in each season. It is very rewarding to look at a very starry sky and recognize them with your own eyes.

In any case you could get some good binoculars, which will show you hundreds of celestial wonders, from lunar craters, planets, cluster, nebulae, double stars and galaxies, located thousands of light years away from our planet.

It is important to always buy in specialist stores with staff who can advise you properly. There is nothing more contradictory than when the buyer knows more about a product than the seller himself.

- AstroCantabria, http://www.astrocantabria.org/, Step by Step beginners guide 

Astronomy is an activity which you can learn gradually by practicing. It is easier and more fun if you do this activity with others who are also learning or are already a little more experienced than you. There will certainly be an astronomical association near to you, established by amateurs who would love to share their experience with you.

To begin with, start by getting to know the sky with the naked eye. You can use the help of a planisphere guide sky, tablet or computer program, etc. The programs like "planetarium" show the sky in a certain place and time.

When you learn to identify what you see with the naked eye, you can try and use some binoculars; it is much better if you put them on a tripod to keep them fixed in place.

After that, the next step is probably to purchase a telescope. It is therefore advisable that before you buy one, you should try different types and sizes, to find out which model is best for you. Again this is where an association/society might be able to help you.

Once you have a telescope, be patient. You also have to learn gradually how to manage it, and then you will discover more and more things.

And you should know: get away from light pollution, take appropriate clothing for the climate, and enjoy your observation nights!

- Astromodelismo, http://www.astromodelismo.es/, Why you should get involved in astronomy 

One of the best things about this hobby is that it doesn't matter how old you are. From children accompanied by their parents to the elderly, human curiosity for what's up there is innate. When we look up and see the stars and objects, we know they can captivate even the most insensitive person.

I think the main tip for this hobby is to have the interest and curiosity to know, whether we go to a meeting with the naked eye or with the most sophisticated equipment that an amateur can take to the field, because in the end everyone will have to know their limits and won't want to get ahead of themselves.

The first step for those who want to get started with this beautiful hobby is very simple. You have to leave home with some kind of information of what to see that night, either on a map which you can get in any astronomy shop, or simple sheets of printed paper from any website. Whatever constellations or objects that we see that night can be viewed with merely our own curiosity and a small flashlight bulb with red cellophane (so as not to dazzle us at night).

- Ignacio Rabadán España, www.catalogomessier.com/, Introduction to amateur astronomy 

Before I got into this hobby I wanted to be sure I was going to like it and so I did an introductory course to astronomy for a few hours, during which I had my first ever opportunity to look through a telescope.

I’ve been an amateur astronomer for a while now. I always like looking at the sky and observing hundreds of stars that you can see with the naked eye, but which look infinitely better through a telescope.

Once I realised that I was going to really love it, I started to take interest in forums (www.astronomo.org, www.asociacionhubble.org, etc.) and go into specialized stores. It is really important to ask those who already know more because people like that can help us to avoid making mistakes.

In order to choose your equipment, you have to consider that there are telescopes for Stars/Planetary (refractors), others for Deep Sky object (reflectors) and others that could give us versatility for both (Smith Cassegrain). Another important thing is to decide if we want to merely observe or do astrophotography because the steps are very different.

Once you have purchased the equipment, it is very important to choose where you are going to do the observation. Once again it will be interesting to ask someone who already knows some places, or maybe even partner up with a nearby group and accompany them on an observation. Light pollution maps can be a great reference in order to choose a place of observation (http://www.avex-asso.org/dossiers/wordpress/?page_id=42). It is important to keep in mind what you wear, because even in summer the cold can ruin a good night's observation.

Another relevant issue in planning an observation night is to make a list of what can be seen in every season, and for this there is plenty of information available on the Internet but the best place to start is with the Messier Catalog (www.catalogomessier.com), which consists of 110 affordable and amazing objects.

Once you have started with this hobby, the anxiety of wanting to know more is always there and I'm sure we will discover plenty more in the near future.

- Antonio Román y Sergio Alonso, www.laazotea.org, Building confidence 

Among the many tips that you can give to someone who is starting out in astronomy, I emphasize not to spend a lot of money on equipment. Astronomy is more enjoyable if we first begin to discover it visually without optical aid. If we use a book that shows us the constellations in the sky and begin to feel confident at that level, only then can we jump into more detailed observation with 7X50 binoculars, for example.

In this way we will build a good basis on which new knowledge we can add to the above. It is very typical for newcomers to this hobby to buy complex telescopes with a lot of electronic devices that often disappoint them, because they are often too complex to manage without some basic knowledge.

Most of the time people feel frustrated like that after a start with great enthusiasm, and they end up selling off the equipment and leave it thinking that this world is not for them. This is certainly a loss for astronomy in every possible way.

Only after you have built a knowledge base using just your naked eye and simple optical elements do I advise an observation with increasingly powerful and complex telescopes.

- Máximo Bustamante Calabria, http://loscoloresdelanoche.blogspot.com.es/, Start with the naked eye 

Astronomical observation is a very satisfying activity, and the necessary equipment is affordable; there is no need to invest large amounts of money to get a basic telescope. The problems sometimes come when you want to start immediately with a telescope without having learnt about observing the night sky with nothing more than our eyes. The main advice for those who want to get started in astronomy is to start with your eyes, learn to recognise constellations, stars and observe the brightest nebulae and galaxies with some binoculars.

In this way we will see we can have dark and clear skies, and we will learn the distances we have to travel to find them and the effort required, which may mean that in the future we choose to focus on a certain type of observation. It is also very important to get in contact with others who share this passion, especially through associations, so we can practice with different kinds of telescopes and in turn that could help us to decide which type we prefer. In addition, the night observations are more bearable if you go with a group.

Once we have some experience and are more or less clear about what we like, you should buy a telescope. There are a lot of types and models, but we have to find one that works well with the type of objects which we chose and which suit the characteristics of our usual place of observation. In any case you should not spend a lot on your first telescope, but rather start with an intermediate model as versatile as possible, enough for many hours of observation and learning.

Just by knowing how to observe and be aware of what we see, we will become instantly hooked on this wonderful hobby. 

Back to the top

- Astronomia Creativa, http://astronomiacreativa.blogspot.de/ , Identify and Memorise 

A good night of observation is not a good night of observation if we don’t want to understand what we are seeing. Before using an optical object, we have to learn to locate the stars and learn the constellations properly.

These words are always at the beginning of my lectures and presentations. In them I pick the key to a good start to the fascinating hobby of astronomy. First of all, we must enjoy the vastness of the night sky (you'll have to look for a place away from light pollution).

Then try to learn and remember what we are seeing. Ursa Minor, the polar star Arturo, etc. To be knowledgeable in night observation is very important. That is the beginning of all amateur astronomy.

Afterwards, during the observation, start to do things such as locating the ecliptic and the celestial Ecuador, to knowing the time by looking at the stars, to measuring the angular distances between the stars, etc.

Finally, it is advisable to buy some binoculars (7x50 action) and start seeing the wonders. Also, it is recommended, at the same time, to buy ​​a good telescope. If possible for beginners, you should also buy a refractor (you only have to fit it once), of at least 70 mm aperture and short focal length of 700 or 800 mm, in order to be very bright.

But remember, with amateurs you’ll learn much more than if you are alone. All of this put together is the best way to start to discover the universe.

- Carles Labordena, http://claborastro.wordpress.com/ , How to get around bad weather conditions 

It is not always possible to get out of the city to observe the sky. However, if you have a roof, a terrace, or even a balcony, you can make some observations and start practicing for the day that you can escape from light pollution.

For this we have several tricks that can compensate for the worst environmental conditions.

First of all, if it is possible, try to make sure there is as little light as possible from the light pollution over our eyes. To do this, the easiest thing to do is to place a small parasol in the eyepiece. Even more sophisticated and effective is to put a black cloth over our heads and eyepiece.

Another trick that can be used in addition to the first is to filter the light pollution, so that only the light of the object reaches our retina. This is achieved with filters, e.g. CLS or other more specific ones such as the UHC with which we can remove the yellowish light produced by sodium lamps and improve the contrast of diffuse objects such as nebulae and galaxies. For white light pollution, the simple CL or CLS are not useful.

It is also useful in the case of stars and open clusters to magnify far more. This means that we can get a darker background in the sky allowing a contrast with the weaker stellar type.

- Meteorologia Espacial, www.meteorologiaespacial.es , Observing the Sun 

Observing the sun is a good way of seeing the nature of the stars. Therefore unlike observing the universe at night, observing the Sun requires eye protection.

You can project the sun on a wall pointing with a telescope, but this technique could damage your telescope if it is very hot and could damage the protective plastic targets. Another option that is safer and that would allow you to observe with greater detail is to use specialized telescopes with different filters.

You can apply a white light filter to your telescope to observe sunspots safely. These white light filters are easy to install and not expensive, and could help you to follow it up to sunspots. You can also use a telescope with a special calcium filter or H-alpha, which will allow you to see many amazing features such as solar prominences, filaments, sunspots and more...

Observing the sun will make you see the nature of the stars in a totally different way.

Remember!! Never look at the Sun directly and definitely not through a telescope without adequate protection, you could damage your eyes immediately and irreversibly.

- César M. González Crespán, http://www.astrovigo.es/ , What to observe 

You can make some good celestial observations with the naked eye, recognizing the brightest stars in the sky and the constellations whose relative position changes every day of the year. In order to recognize them, it might help if you have a star chart or an astronomical computer program; there are many, such as Star map, Redshift Astronomy, Sky Safari, etc.

Meteor showers such as Perseids or Leonidas and comets can also be seen. With some powerful binoculars you can observe Jupiter and its four Galilean moons, Io, Calisto, Ganymede and Europa; Saturn with its rings and its satellite Titan; the phases of Venus; the phase of the Moon passing from the clear zone to dark one and globular clusters. For all this a telescope of at least 70 mm would be good.

The telescope mount can also be motorized. If it is not motorized, an equatorial mount type should suffice, because if we point the axis to the North Star, then it is easy to compensate for the movement schedule of the earth.

For observation of the sun, sunspots and corona, you should have a proper Coronado telescope type, because if not, they can be damaged due to the high temperature. 

- Laurent Ferrero, http://splendeursducielprofond.eklablog.fr/ , Successful astronomy depends on many different factors 

Factors for beautiful observations:

- Quality of the sky
An observation is defined by the quality of the sky and the absence of light pollution. Furthermore, it’s necessary to avoid the city light as much as possible. If this is not possible, you have to be able to adapt your targets to the site of your observation. If the light pollution is sensitive, you’ll have to aim at bright and contrasted objects: the moon, the planets, of course, and for the deep sky and double stars, the bright stars clusters or the small and bright planetary nebulae. For most of the galaxies, diffuse or dark nebulae require a pure and dark sky.

- Optimized instruments
It’s no use observing under a beautiful sky if your instrument isn’t up to it. You have to make sure that it’s well collimated by looking at the shape of the airy disks on a magnified star or with a collimation laser. You also have to wait for the optics tube, or your pictures will be blurry. It can take 30 minutes to 1 hour depending on the hermeticity of the tube.

- Appropriate accessories
An astronomical instrument can be optimized with appropriate accessories. An equatorial mount can be motorized in order to compensate for the rotation of Earth and thus keep in place the object of observation; it’s a comfort allowing you to focus on the observation rather than on the handling. When you observe the sky with a non-motorized Dobson telescope, the best way to improve your comfort is using a wide-field eyepiece (between 70° and 100°) so that the targets stay in your field of vision as long as possible . Equip yourself with interferential filters, UHC and OIII filters that are mainly made to enhance contrast in areas where stars or planetary nebulae are forming. They are very efficient: they enhance the contrast of faint objects, but they also bring to light some additional details. They deserve the investment, especially if your sky isn’t very dark. To read an atlas of the sky or to draw, it’s very important to avoid being dazzled, or you will need several minutes for your eyes to get used to it, when you put it back on the eyepiece. The lamp must be carefully chosen. It has to be red (because the eye is less sensitive to this colour at night), and not too powerful.

- The comfort of the observer
An observer who is not well prepared will go back home quickly, because observational astronomy requires minimum preparation. Since it’s a nocturnal activity, you have to wear warm clothes! Cold and humidity are generally the first factors of discouragement. Standing is also exhausting - by sitting you will be able to stay longer and focus on what you can see in the eyepiece.

- The experience of the observer
The best sky and the best equipment are of course nothing if you don’t have a good eye. As in many domains, you will get enough experience to see the finest details just with practise. Some tricks will allow you to improve the perception of faint subjects, for example with offbeat vision. Try not to stare at the target directly, the most sensitive parts of your eyes will be sought if you look slightly wide, so that you can perceive the object and the details of its structure. You can also try to get the object moving in the field of vision. Observing carefully also improves the visual dexterity of the observer. Zoom in on your target and avoid “zapping” ! The best visual observers are often those who practice astronomical drawing; this technique encourages you to spend a lot of time on a subject of information and it will assist your observational memory and improve your vision.

- Corrado Ruscica, http://astronomicamens.wordpress.com/  , Patience, Organisation and Passion 

With regards to evening and night observations, we have to be able to recognize the main constellations with the naked eye and everyone should able to move with the help of a stellar map; in my opinion this exercise should be the first step. At the same time, we must learn the names of the main stars in a constellation: therefore we must be sure to orient well as we need to identify a celestial object we´re looking for. It's advisable to consult a road map to figure out where we are and which direction to take.

I remember that I started with a 12X50 binoculars given to me by my dear maternal grandfather and I conducted my first observations from the terrace of the house. There are many advantages of binoculars. First of all, we can have a very large field of view, especially compared to a telescope: this allows us to recognise the region of the sky that we´re interested in observing much better. Indeed it´s more immediate to identify an area we´re watching with binoculars, since that gives us back the correct orientation of the stars, while the telescope turns the image upside down and sometimes it distorts the image. Moreover, the performance of binoculars is usually really impressive. Therefore, at the beginning you need 7-10 enlargements to see any improvement compared to viewing with your naked eye. I´d like to remind you that performance certainly depends on the diameter of the lenses, but don´t forget that the quality of the optics is important too. However, any kind of binoculars are good enough to begin observing the sky, considering also that they are fairly cheap, easy to find and not very difficult to carry. Finally, another necessary tool to use, just to use an example, is a red light torch, which is useful when you need to consult the star map.

At this point, if the weather forecast is good and we are far away from city lights, we can have fun watching the moon, identifying and recognizing dozens of craters and seas, or even the Milky Way. If we learn the constellations well and we are equipped with detailed star maps, which you can find on the web or by consulting the appropriate manuals, our binoculars will provide us with a lot of satisfaction.

Indeed we can look for Messier objects, which are star open clusters, galaxies and nebulae identified by Charles Messier at the end of the eighteenth century. But we can fortunately observe the changes of position by the four main satellites of Jupiter, or also the phases of Venus. All this is going to happen, but only if you know exactly what to observe.

Of course, it´s important to look for the help of appropriate astronomy books or catalogues explaining the nature of the objects to be observed, in order to strengthen your knowledge base.
I remind you once again that patience, organisation and especially passion are required if someone wants to start this activity. You can´t do anything if there are clouds or if you get behind to an event that is coming (such as an Eclipse of the Sun or Moon - http://www.astroshop.it/blog-di-astronomia/infografica-comprendere-le-eclissi-lunari/c,9120 ). Therefore, relax and enjoy yourself without losing control, especially if you don´t reach your targets or if your instrument doesn´t work perfectly. Remember: observing the sky should be a pleasure.

- Enrique Díez Alonso, Aula de Astronomía, www.auladeastronomia.es , Basic information to begin an observation with our telescope. 

By Enrique Díez, graduate in astrophysics, a member and coordinator of the activities in “Aula de Astronomía”.

In “Aula de Astronomía” activities it is common to have participants who have instruments for observation, and among those who have a telescope, there is always one who says, "I’ve never seen anything with my telescope" Is he spoiled? Is it because it is of poor quality?

Does this sound familiar to anyone?

Of course, the quality of certain telescopes can leave much to be desired, but generally it tends to be other things which make the telescope not work. Let's review some.

In the first place, we need to be sure that the finder is well aligned with the main tube. How many times have we seen telescopes whose finder and main tube are not aligned?

The lining up process has to be done in broad daylight, the main tube has to be pointing to some unmistakable point (antenna, building, tree ...) and fixed in place. Once that is done, we have to loosen the system that holds the seeker to focus on it in order to point it at the main gate. Press the finder mounting system and it is already aligned. It is important to do this during the day because at night everything is going to be more complicated.

Once we’ve already aligned both optical systems, we can use our telescope for night sky observation. If it’s not computerized we have to manually point to objects (a manual mount is recommended if we are starting in astronomy since at night it is harder to fix the telescope to the ground, pointing to objects, etc., and this will give an extremely useful background for further, more advanced tools).

First, we have to make sure that the mount (if is equatorial) is properly parked, i.e., the right ascension axis is parallel to the axis of rotation of the Earth. Once parked and pointing to the objects, we move only the axes of right ascension and declination so that the right ascension axis is still pointing to the pole star throughout the observing session.

If the objects are brilliant (planets, moon...) there is usually no problem and you can point directly at them with the finder. But if we want to observe some faint deep sky object (galaxies, clusters, nebulae ...) things get a bit more complicated.

To watch these faint objects it is firstly appropriate to focus the finder on a bright star close to the object that you want to observe. Once we have focused on both the browser as the main tube, we'll gradually be getting closer to the object, always having with us a map of suitable stars (Sky Atlas, Uranometria Atlas of Taki, Cartes du Ciel, Stellarium ...) and identifying the stars that appear in the sky map with which we see through the viewfinder.

Thus we slowly go closer to the object until we have succeeded in focusing on the finder and therefore in the eyepiece.
Well, we already have the principal. But here comes another sore point and source of errors; the first ocular with which we always observe should be the one with less magnification (longer focal length). That give us a much broader and more brilliant field. Consider that if we bat an eyelid; we won’t be looking (albeit very briefly) and then we can’t locate it.

When we observe with a lower magnification eyepiece, we can already see the object clearly, if this is brilliant (as the Andromeda Galaxy, the Orion nebula, globular cluster in Hercules ...). But if it is a weak object it can pass unnoticed even if we have it in our field of view.
We then use the trick of side vision sight; if you walk around the eyepiece, look sideways until that object begins to appear stronger.

There is an explanation for this: If we take a glance, then photons from the object impinge on the periphery of our retina, which have sensors that work in low light conditions and are therefore optimal for night observation.

Once we have located the object under magnification with the eyepiece, we can then center as best as possible, and you should also try to have a look with the other eye, although experience is that generally (apart from the planets, the moon, double stars and some more ...) the best view comes with a lower magnification eyepiece.

- Ramón Sobrino Muñoz, http://www.lasestrellasnoduermen.blogspot.com , Three suggestions for those who are curious 

If someone is curious about astronomy and decides to get involved in this wonderful world and the observation of the sky, I have 3 pieces of advice to give to them.

A good astronomy introduction book, which guides us through the infinite corners of the sky and helps us to learn the constellations and their origin, the brightest stars and to distinguish planets from stars, and the nature of the different celestial bodies. Many books also talk about all those astronomers who have made this science so wonderful.

Get in contact with the nearest astronomical associations, where you will meet veteran astronomers who will teach you the fascinating field of observation with both your naked eye and with optical instruments, binoculars and telescopes.

If the beginner definitely likes astronomy, it is time to purchase your telescope. Choosing your equipment is a crucial point in amateur astronomy. Often newcomers opt for astrophotography while others follow the path of observation. My advice is always to start in observing the sky until you feel comfortable with it and later begin in the field that you prefer, whether that be double stars, variables, deep sky or planetary. A guided telescope sky walk is an indispensable tool for every observer.

- Luis Alonso - http://www.laisladelaastronomia.com , Where and how to observe 

It’s not easy to give advice to those who are going to start in the astronomy world in just a few words. It's even harder when it comes to observation. Anyone can consult a book, websites, forums…and become widely informed in any aspect of this topic. I published an article entitled “The loneliness of the amateur astronomer” (Astronomia Magazine 105), in which I describe my experiences between the theory and the practical over the years. In it, I wondered “Who is going to observe with you on a cold winter's night or who is going to go 60 kilometers to observe a star?

We have to keep in mind that observation is, most of the time, a lonely activity. Sometimes some curious people come with us to the observation, and if we are lucky, just maybe, another amateur astronomer like us. But we also have to take advantage of these circumstances. When we are planning our lonely observation, we can observe deep sky objects of lesser magnitude, make a list of what we want to watch that night, no matter if it takes a while to find an object and will not spend lots of our time teaching the most spectacular celestial objects, that in fact only onlookers, family and friends are interested in. It is very pleasing to observe with other people around, that is true, but only the true lovers of astronomy are excited to watch the small bright spot of a distant galaxy.

First of all, we have to know and identify the constellations that can be seen in different seasons. Without this first step, you are almost destined to fail. The next step is to motivate. Motivation is essential in any activity we undertake and perhaps in astronomy more than any other. At first, we do not have to look at difficult and impossible objects. Learn which are the most interesting objects in each constellation and are relatively simple to locate, perhaps by the brightness of nearby stars. Each discovery will give us an impetus to search for the next. We'll have time to try to find elusive objects when we begin to gain more experience.

If possible, warm up excessively in winter. At any time of the year you have to take more clothes. Don’t forget a woolly hat and some warm shoes. A hot day can be a cold night. One night when the cold hits us, a whole overnight observation is lost. Or in the best case, it becomes a night when we want to go home as soon as possible. Let's note our observations. We will use these in the future and we can compare them with future observations. We even draw what we see. Always have a red light with you, to use for our telescope or to consult our books or letters of observation. A powerful white light blinds us and our eye soon adapts to darkness. And of course you have to bring food and drink. If it is winter, a soup thermos or hot coffee can be essential in order to finish the night in front of the telescope.

We have to plan our place of observation. First, go and see it in daylight. Make sure it's dark enough that you can get to your vehicle without difficulty and that there is no light that can disturb us. Have a good vision and that nothing can hinder our night observation, especially in the east and south. And of course, if possible, it would be great to get quality eyepieces. A good ocular can improve our observations massively and will be the best investment for the future, whatever telescope we happen to have.

Now we are ready. We have it all. And above all, we have our desire and our wonderful hobby. Now we just need the night to come.

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- Cédric Thomas, http://www.astronomic.fr/ , Today I want to tell you more about autoguiding!  

Today I want to tell you more about autoguiding!

Even with a very big mount, perfectly set up and aligned, it’s totally unrealistic to believe that you can achieve images for longer than 5 minutes without tracking. Astrophotography is so accurate that the sidereal tracking can’t be trusted by only the mount. You need to assist it in this mission...

When I started astrophotography back in 2004, amateur astronomers didn’t have many solutions to “help” the mount to achieve a perfect tracking and beautiful pictures.

The most common one was controlling the position of a star with the tracker and to compensate the mistakes of the mount by pressing the arrows of the hand box. It is useless to claim that the operation was painful and moderately effective. It was indeed really easy to hit the wrong button and to amplify the problem instead of correcting it.

A few years later, the informatics and CCD cameras fortunately changed the situation and, the device replaced the man in this task for which he wasn’t appropriated.

Auto guiding nowadays replace traditional guiding. The CCD camera replaces the eye, and the computer replaces the arms of the astronomers (who can now rest). By creating a control loop, it allows you to correct the position of the telescope at regular intervals (on average every second) and to achieve exposures of several hours without a hint of blurring through camera shake.

Theoretically, it works perfectly. Practically, it’s sometimes more complicated. There are many optical, mechanical, electronic solutions dedicated to autotracking (optical divider, scope in parallel, several CCD cameras, etc…).

After testing numerous autotracking solutions, I now use a very short focal guide scope (straight spotting) and a very sensitive tracking camera. Autotracking with a very short focal length has several advantages:

1. It avoids “hunting” atmospheric turbulence

2. It’s lighter

3. It limits the problems of differential shaping

4. It very easily allows finding a high-quality guide star in the field

Whatever solution you choose, I recommend you invest in the most sensitive camera possible because it’s the key element for autoguiding!

- La Briere Etoilée, http://briereetoilee.e-monsite.com/ , An in-depth guide to amateur astronomy 

1st piece of advice: NEVER buy equipment in large supermarkets:  you are guaranteed to be disappointed!

Before you start, contact an association in your area to help lead you through the huge range of possibilities, depending on what interests you in astronomy.

2nd piece of advice: To start, avoid computerized equipment. You should invest money in the quality of the optics: astronomy consists above all of good lenses or mirrors, not of electronic components...

3rd piece of advice: Instruments for beginners provided by specialized stores are never bad instruments but they may not be appropriate for you, or they may be incorrectly adjusted: the best instrument isn’t the biggest or the most expensive one, it’s the one you use the most.

4th piece of advice: buying a piece of equipment is a good thing, but you have to include necessary accessories in your budget (eyepieces for example), which will increase the price.

5th piece of advice: BE CAREFUL OF ITS WEIGHT: it’s good to have a big instrument, but it may be hard to handle a 12 to 15 kg tube (try to hold two six liters packs at arms’ length...)

*Your Budget?*

- · Less than 100€: Apart from second-hand equipment, there’s only the 10x50 binoculars, which are a basic necessity of an amateur astronomer.

- · 100 to 300€: Here we can start to afford new equipment: a small 80mm diameter scope, a 110-150mm small telescope, or a good 10x50.

- · 300 to 500€: a good standard quality 80-100mm scope, a 150 to 200mm telescope.

- · 500 to 1000€: The same type of 80mm scope with a higher optics quality or a standard quality 120mm scope with a high quality mounting, a 250mm Dobson telescope.

- · 1000 à 2000€: A 120mm scope with a higher optics quality with a good mounting, a Dobson telescope up to 300mm.

- · 2000€+? As a beginner, it’s useless to invest that amount of money.

*What do you want to see?*

- · The Moon and planets? No problem with the Moon, you can observe it nicely with any piece of equipment. For planets, a big F/D ratio is better (10 or more), and an equatorial mounting, which is more convenient to follow with a bigger magnification.

- · Stars and star clusters? You can use any F/D ratio (but I assume you won’t be looking only at them...). Otherwise, binoculars can give you an unforgettable view.

- · Nebulae and galaxies?  An F/D ratio around 5 will give you the best results, with a Dobson mounting.

- · A little of everything? Choose an instrument with an F/D ratio between 7 and 8 with an equatorial mounting.

*You will observe from*

- · your garden? You can use any instruments.

- · your balcony? The instrument should be rather short, avoid a long focal length instrument, you should rather use Maksutov or Schmit-Cassegrain telescopes.

- · this little spot you’ve found a few kilometres from your house? The instrument should not be too heavy and you should be able to carry it easily.

*You will observe*

- · Three or four times a year, during vacation?

Choose a rather small instrument, easy to store and to pull out.

- · At least once a month?

Choose an average diameter

- · Every week?

Don’t hesitate to buy a high quality optics, a good optics with a small diameter is better than a big diameter with a low quality.

*You want to*

- · simply observe? You can choose an azimuthal mount for a scope or a Dobson mount for a telescope.

- · photograph planets? Use an equatorial mount.

- · photograph nebulae and galaxies? Forget it for now, it’s another world. However if you choose your equipment well (a good equatorial mount), you may be able to try it and to understand how complicated this type of photography really is.

- Ernesto Giuseppe Ammerata, http://ernestogiuseppeammerata.com/ , Get in contact with more experience astronomers! 

I think that, first of all, an enthusiastic astronomer - who´s looking for a telescope to buy -should get in contact with websites, groups, friends who are more experienced than him. A Newtonian reflector may fit, because it´s affordable.

The most important aspect is that the magnification of the telescope and the components are highly rated. I´d personally recommend a branded telescope, even if the price may be a little higher. Once you have it at your disposal, I would advise you to buy both lunar and solar filters.

The former, in order to observe the moon without any hassle, especially when the full moon phase is occurring; while the latter is able to test the observation of the sun. When you´re going to watch the sun, NEVER do it without a filter! You risk going blind. Obviously people must plan the observations far from the artificial lights.

A further tip I would give is to buy a CCD (there are various prices now) in order to dedicate time to astrophotography. In terms of observations for beginners, the moon is definitely easy to watch, but also viewing the planets can give you a lot of satisfaction.

Personally, to stay in touch, I use some software that allows me to know where the various planets are moving at a particular place and at a particular time. I use Redshift but there are many others; one instrument which is very simple to use is Stellarium. The sites I consider as a benchmark are Skylive and Coelum magazine - even on that you can post photos taken from the users. Finally, during the observations you need a lot of patience.

- Pietro Mugnaini, http://www.astrocast.it/ , Begin with Binoculars 

A good initial approach to astronomy is the purchase of a 10x50 binocular (10x magnification and 50 mm opening), with which to have the first experiences and to begin to recognize the constellations and the position of celestial objects. Ideally, it should be great to pick up a good book on practical astronomy.

Which telescope to buy?

When you are ready to buy a telescope, before purchasing you have make a few considerations, because the optimal choice depends on several factors:

1) Type of use. If you want to use it only related to visual or also to take the photos. In the second case, it´s necessary to use a very stable equatorial mount.

2) Where you live. If you live in a very light area and you don´t have a fairly dark area nearby, you have to plan long trips to see deep sky objects. Therefore it´s better to use a refracting telescope to make observations of the Moon and Planets, so that this problem will be far less annoying.

3) What you want to see. You have to decide whether to concentrate mainly on the Moon and the planets or on the deep sky or, alternatively, whether you wish to see a little bit of everything. In the first case it´s better to use a refractor, as mentioned before. In other cases, there are several options and you should also take care of the weight of the instrument and its portability.

4) How much you want to spend. The final choice of type of telescope depends on your budget: the prices range enormously, from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands. Keep in mind that the cost of a 20 cm equipped Reflector can exceed 2,000 Euros and it is very heavy, even if it only takes one person to carry it. A 30 cm model costs even more and at least two people can carry it.

Refractors are usually lighter but they are really expensive, especially if a good image quality is required. In order to save money or to afford a better tool, there´s always the second hand market, both at a shop and with online search.

When choosing the telescope and its accessories I suggest you to take some advice from an expert or from a recommended shop which specialises in astronomy. On our website, click on "Useful Links", where you can find a list of online stores. What is ideal would be to contact a nearby store, otherwise you can contact the shop by phone to find out more and then buy online.

- Piero Mazza, http://www.galassiere.it/ , What not to forget 

Visual observation is one of the most fascinating ways to take full advantage of the beauty of the starry sky: there are in fact tricks, processes, compositions of images, as well as everything related to the software to get better at observing.

However, there are some steps you can take to take advantage of what you can see through your eyepiece. Whoever begins observing with binoculars is in some ways already at an advantage: i.e. people use binocular vision, a natural and restful vision which not only increases the contrast visual, but also it allows a significant increase in the magnitude limit imposed by the opening of the instrument. This kind of observation might be worthwhile if you follow these tips:

1) Always mount the binoculars on a tripod (unless you have a very expensive self-stabilizing binoculars): you don’t get the natural vibrations of the human body (due primarily to the heartbeat) and this allows you to gain at least more magnitude on stellar objects (less significant on the smaller ones).That´s not a lot, as it can make the difference between "seeing" and "not seeing".

2) Avoid the binoculars with a pupil exit larger than 6 mm. First of all because after forty or fifty years, it´s unlikely that the pupil of the eye expands beyond that value (thus risking that the brushes of light emerging from the eye might be largely wasted); but mainly because binoculars with a pupil exit of 3 or 4 mm has a higher contrast, darkening a lot the bottom sky. It´s better to fall back either on a 10 × 50, or 12 × 50 (rather than 7 × 50), or a 20 × 80 (instead 11 × 80).

If a pair of commercial binoculars is the ideal tool for both beginners and advanced amateurs to use to study variable stars, open clusters, galactic novae´s visual search or observation of artificial satellites, it clearly presents severe limitations on the number of galaxies and / or nebulae visible because of the restriction of the lens diameter.

So, if you are passionate about these objects, you really need a telescope with a large aperture; preferably a good Dobsonian; they are usually the cheapest and therefore more preferable.

I have a few tips to make the most of the vision of nebulae and galaxies.

Regarding the former, if it´s a nebulae emission you can use an eyepiece with 5” or 6” pupil exit and equipped with interference filters: UHC (generic and very good compromise), or III (specific for the planet observations), Hb for some nebulae details, such as the Horsehead or California (which is already clear with the naked eye, simply by placing the filter in front of the eye).

In terms of extended spiral galaxies (e.g. M33, M51, M101) a broadband filter Deepsky could be useful. It’s true that it reduces the galaxy´s brightness (which emits across the whole spectrum), but at the same time emphasises the H II regions you find in the arms, with a significant increase in the contrast (obviously not be used on the elliptical as M87).

However, if your passion is the observation of weak, very weak or extra weak galaxies, I recommend the use of a pushed eyepiece that provides a pupil exit of around 2 mm. You can determine the pupil exit by dividing the focal length of the eyepiece by the aperture ratio of the telescope.

For example, if you have a telescope open to F/4.5 (independently from the diameter) and use a 9 mm eyepiece, 9/4.5 is exactly 2.

Another tip, often ignored but useful when someone tries to find a very weak and small galaxy, is to keep swapping which eye you use. When you spend a lot of time looking at the eyepiece, the eye gets tired and the image tends to vanish; therefore change your eye. I know that many are reluctant to do so, as it is natural for the so-called "main eye" (usually the right one) to take over, but it's all a matter of habit. At first you might feel like it’s not doing anything, but wait a minute and I can promise you the benefit is guaranteed!

- Roberto Capacci, http://robertocapacci.wordpress.com/ , Do not give up! 

Searching for the beauty in the skies is the passion that connects all astronomy lovers all over the world and encourages them to look up; anyway, the satisfaction does not always match the expectations and many are often tempted to quit this hobby, because of delusion or boredom. And this is maybe the biggest obstacle in astronomy for beginners.

In order to carry on this activity in a useful way and for the longest time possible, the most important tip is to deal with it with method and knowledge. You should learn to know the characteristics of the most impressive and observable objects as soon as possible, so that you can have a realistic idea about their appearance without wasting your time with unattainable expectations; then, as the most important thing, it´s necessary to have ideal equipment.

This concept, not often noticed, makes the difference between admiring celestial marvels and the annoying mess of the instruments: the ideal set up is the one more suitable to our interests and it´s especially what we are able to use more often and in in a more efficient way.

For example, a 300mm Newton with a high-price mounting may be the best solution for an experienced astrophotographer, who has his designated viewing position in the urban area, but it would not satisfy an amateur astronomer who loves to travel and stay in touch with nature and has the possibility to move under the mountain skies: in this case a refractor with a short focal on a light mounting or an excellent angled binocular are going to be the best and most usable solutions.

Then, last but not least: the setup has to be optimised in order to be ready for use at all times and it must be ready in a short amount of time. That can be achieved by reducing the curves, lumbering cables, wasting, redundant or rarely-used accessories, so that you can organise all the equipment in separate bags: you´ll have the advantage of being able to dedicate more time to the most satisfying activities, rather than to solving problems that may arise.


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- Frank Tyrlik, http://blogastro.free.fr/ , How to make the perfect photograph 

The advantage of photographing the sky in a large field is that it doesn’t require very many accessories and that the processing remains affordable for the average person.

Here are a few tips to photograph the celestial sphere… 

1. You will require a reflex camera in order to photograph in high sensibility (800 asa, or more according to the age of the camera) and to adapt your objective to the frame of the picture. Be warned, the more you increase the ASA, the more noise there is. Try several times to find the best ratio “exposure time - ASA”.

2. A large angle objective (if possible with a good optical rendering capacity). The focal of this objective will determine the maximal exposure time that you will be able to do without a motorized mount, if you want to keep stars isolated. There’s a (very) simple formula to estimate the maximal exposure time in function of the focal of your objective:

Max. Exp. Time approx. = 500 / (objective’s focal x 1.6)

1,6 is valid for a Canon, use 1.5 for a Nikon or a Sony.

For example, for a 18mm objective, you can pose 500/(18x1.6) = 17 seconds. For longer exposure times, there are light mounts. Easy to use and to install, they are also convenient to take anywhere. Ideally, you also have to choose an objective with an aperture as big as possible (f1.4, f2.8...). Then, close one notch of the diaphragm of your objective and you will have a better optical rendering.

3. A steady tripod, needed to make sure that the device doesn’t shake if it’s windy… Some tripods have a hook in their center, which allows you to hang a bag of sand or other elements found on the spot to make it more stable.

4. Use a remote to trigger your pictures. It’s convenient, comfortable and cheap. Of course, do not forget to keep several batteries spare....

5. Don’t forget to charge the battery of the camera....

6. Prepare your night. Have a precise idea of what you’ll photograph, choose an appropriate spot without too much light pollution, choose the right date in function of the moon (the moon illuminates the landscape but reduces the visibility of the Milky Way), check the weather, find out if you can see Iridium or the ISS (on http://www.heavens-above.com/ for example), meteorites or swarms etc.

7. Prepare yourself... Don’t forget to bring warm clothes, a snack, a flashlight (with batteries); it’s extremely painful to wait for a one hour exposure with frozen feet.

8. Choose your picture frame carefully (pay attention to the electric cables for example).

9. Take many exposures in order to have the maximum signal. Don’t forget to have a look at your objective regularly in order to make sure that there’s no dew on it. A circumpolar can be taken with a jpg format but otherwise, in general, take pictures raw. It will give you more flexibility when you edit your images.

10. Take care of the adjustment. It’s not easy by night, especially if the moon is not in a quarter, or if there’s a bright star. I recommend you scout by day, on your objective, to save time for the night. However you should always check before you start a series of exposures!

11. Don’t forget the dark. You can put the lid on the objective and start a dozen exposures (with the same exposure time). It will be easier then removing the hot pixels of your pictures.

12. Enjoy a beautiful night to take as many pictures as possible. You will have enough time afterwards for the editing of the pictures.

Processing them is then easy enough and depends on what you have photographed. A circumpolar is easy to combine with Startrails. A passage for Iris or Deepskystracker may be necessary for other subjects. Finally, using other image-editing software like Photoshop is often compulsory to improve your images.

- Salvo Lauricella, http://www.salvolauricella.it , The most suitable telescope 

There´s not one kind of telescope that is better than all the others. Each optical configuration has its own application field and the buyer has to identify the one most suited to their interests.

Don´t choose the instrument just according to the diameter of the objective, instead consider both the type of objects that we´re going to observe and also the kind of use we´re going to do (visual or photographic); that´s essential and it has to support the optical and its accessories without producing particular vibrations, which are really annoying especially at high magnifications. In particular, when it’s being used for astrophotography, it must be oversized and therefore capable to support a weight higher than the equipment that we use.

Dealing with astrophotography, my advice is to go step by step and start with those "simple" subjects requiring not too high a budget. An economic Reflex suits to shoot successfully constellations, star trails and the meteors. Then you can switch to the direct firing photography, or by connecting the camera directly through the telescope. The first subjects to view are the Moon, the planets and the Sun (obviously using a solar filter!), and only after having gained experience can you move on to deep-sky photography. This point requires a high budget, due to the purchase of telescopes, driving, room guiders, filters and processing software etc.

- Michele Bortolotti, Foto astronomiche, http://fotoastronomiche.it/ , Approaching digital astrophotography: basic concepts for its understanding  

With the coming of digital photography, the clear progress of technology and with cameras becoming ever cheaper, today it is possible to approach and to understand the fundamentals and instrumental limits of astrophotography.

To become familiar with this fascinating hobby, a basic preparation to the traditional photography occurs, in order to refine all the camera settings essential to accessing techniques and tricks that can make all the difference on the final result.

Choosing original equipment for a beginner astrophotographer, the classical configuration of the nature photographer (i.e. type of digital camera SLR camera tripod, remote shutter and objectives appropriate to the type of subject) allows us to catch - learning to overcome all the problems related to night photography - the shooting scenes with the land objects, all objects that emit a weak light and that are often difficult to pin down.

To overcome the small amount of light that invests our sensor, new adjustments should be placed on the camera, compared to those used for daytime photography: long exposure times; manual focus; the need to adjust the iris lens in order to give a certain appearance to the point light sources such as stars; the awareness that our planet rotates around its own axis and also that the stars generate, after a certain time limit, a blur. Finally, it´s necessary to go to a dark place and move away from light pollution.

The best choice for any photographer who´s beginning astrophotography is to quickly understand concepts and problems, and correcting your mistakes made while practising this hobby. The best tools for this approach are: a digital SLR mounted on a photographic tripod, because the future purchase of a more demanding instrument- such as a telescope or equatorial tracker - will overcome many of the obstacles already experienced with this basic technique, and that allows us to view the main astronomical phenomena with large satisfaction. 

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- Alexis Giacomoni, http://www.corse-astronomie.com/ , The birth of the solar system 

Our history starts in an interstellar gas cloud, a peaceful nebula sailing in our galaxy, amongst thousands of other nebulae.

Not far away, massive stars, willing to reach their ultimate stage, give up their last breath in a prodigious fireworks: a supernova.

Our cloud, 98% of which is Hydrogen (the principal element of the universe) and the rest Helium, was then enriched by a few new elements (Carbon, Oxygen, Iron…), created and disseminated in the universe by the violent death of these massive stars.

4,5 billion years before our era, tired of wandering around the galactic centre, our nebula, pushed by the chock of another supernova, started contracting due to the effects of its own mass, creating a material sphere whose heart kept warming up over the years, until it gave birth to a protostar. As a result of an intense rotation, the material which wasn’t used to feed this soon-to-be sun, was about to be compressed into a protoplanetary disc.

Inside this disc, there were gas and residual dust gathering by accretion. This slow phenomenon triggered the apparition of tiny gravels agglutinating around each other until they turned into pebbles, then rocks, and finally to planetesimals.

The process continued and created the first asteroids. Some of them, rather small, didn’t move beyond this and will wander in the soon-to-be solar system. Others, more ambitious (exceeding several hundred kilometres) got to a remodelling stage as a result of the gravity until they reached a hydrostatic balance, allowing them to keep a spherical shape. They became the first planets!

A reorganisation followed, orchestrated by the Sun, deciding what will stay nearby, and what is grown-up enough to live a solitary life, far from its heat. That’s the reason why telluric planets (made of rocks) are near our star, while the gigantic gas planets like Jupiter or Saturn have been pushed to fresher areas, where they act like sentinels and watch over Earth.

To conclude, I would say that we were all born in the same nebula, the cradle of the stars...

- Fabio Bradach, , http://www.aristarcodisamo.it/ , A reflection about the connection between astronomy and mythology 

Many start being astro-amateurs for curiosity, but subsequently few of them examine in depth the subject, perceiving the inherent difficulties of both a technical matter and specific skills.

Actually amateur astronomy offers so many areas and skills with complete approaches and it would be a shame to abandon this great interest because someone might think they cannot afford the equipment. Of course, there are expensive and complicated instruments that someone can use these to give scientifically significant contributions, such as identifying comets, asteroids, studying variable stars and much more. But the sky can be observed in a productive and funny way with the naked eye too, learning to recognise the constellations or with some simple binoculars, you can see open clusters such as the Pleiades or the double cluster into Perseus.

The web is already full of all kinds of technical tutorials for newbies and this is the reason why I thought I'd write something new in this article, to overturn the approach to the subject alienating amateur astronomy from technicalities and covering it with a "romantic", interesting and inexpensive charm in order to cultivate the first steps of this passion.

The unusual approach I am proposing is the mix between the constellations and mythology. We´re studying constellations in the same way as the ancients did, thus passing on easy to remember legends and impressing on the memory references for boaters and caravanners in the past.

The stories describe the exploits of heroes and of who´s immortalized by the arrangement of the stars in the sky, and they are engaging and compelling to such an extent you´re going to meet your friends again on a summer evening, pointing out the Big Dipper and telling the legend of Zeus, Callisto, Artemis (Diana to the Romans) dealing with a mixture of seduction and betrayal, revenge and regret.

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Dear Astro-beginner,

If you liked this article and you found it helpful, all that is left to do now is to practice (in order to become more and more passionate about astronomy).
Furthermore, if you would like to contribute to this post, please do not hesitate to contact us at  !
Good luck and thank you for reading!


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