A beginner’s guide to stargazing and space things

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The Milky Way as seen from Cannon Beach, Ore. Courtesy of Michael Matti Photography through Creative Commons via Flickr

Space might be the final frontier, but frontiers are terrifying. I mean, have you ever read about the Wild West? It was nothing but murder, dirt and saloon cakes. Space is a lot like the Wild West in that regard—in that I want to stay as far away from it as possible.

No, sir, Mr. McConaughey. You can keep your space-y time adventures. I’d much rather be sitting in my folding chair in the middle of a field, a tall glass of Yoo-hoo in one hand and my trusty inhaler in the other, gazing up at the stars and as far from any space cowboys and their wrangling as possible.

If you feel similarly (and I imagine you do, because we’re very reasonable people, you and I) then you might want to know a thing or two about your local stargazing options and organizations. Organized stargazing is a great way to meet new people or watch them from afar, depending on how your telescope is set up.

Stardate: Friendship

First step to learning more about the astronomy behind stargazing is what exactly the hobby entails. One of the best places to do this is at a local group meetup. Luckily, one of the most established and frequent local meetup organizations is the Rose City Astronomers.

The Rose City Astronomers are just what they sound like: a group of individuals dedicated to stargazing in the Portland area. The group hosts Star Parties with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry on a monthly basis and in conjunction with various celestial events.

The next Star Parties are set to take place in Stub Stewart State Park and Rooster Rock State Park on May 23, from 7:30—11 p.m. The only fee is the state park parking fee, which will only set you back by about $5.

The Rose City Astronomers also meet on the third Monday of every month for general membership meetings. The meetings are free and a great way to learn more about the group and what they’re all about. The group often holds their membership meetings at OMSI.

I’m more of a Pluto

One of the most important tools for the veteran stargazer is a telescope. That is, unless you have crazy bird eyes. But those aren’t real, so we don’t talk about them.

If you’re not sure you want to get into astronomy hardcore, you might want to look into some more basic options. According to the Rose City Astronomers website, binoculars are a good way to test the waters. They’re also good if you’re living in a light-polluted area, like a city.

Reflectors are the most entry-level kind of telescope. Highly manual in nature, the reflector telescope will set you back about $400. More expensive telescopes, like Schmidt Cassegrains and refractors, allow the operator to automatically track an object. A reflector requires the operator to manually track objects.

Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes are stubby and compact, and very good for long-exposure photography. A Schmidt Cassegrain costs anywhere between $1,200 and $3,000. If you’re into compact living, the Schmidt Cassegrain might be the way to go if you can drop the moola required.

If you’re stargazing whale, though—someone who feels no qualms about throwing around thousands of dollars to check out cool space rocks—you might be interested in a refractor telescope. Whereas reflectors and Schmidt Cassegrains use mirrors to focus light, ironically the reflector telescope uses lenses. Reflector telescopes are known for their crisp image but can cost upward of $3,000.

So, yeah. Maybe stick with binoculars until you’re really ready to take the plunge. It’s full of apps.

If you want to get into some amateur astronomy, there’s no doubt that you should scour your local library for helpful books on the subject, but this is also 2015, and apps are king. Besides, if you can just whip out your phone or tablet and find Jupiter in the night’s sky, well, then that’s all the more convenient.

The NASA app

Who better than NASA to let you know when staggeringly beautiful celestial events are coming up? No one. That’s who. This app also includes the latest updates, videos and images from ongoing space exploration.

Star Chart

If ever there’s been an app to deliver existential dread, Star Chart is it! Of course this app uses your phone’s camera to determine your location and highlight constellations in the night’s sky, but it will also show you what that same night’s sky would look like thousands of years in the future or past. Either way, you’d be actual, literal dust! Hurray for the inexorable march of time!

SkyView Satellite Guide

Have you ever wondered what’s above you at all times? Sure, there are planets and a ton of stars, but there are also hundreds of satellites. Now you can know where all the satellites are, all the time!
Even the weird government satellites!

You can even use that data to observe those satellites with your binoculars or telescope. But not the weird government satellites. Don’t look at the weird government satellites.

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