Few things are more entrancing than a New Mexico night sky. It’s vast, pitch black and filled with billions of crystal-clear stars. For most New Mexicans, the night sky provides a moment of reverie or relaxation, or perhaps a sign of things to come, should they spy a shooting star.
Without knowing it, however, these stargazers are also seeing planets, asteroids and even entire galaxies that are millions of light-years away. Indeed, the unaided eye can see much more of the universe than you’d think.
New Mexico, because of its dark skies and low light-pollution, is a hub for “backyard astronomers,” people whose hobby is to watch the sky with the unaided eye, binoculars or telescopes.
You too can be a backyard astronomer. Amateur astronomy is fairly easy to get into, and if you do a little research, relatively inexpensive too. Here’s what you need to know to get started:
1. Find a good spot
Yes, it’s called “backyard” astronomy, but in truth, the best places to stargaze are far, far away from city lights, buildings, dust, and smog. The darker the sky, the better visibility you will have. Luckily for New Mexicans, you don’t have to go far to get away from it all. We have endless amounts of wide-open space all around us. Of course, you can start in your backyard, then venture to more remote locations as you become more advanced.
2. Orient yourself with the sky
The stars may seem like they’re randomly scattered about, but there is actually an organized layot them. So, it’s critical to know what you’re looking at. Learn the names and patterns of the major constellations, which will become reference points for finding lesser-known celestial objects. To get you started, Sky & Telescope magazine publishes monthly naked-eye star charts and offers a free guide for getting started in astronomy.
Also check your local library for books and maps. Tip: “The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide” by Terence Dickson and Alan Dyer, is among one of the most recommended books for newbie stargazers.
3. Start with binoculars
When you’re just starting, you needn’t shell out loads of your hard-earned money for a fancy telescope. A nice pair of binoculars can be just as effective, and less expensive. In fact, astronomers sometimes prefer binoculars, since they can give you a wider view. Telescopes are ideal for honing in on a specific celestial object, which is necessary, but this means they can also limit your viewing range.
4. If you like it, purchase a telescope
If after experimenting with amateur astronomy you decide you like it, then purchase a telescope. You’ll be happy to know that a higher sticker price doesn’t necessarily equal higher quality. For advice on the telescope that’s best for you and your wallet, check out The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide’s best beginner telescopes.
5. Join an amateur astronomer group
Hobbies are always more fun when shared. Luckily for backyard astronomers in New Mexico, there are tons of groups to join. Check out the Alamogordo-based Amateur Astronomers Group, Astronomical Society of Las Cruces, Albuquerque Astronomical Society, and Rio Rancho Astronomical Society. These are just a few, so for more New Mexico astronomy groups, click here.
Happy stargazing! Are their any astronomers in the SECU community? Introduce yourself in the comments section below.