Look at yourself. You are an amateur who knows nothing about the stars and yet, only a couple of centuries ago, knowing you Canis Major from your Scorpio was common knowledge. Even the dog seems to have a better clue when he howls at the stars and moon.
Somehow you feel that if, one day, you get into a serious pickle beyond the edge of civilization, navigating your way on the stars at night, just as your grandfather did in the army, or your cousin who sails the world, could save your life and that of your buddies. Your forefathers, and dog, smirk at the level of ignorance they last recognised in the eyes of the now extinct dodo.
Furthermore, chicks digg it when you put your arms around them and tell them that you can find their astrology sign in the skies. It won’t be long until she realizes that besides being her ‘mon astronamour’, you are also the man of her life…or the biggest nerd ever. (If you happen to be a woman reading this, I would like to know if it works the other way round as well). Advice: women are always right, even when they are not, and it was going to happen anyway. Just make sure your lack of ‘cavemanesque savoir faire’ was not at factor. What to do?
Now, you can try to fill this possibly embarrassing abyss in your knowledge and camp for a year in your local library. However, modern technology is able to give you an astronomy crash course that speeds up this process with insightful graphics, animations and, surprisingly, software solutions that are completely free. Not “freemium-free”, but “free” as it was used in the days before you were born: meaning, it doesn’t cost you a nickel, penny nor access to your social network. Add to these tools the myriad of expert YouTube tutorials that are freely available, and you will feel less clueless when visiting your local astronomy club for the first time. (Admit it, you have always secretly wanted to.)
Personally, we had been using a software called Cybersky 5 for a couple of years now (screenshot above). This is a 30 day free trial before subscription software, that first came available in around 1995. It will set you back around USD 17-35, so there is a cost. But it is a very compact file on crowded computers. We cannot tell how many hours it saved us in finding that special star, constellation or nebula and pointing our head, binoculars or telescope at the right part of the sky in the same part of year. As a beginner you undoubtedly start looking at parts of the sky looking for a planet, very patiently sipping your thermos coffee, only to realize later that at this time of the year it is below the horizon. Oh well…I forgive myself, because I do like my moments alone with coffee. Today it is almost impossible to make such a mistake, because planning your observation using software has never been easier.
Recently, I discovered an open source software, stellarium, that is completely free. It has been developed over the course of a couple of years by a group of astronomy enthusiasts who, frankly, are doing a great job. Behind it is a network of like-minded individuals. Not only did they create a very easy user interface, the graphics are beautiful. Now, this is not the only free solution on the market, because Google Earth also offers vista’s of the sky at night directly above your head or any place you choose on Earth; but the level of detail and accuracy is breathtaking. It can be taxing on older computers because you do need a gigabyte of space and a somewhat recent graphics card (still, any computer bought after 2010 will do) but it is certainly worth the effort of downloading it, even in parts of the world that have slower download speeds.
You will have a free tool at you hand that professional astronomers, even a couple of decades ago, could only dream about. Because you can play with the time settings, you will learn much much faster about how precisely planets, those “former gods and wanderers of old” and stars move against the sky in real life.
Once you have it downloaded, go to your coordinates on Earth, select the time and date (can be now, in a week or ten thousand of years ago) and you are on your way to learn to explore the sky.
Even better. If you are an archaeology fan, you can even test archaeastronomy findings. Observe the sky above Stonehenge, the Pyramids, Angkor Watt, Gunang Padang, Puma Punku 5.000 or 10.000 years ago and draw your own conclusions about what our forefathers, those mysterious ancients, were up to when they built those monuments. Were they just organizing their harvesting calendar or were they instead trying to warn us about a future periodic and dangerous meteor shower, with some big chunks hidden in it, that will possibly end our civilization…again???? Well. If the object is in the large database, you could possibly find out with this software. You would do humanity a favor. That is, of course, if they believe you and your cardboard sign. Have fun.
If you happen to be an expert amateur astronomer, or amateur expert, feel free to give us some insightful comments on how you made your feet wet and dug into the world of astronomy.
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