The Amateur Astronomer’s Skill Set
By Bill Pellerin
Houston Astronomical Society GuideStar Editor
What skills do you need to have to become an amateur astronomer? It depends on what you want to do as an amateur astronomer. I was thinking about this question as I recently upgraded the operating system on my computer. Doing so involves performing backups of the computer, establishing a back-out plan if the upgrade fails, testing the system after the upgrade, and resolving the odd problems that remain following the upgrade.
Since my computer controls my telescope mount, my imaging camera, and my guiding camera I needed to be sure that these capabilities were still functional after the upgrade. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
If your observational activities are limited to basic observing and to pushing an alt-az mounted telescope to objects on the sky using a set of paper star maps, there are a lot of skills involved. You will have to learn how the objects in the sky move (as Earth rotates) and how to move the telescope to track these objects, how to set up and align a finder, how to collimate your (reflector) telescope, how to read star maps, how to star-hop to your object of interest, and how to confirm that what you see in the eyepiece is indeed the object you intended to find. You need to know the neighborhood – you must be able to look at the sky and pick out some major constellations and stars. In some, more dense, parts of the sky it may take some time to confirm the observation. You’ll have to have a plan, and a list of objects that are available to observe on that night and you need to know what to expect to see for each object. Is the object large and diffuse, or small and bright? Will filters help you pick the object out of the sky? Which filters?
If your telescope mount has an on-board computer you have to learn how to set it up and use it. Every manufacturer’s mount has a different setup process, and you’ll have to become comfortable with the process for your system over time. The setup may require that you know your latitude and longitude. You need to be able to convince yourself that the process worked as expected. The mount that I now use has a setup process that seemed ‘backwards’ to me when I first tried it. Over time, though, the process made more sense and I can now easily perform the process without giving it much thought. It’s a matter of teaching yourself these techniques; it’s like learning how to drive a car – not easy at first. Once the setup is complete, you have to learn how to direct the telescope to objects of interest. You have to understand what to do if the object you want is not in the object list of the telescope’s mount.
Are you going to control your telescope with an external computer? If so, you need to have some computer skills to set up the computer, to install the software, and to understand how to use it. You have to establish communications between the computer and the telescope mount. You’ll have to understand USB ports, serial ports (maybe), Ethernet networks (perhaps), and all the settings in the software you use to make the communications work. It can be challenging, and sometimes your best efforts end in frustration.
If you plan to be an imager, someone who takes photos of objects in the sky, you have to learn about cameras, filters, and camera control software. Depending on your imaging requirements you may have to develop expertise on how to use an autoguider and its associated software. Your skill set will need to include the ability to process your images, whether you’re doing photometry (brightness measurements), astrometry (position measurements), or images to hang on the wall. Learning and using high end image processing software will be in your future if doing this work is your goal.
As your observing system gets more complex there is more opportunity for things to go wrong and so you’ll have to have some troubleshooting skills. You have to learn how to isolate the problems and fix them. If your computer is not communicating with your telescope mount, why isn’t it? Did you forget to connect a cable? Do you have a defective cable? Is the cable wired correctly? Is the software misconfigured? Is the mount misconfigured?
There’s no requirement that we as amateur astronomers develop skills beyond those of finding and admiring objects in the sky. Those of us who want to do more will have to learn how to do more. It’s rewarding, but it requires adding to our skill sets and making the effort to do so.