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#CitSciStories 1: Amateur Astronomy by Emma Thompson

Welcome to the first #CitSciStories post! This is by Emma Thompson, from Ashford Astronomical Society. This was first posted on Facebook on 28 June.

I joined my first astronomical society when I was 16, almost twenty years ago. Then, as now, meetings were held in a slighty draughty community centre and fuelled by tea. The cold didn’t even matter, because not only did I get to listen to and chat with a range of enthusiastic astronomers, but I could get my hands on a telescope straight away! In my experience, astronomers are evangelical about their hobby and the work they do for it, and especially delight in seeing someone gasp as they observe Saturn for the first time through a telescope (it’s breathtaking!).

I have now been a member of Ashford Astronomical Society for almost 9 years, and the Society itself celebrated its 10th anniversary just a few months ago. What started as a small group of friends round the table at a pub has grown into a group of over 100 members, a trend which looks set to continue. One of our high points was hosting the meeting of the British Astronomical Association a couple of years ago, a great honour and fantastic chance to meet face-to-face with people that previously we had only communicated with via the internet.

What I particularly enjoy about our group is how diverse the interests are among the members. Some can’t get enough of discussing their latest observations of planets, others will tell you everything you ever wanted to know (and what you didn’t!) about human spaceflight. We have several members who can produce astronomical images built up from hours of observations, and one who will show you how to make your own comet in 10 minutes! I always come out of meetings with some new information, and a sense of community from sharing a passion with like-minded friends. I am fortunate enough to run our group’s Twitter feed as well, which has let me chat with astronomers in many places across the globe, and build links with them on both personal and club levels.

So many people buy (or receive as a gift) a shiny new telescope, then put it away in the loft without using it to its full potential (or even at all) purely because they aren’t sure how to. I always advise visiting a local astronomy group with the telescope, because someone there will be pleased to help you - you’d probably end up with quite a crowd of people wanting to show you things! Even better, why not visit your local group and see what types of instrument are available before you splash your cash? You might find one type of telescope (or binoculars) suits you more than another. Most of all, don’t forget that a huge amount of interesting astronomy can be done without spending any money at all - because all you need are a dark site and your eyes. Planets, dust clouds, even our neighbouring galaxy (M31, Andromeda) can be seen without needing anything more.

Clear skies!

Photo by Ewan Vellacott.

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