If the Internet has as many astronomy resources as there are stars in the sky, then think of the Astronomy Web Guide
as your map to the best and brightest. Whether you're looking for planetary data, celestial gifts or fellow star seekers, we'll help you navigate the heavenly sphere of astronomy-related sites and tools on the Web. Educators: Sign up for our education newsletter.
Astronomy is one of the oldest, most popular branches of science. Unlike practitioners of medicine and alchemy, ancient astronomers needed little more than parchment and their eyes to examine the heavens and keep track of what they saw. For modern practitioners, gaining astronomical knowledge is essential to appreciating the universe and contributing to the study of cosmology. Use the sites below to learn about the history of astronomy.
- The Internet is a great place to start astronomy research but for advanced research, visit your local library, museum or astronomy research facility.
- Beware of sites posted by novices with outdated or incorrect information. As a general rule, the quality of a site (for example, organization and design) mirrors the quality of its information.
- Educational television networks like PBS and the Discovery Channel have made many excellent documentaries and lectures available on DVD. Most can be purchased through the network's site or on Amazon.com. Some may also be available at your local library.
American Institute of Physics
has a history of cosmology that offers coverage of ideas and tools for studying the universe. Links at the bottom of each topic page make it easy to navigate chronologically, and there are enough pictures to keep younger readers engaged.
Kent State University's
Physics Department presents information on famous astronomers and astrophysicists. It contains biographical links to other Web sites, though some of them are broken.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
is responsible for most of America's missions into space. This page archives info about all of the laboratory's past, present and future missions.
Images from outer space are among the most popular scientific artifacts today, capturing the attention and imagination of people regardless of their interest in astronomy. With the launch of major space-based telescopes in the 1990s, humans are seeing farther and clearer into the universe than ever before, and our catalog of astronomy pictures has increased exponentially. Much of this collection can be found on the Web.
- Online art vendors like AllPosters.com and Art.com have large selections of professional-grade astronomy prints that may be difficult to find elsewhere.
- Widespread use of digital photography has made it much easier for amateur astronomers to snap and post their own pictures. Browse their Web pages to find new images.
- If you're looking for a specific image, do a search for it on Google Images.
has an online gallery with pictures from the Hubble Telescope. It's a large, well-organized archive of the most breathtaking images available of outer space, with an emphasis on deep space objects (for example, nebulae, quasars and galaxies).
The Hubble Heritage Project
brings together a beautiful, hand-chosen array of images from Hubble's massive collection. It has a smaller selection than HubbleSite, but the images are slightly better quality and include highly informative captions by experts.
Astronomy Picture of the Day
(APOD) is exactly what the name implies. Run by professional astronomers since 1995 and endorsed by NASA, the site posts a dazzling new picture every day with a brief explanation. If you want to browse the archive, your best bet is to follow the Calendar
link and go month by month.
NASA Image eXchange
(NIX) is a search engine that pulls images from NASA's affiliated Web sites. Browse subject categories or search for keywords.
Buying telescopes, binoculars, cameras and other accessories is a big investment, and the salesperson at the optics store is hardly going to let you take something home for a night to test it out. Fortunately, the Web has plenty of resources for you to consult before taking the plunge.
- There's a lot of technical jargon associated with buying a telescope. You can learn what some of it means at Space.com.
- Before you begin shopping, try attending a local "star party." At these events, astronomy buffs get together with their telescopes, gaze at the sky, and talk shop about astronomy news and equipment. Trying other people's scopes will give you an idea of what to expect.
- Telescopes, binoculars and cameras are precision instruments that can be bulky. Consequently, shipping can be expensive and risky, so buy from a local dealer when possible. If you buy from an online merchant, make sure it's professional.
- If you're considering a specific telescope, camera or set of binoculars, type the make and model into a search engine and look for blogs where people talk about it. Hobbyists tend to be fanatical about equipment and enjoy sharing their opinions with peers.
offers a collection of reviews about sky-gazing equipment. It attracts a large community of sky watchers who really know their stuff. Be aware that the content on the right menu is all advertising.
Catching the Light
addresses every facet of photographing the skies you'd ever want to know, especially regarding digital cameras. Site author Jerry Lodriguss' astrophotography software is also very good.
is the leading name in online telescope and binocular sales, featuring a huge selection, great customer service, a functional site and no sales tax. Check in often, as pricing fluctuates.
The Sidewalk Astronomers
link to several outside Web sites with "build your own telescope" plans for the ultimate telescope purist.
Wouldn't it be great if you could actually find something other than the Big Dipper? The Web is your personal planetarium, helping you find constellations, planets and objects in the night sky.
- Most active observatories and planetariums have stargazing information on their Web sites. Find the site of the facility closest to you, as its information will pertain to your particular swath of the sky.
- If you print anything to reference in the field, make sure to put a red filter on the light you're using to illuminate it. It can take 30 minutes for your eyes to fully readjust to darkness after a white Maglite blast.
- When stargazing in cities or suburbs, be sure to use star maps that employ brighter objects as their points of reference, as dimmer objects can be rendered invisible by light pollution. Better yet, pack up the telescope and head somewhere with less luminary static. National parks, which enforce strict lighting ordinances, provide good vantage points.
Google Earth 5
includes Google Sky, an application that allows you to explore the cosmos the same way Google Earth lets you travel the globe. Go to the outer reaches of deep space or simply view the night sky as it appears from your back yard. It's user-friendly and free to download.
has a short Flash video called "Tonight's Sky" that highlights monthly stargazing events with clean graphics and terms that are easy to understand. The constellation Pegasus, for example, is compared to a baseball diamond. The site is great for kids.
The mantra of believers in extraterrestrial life rings true about astronomy buffs the world over: We are not alone. While staying home with the Zeiss and contemplating the cosmos solo has its charm, plugging into the astro-community and joining an astronomy club or association is the best way to keep up with the latest news, gadgets and gossip. Yes, there is astronomy gossip.
- Most moderate-sized cities have an astronomy club, and large cities often have multiple clubs. If you can't find one using one of the sites in this section, visit your nearest college's Web site and send a brief, polite e-mail to an astronomy professor or two.
- Astronomy clubs, observatories and other groups throw occasional "star parties" where members truck their telescopes away from city lights for optimal viewing. Larger regional parties, such as the McDonald Observatory's annual bash in Texas, are typically held in the summer and attract hundreds of people and guest speakers. Typing "(your city/state) star party" into any major search engine should yield positive results.
- If you're more interested in the theoretical/physics side of astronomy than actual sky gazing, spend some time snooping around the blogosphere. Not surprisingly, people who are interested in dark matter and the "Big Bang vs. Steady State" debate tend to spend a lot of time on their computers.
For amateur astronomers ...
lists regional astronomy clubs from all over the globe (but mostly in the United States). It also has listings for planetariums, observatories and museums. The listings are user-edited and fairly current.
The Sidewalk Astronomers
was cofounded by astronomy visionary John Dobson to popularize stargazing. Instead of retreating from city lights for star parties, sidewalk astronomers set up telescopes in urban areas where passersby can see them, ask questions and take a peek into the cosmos.
For professional astronomers ...
International Astronomical Union
is the largest and most prestigious organization for professional astronomers. It arranges meetings of astronomy experts from around the world to discuss the world of astronomy. It was at one of these meetings that Pluto was demoted to "dwarf planet" status.
Astronomical Society of the Pacific
was founded in 1889 to help promote the dissemination of astronomy information. It lives on as a professional association of researchers and educators. Amateur buffs are encouraged to join but may not benefit much from the perks.
Developments in astronomy happen at the speed of light. While scientists scramble to make sense of the data pouring in from space missions and laboratories, journalists and bloggers are hustling to spread the word. This section will help you keep pace with astronomy news.
- There are enough professional journalists covering astronomy news that it is unnecessary and potentially foolish to rely on blogs, many of which are run by uninformed amateurs. If you do read astronomy blogs, be sure to note the education level of the writer.
For amateur astronomers ...
features news and columns from the largest circulating astronomy magazine in the world. Its site has pictures, video and sky-watching tips. Some of the content requires a free registration.
Aviation newsroom is slightly sensationalist but a good Web destination for the scientifically disinclined who daydream about space travel. You'll find lots of cool, computer-generated pictures here.
is geared toward a commercial audience. Although not an engaging spot for hardcore science buffs, its business report is arguably the best on the Web for updates in the industry of space exploration. You'll also see where private and government astronomy dollars are being spent.
For more advanced astronomers ...
brings readers news directly from universities and research facilities. Articles are highly thorough and assume a large amount of science familiarity on the part of the reader. There are lots of ads, including sneakily placed ones within the news feed, but they're worth wading through for serious astronomers.
Astronomy Now Online
is the United Kingdom's best-selling astronomy magazine, and the news stories on its Web site are great browsing material for astronomy enthusiasts. It has a good mixture of space travel, physics research and observational information.
hosted by Discovery Magazine, is a blog written by Phil Plait, an astronomer, author and lecturer. He reports stories in astronomy news and offers his commentary in an engaging, entertaining and informative manner.
In 1995, the comet Hale-Bopp was concurrently discovered by two men: Alan Hale, a Ph.D.-holding astronomer, and Thomas Bopp, a factory manager who did not even own a telescope. This section is for both Bopps and aspiring Hales. Get information on volunteering in astronomy with the sites below.
- Museums, observatories, libraries and schools are always looking for enthusiastic, curious volunteers. Their Web sites will often have volunteer information.
- The biggest way to contribute to the field, of course, is to pursue a career in astronomy. This doesn't necessarily mean becoming an astronaut or peering through a telescope all day. Browse NASA's job page to get an idea of what's out there.
- If you're a college student considering majoring in astronomy, you'd better have a good head for numbers. In academic terms, astronomy has become synonymous with astrophysics, and pro astronomers spend more time with big math equations than big telescopes.
enables Internet volunteers to help scientists classify a million galaxies. Just sign up, do a few practice galaxies in the tutorial and you're on your way. It's an easy, fun way to contribute to actual astronomy research and see parts of the universe nobody has ever seen before.
The Planetary Society
was cofounded by astro-heavyweight Carl Sagan, and offers members the chance to directly contribute (mostly financially) to space technology, exploration and government policy. If you're willing to part with your money to help build solar sails and petition Congress for NASA funding, this is the place to do it.
Google Lunar X Prize
was announced by the X Prize Foundation in September 2007. The goal: be the first to put a robot on the surface of the moon that can roam 500 meters and broadcast video, images and data back to Earth. The grand prize: $30 million.
International Dark-Sky Association
is dedicated to decreasing light pollution worldwide. More than 10,000 members support dark-sky legislation, public dialogue and coordinate "Lights Out" (turning off nonessential lighting) events. Members get a newsletter and voting privileges in electing board members.
For years, friends and family of astronomy buffs were limited to museum emporia and shopping mall novelty stores for celestial gift ideas. Thanks to the Internet, a variety of astronomy gifts are just a click away.
- Astronomers at all levels tend to be very picky about their stargazing equipment. Make sure you do some research before buying them any sky-watching tools.
- Mega marketplaces like eBay and Amazon are good places to find astronomy books, DVDs and other media. Keep in mind whether your astronomy buff has a preference for "theoretical" (astrophysics) or "observational" (stargazing) astronomy. For the latter, a sky atlas might be a better choice than a NOVA documentary.
- Most observatories and museums have gift shops on their Web sites, but the merchandise is nearly always overpriced. As a general rule, only browse here to get ideas, but make your purchase elsewhere.
offers more than 7,000 astronomy designs that can be put on shirts, clocks, mouse pads and other items. Looking for a coffee mug with a corny astronomy joke on it? This is the place.
Starry Night Store
has among the best planetarium software around and offers a wider variety of programs than other manufacturers. Each program is slightly different, so pick the one that's right for you. These make excellent gifts for people who have equally strong passions for astronomy and computers.
is a vendor of global astronomy tours. Travel packages typically include travel fare, lodging and informational lectures from professional astronomers and academics. Trips are expensive, but the brochures and attendant daydreaming are free.
International Star Registry
lets you name your very own star—sort of. The names are not recognized by any scientific body, but you do get a spiffy certificate and map to find your star. Other registries exist, but these folks are the oldest and biggest. There is some disdain for these unscientific registries among hardcore astronomers, so the gift is probably best reserved for someone who will appreciate the sentiment.
Starry Night Lights
is nominally a retailer of lighting that helps reduce light pollution and preserve the clarity of the night sky. Most of the products are not cheap, and the majority of the indoor lighting products don't have any apparent night sky-friendly function. It's best used as a place to get ideas for responsible outdoor lighting that you'll probably find cheaper at your local hardware or home furnishing store.
Most Recent Guides