If you want to learn the basics of the night sky, the first thing you should get is a planisphere (rotating star finder) like David Chandler's The Night Sky (get it for the right latitude zone). With the help of this planisphere you will be able to identify the constellations on any night during the year. In may/june 2004 a brandnew magazine for the beginning observers (backyard-astronomers) comes available, Night Sky.
Use this planisphere together with beginner's books like:
|Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing...
by Terence Dickinson
A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets
by Jay M. Pasaschoff and Wil Tirion
When going outside with your planisphere and beginner's book, the only additional equipment you need is a red LED flashlight. This will enable you to read in the dark and preserve your dark adaptation. With these three basic tools you will not only learn to recognize the constellations, you will also learn about planets, comets, the moon, asteroids, meteors, stars and all the different types of deep sky objects.
An interesting newsgroup for all astronomical observers is Yahoo! Groups: Starrynights. This is the description of the group: "Starrynights is a list for posting astronomical observing reports, questions about observing techniques, and any other topic related to stargazing activities. Deep-sky, planetary, lunar, solar, meteor, comet - if you can observe it through a telescope, binoculars, or with the naked eye, it's appropriate".
Finally I would like to mention the Sky and Telescope - How To section. There you will find some great articles about astronomy basics and visual observing.
While you start observing the night sky, you probably develop a preference for a certain object or type of objects, like the moon, the planets or the deep sky.
I've you like to start observing the moon, get a map like Philip's Moon Map
Download the Virtual Atlas of the Moon from the Internet. This is great free Windows software for lunar observers. You can plan your lunar observing sessions, print maps, view pictures etc. There are two other applications for the lunar observer, Lunar Map Pro and LunarPhase Pro. You can find a review of LunarPhase Pro and the Virtual Atlas of the Moon in message 1137 of the Yahoo group Lunar-observing.
A very interesting site for lunar and planetary observers is ALPO, the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers. This site is for both novice and advanced amateur astronomers. You will find observation forms, interesting articles, links etc.
Join the Yahoo! Groups: "Lunar-observing" or/and Yahoo! Groups: "Lunar_observers". In these groups amateur astronomers meet to discuss their lunar observations. The Lunar observers group has a great links page. If you are looking for an observing list of the moon for beginners, go to the Lunar Club of The Astronomical League. There you will find the Lunar Club Observing List, a great help to start observing the moon.
If you are interested in observing the planets you will need some astronomical yearbook or some computer software (planetarium or observing planner) to locate the position of the planets and their moons at any given moment.
For the planning of all my observations, including the planets and their moons, I use SkyTools. Have a look at the site of SkyTools. You will find the features, several screenshots and a tour. There is also a discussion group that you can join: Yahoo! Groups: Skytools , where users meet to discuss, post questions, answers, comments and tips related to the use of SkyTools.
My own favourite textbook on the Planets is
The Planet Observer's Handbook by Fred W. Price.
And again, a very interesting site for planetary and lunar observers is ALPO, the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers. This site is for both novice and advanced amateur astronomers. You will find observation forms, interesting articles, links etc. Also have a look at the Astronomical League, Planetary Observers Club.
If you want to start with deep sky observing you will need a book with deep sky objects and an atlas to locate them. It's like visiting a country where you have never been, you need a travel guide and a roadmap. I started observing the deep sky with the help of Phil Harrington's The Deep sky, An Introduction. For a detailed description of this book please visit the Books & Software section on this site.
As an atlas, to accompany this book, I use Sky Atlas 2000.0 Field Version. There are different versions of this atlas. I prefer the laminated field edition (white stars on a black background). The lamination prevents the maps from getting wet or covered in dirt. They can be sponged off.
A good observing list for the beginning deep sky observer to start off with is the list of Messier objects. You can find this list in The Deepsky section on this site. I also have a book on the Messier objects which I can recommend, The Year-Round Messier Marathon Field... by H.C. Pennington. In this book you find everything you need to locate and observe the Messier objects.
There are some interesting sites that you should visit. First, the Skyhound. Here you will find timely information on interesting objects to observe, updated every month. Secondly I can recommend the Deepsky Observer's Companion homepage. There you will find articles for the beginner (Observing Tutorial, Just Starting Out, Basic Proficiencies). You should read all these articles. A great site for beginners and more seasoned deep sky observers.