Beginning Astronomy

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Getting started

I have been interested in armchair astronomy all of my life.  I grew up watching the astronauts land on the moon.  I worked for an aerospace company testing and manufacturing rockets that helped us send space probes to Mars and Saturn.  And I really love the pictures that the professional astronomers produce.  But, it took me many years to get interested in amateur astronomy.  Fortunately, with the help of some good friends, Paul, Bob and Bruce gently showed me what a wonderful hobby this is.  They also showed me the correct way to get into this hobby.
Surprisingly, the first thing that you need to do as you get into astronomy is to NOT pick up a telescope.  Telescopes are wonderful tools, and fun toys.  However, without knowing where to point them, they are useless.  The family that picks up a telescope at WalMart, points their new toy at the stars, finds nothing, and never uses the telescope again is much too common.  Let me say it again - don't buy a telescope.  Yet.

First off, study.   A great place to start is Sky and Telescope's advice for beginners.  It can be found here: Your First Steps In Astronomy (By Sky and Telescope).  Next, pick up a few good books and magazines and read them.  Some of my favorites are as follows (listed in the order that a beginner should probably read them):
Next, join a club.  A great place to go to find an astronomical club near you is:  Clubs & Organizations (by Sky and Telescope).  Go to some club meetings.  Meet people in the light while you can recognize them.  Go to some club star parties.  Check out all of the equipment.  Try to figure out what you like and don't like.  Ask people what they like and dislike about their setups.  Trust me - they will be flattered, and will tell you more than you want to know.  Another thing to do is to check out what people are looking at.  If you get excited by the beautiful views through the telescopes that you see, this is probably your hobby.  If you keep saying "is that faint, fuzzy thing all there is to see", you probably don't want to sink a lot of money into a telescope.


Pretty quickly, you are going to want to buy a pair of binoculars.  I have had a telescope for about 4 years, and I still take my binoculars with me.  Binoculars have the following advantages: they are light weight,  they are very portable and they are relatively cheap.  They have very good field of views.  They also have many uses outside of astronomy.  When I go backpacking, I take a good pair of binoculars with me, and leave a telescope behind.  Friends are always amazed what you can see through binoculars with dark skies.

Why are binoculars good for astronomy?  Surprisingly, most of the things that you want to see in the night sky are not SMALL, as much as they are DIM.  So, the first thing that we want to do is make them brighter.  As a general rule, binoculars make things about 10 times bigger, but they make them about 100 times brighter!  Brighter is what we are often after.

What can you see in binoculars?  An amazing amount!  A good write-up on this topic can be found at Binoculars: Halfway to a Telescope (By Sky and Telescope). Be sure to read all of the pages - this is a good, in-depth write-up.  Next time you are out in the country at night, take a few hours to look at the sky with a pair of binoculars.  In the spring, be sure to check out Sagittarius and Scorpios.  In the summer take a look at the milky way around Cygnus and the Andromeda Galaxy.  Fall is the time to check out the double cluster in Perseus and the Pleiades.  Winter - winter is for Orion.  Look at the Orion nebula and the belt stars.  As I said, you can see a lot with binoculars.  Surprisingly, many objects in the night sky are better with binoculars than a telescope.

What binoculars should you buy?  First, check out this article: Choosing Binoculars for Stargazing (By Sky and Telescope).   I have one major disagreement with this article - on focusing.  EVERYONE who uses my binoculars will want to re-focus.  I am very near sighted, and use my binos without glasses.  So, I am constantly re-focusing any instrument that I use.  My recommendation on binoculars would be to buy one from the following two groups.  Either pick up a set of 8x50 to 10x50's for between $100 and $200, or pick up a pair of image stabilized binoculars (see next paragraph), such as the Canon 10x30IS for about $450.  If you spend more than this, you may as well put your money into a better telescope, and if you spend less than this, you will be very disappointed.

I am going to put in a plug for the image stabilized Canons.  One of the biggest problems with binoculars for star gazing is that the stars don't stay still.  They make an infinite number of little circles, as the user shakes.  This is one of the reasons that we don't go with more than 10 power - without a mount.  (Of course the other is that we want things to be bright, which you get by NOT magnifying too much.)  One solution is to somehow mount the binoculars to a tripod.  But a new method that works better is image stabilizing.  Basically, you put 2 AA batteries into the thing, aim, focus, and push a button.  The stars immediately become pinpoints  If you can afford them, the image stabilized binos are fabulous.  Canon's, are one of the best brands.  I chose the Canon 10X30's because the next step up is very expensive, and two steps up are very expensive and very heavy.  Frankly, the 10X30's are bright enough - they use magic coatings on each of the lenses to keep light loss down, and so really do feel like a pair of 10X50's on a tripod.  One down side is that image stabilized binoculars eat batteries.  Get some rechargeable AA's and a good battery charger.

First Telescope

You need to know what you are going to do with a telescope before you buy one.  The reasons are actually pretty simple.  Planets are bright, but they are also very small.  So, for planet work, you require a fairly small telescope with exquisite (expensive) optics and an excellent mount.  You often need the same setup for binary star viewing.  For deep space work, such as galaxies, globular clusters and nebula, you need to get all of the brightening that you can get, so these optics need to be as big and fast as possible.  Both of which cause tradeoffs.  But I get ahead of myself.

First off, take a look at the article Choosing Your First Telescope (By Sky and Telescope)

Next, realize that a telescope is not the only thing that you need to purchase to have a well balanced system.  As a rule of thumb, I would guess that you will spend 50% of your money on your telescope, 25% on eyepieces, and 25% on miscellaneous other stuff.  For instance, a good set of books and maps are the first thing that you should purchase, along with an eyepiece box and a good chair.

Telescopes really have 4 parts.  These parts are as follows:  Primary optics (a mirror or a large lens), eyepiece(s), a mount, and a finding/pointing device.  I will cover them next.
So, what would I recommend?  As of two years ago, when I purchased one, I would recommend an Orion Skyquest XT8 8"  f5.9  or Orion Skyquest XT10 10" f4.7.  I don't know anything about the  IntelliScope - I still use a map. Look at the review of 8" dobs in Sky and Telescope Magazine a few years ago.  Modifications to this telescope follow:
There are a few other items that you really need to use a telescope. 

Expanding horizons

Astronomers have a great deal of room to grow.  The following list is just a few of the areas that an astronomer can explore.