I have been interested in
armchair astronomy all of my
life. I grew up watching the astronauts land on the
worked for an aerospace company testing and manufacturing rockets that
helped us send space probes to Mars and Saturn. And I really
the pictures that the professional astronomers produce. But,
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
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.
wonderful tools, and fun toys. However, without knowing where
point them, they are
useless. The family that picks up a telescope at WalMart,
their new toy at the stars, finds nothing, and never
uses the telescope again is much too common. Let me say it
buy a telescope. Yet.
study. A great
place to start is Sky and Telescope's advice for beginners.
be found here: Your
First Steps In Astronomy (By Sky and Telescope).
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):
Nightwatch by Terence Dickinson ISBN
Absolutely fabulous beginning Astronomy book. Starts with an
explanation of how to find your way around in the night sky, then talks
about equipment, then presents some very good, easy to read maps of the
Either "DeepMap 600" by Orion (see links) or "Meade Star
Charts". (I have also seen this under "Celestron Star Charts"
same thing.) Basically, pick up a good star chart.
Pick up either a subscription to Sky & Telescope
The Backyard Astronomer's Guide by Terence Dickinson
Dyer ISBN 1-55209-507-X. The first third of this book covers
equipment. Be sure to read it before buying binoculars or a
telescope. The next half covers observing - naked eye as well
using binoculars/telescopes. The last sixth talks about
astrophotography. The hardware section is the best that I
ever read, even making specific telescope and eyepiece recommendations.
Advanced Skywatching by Robert Burnham, Alan Dyer, Robert
Garfinkle, Martin George, Jeff Kanipe, and David H Levy ISBN
0-7835-4941-5. This book has 20 wonderful "tours" of the
constellations that demonstrate open clusters, globular clusters,
double stars, variable stars, galaxies, etc. Going through
a great way to get motivated, succeed, and enjoy learning the night
365 Starry Nights by Chet Raymo ISBN 0671766066.
This is a
fun book that gives you a good overview of the night skies, from maps
of the cosmos to stories from the ancients. This book is best
used by the side of your bed on full moon or cloudy nights.
(However, it did
not get rave reviews on Amazon.)
Next, join a club. A great place to go to find an
club near you is: Clubs
Organizations (by Sky and Telescope). Go to some
meetings. Meet people in the light while you can recognize
them. Go to some club star parties. Check out all
equipment. Try to figure out what you like and don't
Ask people what they like and dislike about their setups.
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
at. If you get excited by the beautiful views through the
telescopes that you see, this is probably your hobby. If you
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
years, and I still take my binoculars with me. Binoculars
the following advantages: they are light weight, they are
portable and they are relatively cheap. They have very good
of views. They also have many uses
outside of astronomy. When I go backpacking, I take a good
of binoculars with me, and leave a telescope behind. Friends
always amazed what you can see through binoculars with dark skies.
Why are binoculars good for astronomy? Surprisingly, most of
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
brighter. As a general rule, binoculars make things about 10
bigger, but they make them about 100 times brighter! Brighter
what we are often after.
What can you see in binoculars? An amazing amount!
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.
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
check out Sagittarius and Scorpios. In the summer take a look
the milky way around Cygnus and the Andromeda Galaxy. Fall is
time to check out the double cluster in Perseus and the
Winter - winter is for Orion. Look at the Orion nebula and
belt stars. As I said, you can see a lot with
Surprisingly, many objects in the night sky are better with binoculars
than a telescope.
What binoculars should you buy? First, check out this
Binoculars for Stargazing (By Sky and Telescope).
have one major disagreement with this article - on focusing.
EVERYONE who uses my binoculars will want to re-focus. I am
near sighted, and use my binos without glasses. So, I am
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
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.
of the biggest problems with binoculars for star gazing is that the
stars don't stay still. They make an infinite number of
circles, as the user shakes. This is one of the reasons that
don't go with more than 10 power - without a mount. (Of
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
Basically, you put 2 AA batteries into the thing, aim, focus, and push
a button. The stars immediately become pinpoints If
afford them, the image stabilized binos are fabulous.
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
You need to know what you
are going to
do with a telescope before you buy one. The reasons are
pretty simple. Planets are bright, but they are also very
small. So, for planet work, you require a fairly small
with exquisite (expensive) optics and an excellent mount. You
often need the same setup for binary star viewing. For deep
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
But I get ahead of myself.
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,
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
Primary optics (a mirror or a large lens), eyepiece(s), a mount, and a
finding/pointing device. I will cover them next.
Optics. Optics come in two groups - reflectors
and refractors (lenses). Reflectors are much cheaper for a
size, and can be optically very good. Newtonian reflectors
secondary flat, small mirror at 45 degrees at the top of the tube,
the light into the eyepiece. I prefer reflectors, since I
primarily like deep space stuff.
Aperture - this is the diameter of the primary
should be as large as possible, with two qualifications.
cost. As a telescope gets bigger, costs go up much faster
supporting equipment also increases in cost - to include ladders,
trucks and trailers. 8" to 10" primaries are a good size for
beginner. Second issue is transportation. If you
the scope, store it, transport it, and set it up - EASILY - it is a
size. If it isn't easy to use, it is too big. Once
an 8" to 10" primary is a good size for a beginner.
f ratio. f = focal length of the primary /
aperture. Some telescopes are fast (small f number), and
some are slow (big f number). There are advantages and
disadvantages to both. Fast telescopes have f numbers under
5. Advantages are that they are shorter, see a larger area of
sky, and things look brighter (for a given eyepiece).
Disadvantages are that they are harder to make, so either are often of
inferior quality or cost more - for equivalent
Faster scopes are generally better for deep space viewing.
telescopes have f numbers
over 6. Advantages are that they will have often have better
optics for the same cost, and they magnify objects more.
Disadvantages are that they are often longer and have a smaller field
of view. A good f number for a
beginner is in the f4.5 to f6 range.
Eyepieces: All telescopes come with
eyepieces. I am
using the term eyepieces loosely. Generally, the best thing
with your new telescope eyepieces are to throw them in a box, and never
look at them again. Buy some new, quality ones at the time
buy your telescope. See the book The Backyard Astronomer's
listed above for recommendations. One set that I know are
good are the Meade Super Plossl set. Buy a 26mm and a
9.7mm. Also, buy a 2x barlow. The short one by
pretty good. Now, you have the equivalent of a 26mm, a 13mm,
10mm and a 5mm eyepiece set. That is a pretty good
better eyepieces, up to a point, is probably the cheapest way to
improve any telescope.
Mount: Mounts really come in two flavors. One is
dobsonian mount (a simple, dumb, up, down and sideways mount), and the
other will be some
flavor of mount that will track the stars (such as an
or a computer driven mount). The second group are generally
tripod type mounts. I like a dobsonian mount. It is
it sets up quickly (in only a few minutes), it is cheap, and it forces
learn the stars. One draw back is that it is no good for
astrophotography - but astrophotography isn't for beginners
me. Never underestimate the importance of the mount on your
telescope. One of the biggest complaints I hear from
how complex their mount is, and/or how much the telescope vibrates,
and/or how awkward using the telescope is ( i.e., where the mount has
Finders: I like a pointer that does NOT magnify the sky, or
invert it. The two that I would recommend are a
(Excellent, but big, bulky and ugly), and a Rigel Quickfinder (Not
quite as easy to use, but small, pretty and light weight)
So, what would I recommend? As of two years ago, when I
one, I would recommend an Orion Skyquest XT8 8"
Orion Skyquest XT10 10" f4.7. I don't know anything about
the IntelliScope - I still use a map. Look at the review of
dobs in Sky and Telescope Magazine a few years ago.
Modifications to this telescope follow:
Add a Telrad to the top of the scope. You will be
If you even think that you may use the finder,
if you buy the XT8.
Add some plastic washers (cut from milk jugs) that are
in diameter around the center bolt, above the ground board and below
rocker box. You want about 80% of the total weight of the
to rest on
this washer. That way, the telescope rotates easily in the
If you can, pick up a carrying bag for the scope.
sells them specifically for this scope.
There are a few other items that you really need to use a
Pick up two good eyepieces. If you can, get some
superwide eyepieces. If not, get a good quality super
plossl. Ask for
recommendations at a local telescope shop. Get a 2x barlow.
Pick up a nebula
filter. These are often labeled narrowband filters.
filter out all of the light that hits the telescope (and eyepiece) -
with the exception of the light that some nebula give off.
helps darken the sky and remove light pollution.
A chair. This can be anything from a lawn chair
cushions to a music adjustable chair to a custom telescope
Search for "denver chair astronomy" on the internet. A great
Warm clothes. Thermals, boots, gloves, hat,
some hand warmers from WalMart. Warm coffee and/or junk food
wonderful about midnight.
A table. Some folks use this, some folks
have been thinking of getting one forever, but haven't yet. I
the trunk of my car.
Red flashlight. Red doesn't effect your night
white. The one that I use is from Wal Mart. It is a
flashlight with an optional red lens. It is too bright for
folks, but I find that I can read with it. Reading is good.
Laser collimator - or a cheshire eyepiece.
scope every time you use it - especially if it was banged or if it is a
truss type telescope.
Binoculars. See above
Another lawn chair to chat with the guys.
Astronomers have a great
deal of room
to grow. The following list is just a few of the areas that
astronomer can explore.
Get a different telescope.
A scope that is designed for astrophotography.
other things, these track the rotation of the earth in reverse, keeping
your object in the eyepiece. Well, actually - they keep the
object in your CCD camera. These are often a pain to set up,
are fairly expensive.
A bigger telescope. These include reflectors up
to 25" to
30". Realize that as you increase size of the telescope, you
get slightly better views with a huge increase in hassle and
believe that the sweet spot on telescopes is as follows:
8 inch f6 or 10 inch f5. Good beginner scope,
easily portable. This one should fit into a car. It
also works with a chair, giving you steadier viewing than standing
up. Best bang per dollar. Somewhere under $500.
(DS-3 is a hybrid. It has the light gathering
step under a 15", and the portability and size of an 8". Fits
just about any car. Cost was about $1000, not counting the
hours that it took to build.)
15 inch f5, 16 inch f4.6 or 18 inch f4.2.
an advanced observer, while still being kind of portable.
one will probably need a truck for transport. (However, see
links page under 15" MiataScope.) If anything, you only need
stool to stand on. Easy to use - standing. Truss
design. Setup/teardown are a pain. Good bang per
ultimate views. Somewhere around $3000.
25 inch f5 or 30 inch f?. Here you have the
amateur scopes that money is no object can buy. You
need a big pickup or trailer to move this scope. You will
tall ladder, since the eyepiece is up in the air 10 feet or so (at the
zenith). Aiming this beast is a hassle, and you will find
you don't want to re-point it much. Easiest to set up with
people. Setup/teardown will take some time (half hour
range - each). Bang per buck is irrelevant.
$10,000. HOWEVER, if you ever get to look through one of
you will be hooked. The heavens come ALIVE with
have been warned.
A smaller telescope. Wouldn't it be nice to be
travel with a telescope? Look at my links page for
As for me when traveling, I would just look through other people's
scopes, and take my
A super sharp, planetary scope. I don't know
Become an observer. We have multiple observers in
but one stands out - Gordon. Gordon KNOWS his
night, he plans out what he hopes to find and learn. He
And, he is always generous with his knowledge with others.
Start to sketch. This is a wonderful way to
record what you
see. Surprisingly, you can sketch things that you cannot
photograph. The reason is that seeing comes in and goes out
a period of 15 seconds. The mind will remember the best
start to sketch, and ignore the junky seeing in between.
Take some pictures. Astrophotography is really
advancing. We now have access to equipment that wasn't
to professionals just 10 years ago. Amazingly, the prices are
still coming down!
Make your own telescope and mirror. I had a great
making DS-3. This is one of the most rewarding things that I
ever done, because I now get to use this tool that I made for observing
heavens. And, if I don't like something on the scope, I know
to tear it down and fix it.
Learn the theory. Where did these stars come
question - we still don't know all of the answers.) How do
shining? (Think fusion bomb.) How old are
tens of billions of years old.) How far away are
we measure distances in light years.) How do we KNOW how far
are? (An amazing amount of observations and changing yard
move out further and further.) DO we know how far away they
tolerances.) It is amazingly rewarding to learn the hows and
along with the OOhhhhhh's of astronomy.
Teach others. Pick up a laser pointer.
constellations. Learn 5 of the Messier objects that are up
tonight. To those who have never seen through a telescope, you are now
an expert! This is a wonderful hobby to share.