This is a fun day to talk about one of my favorite hobbies. Space. Why did I say space and not Astronomy? Well, because I like everything about space, not just fishing through a telescope. My favorite game is Kerbal Space Program, where I can build rockets and send these little green guys all over their fictional solar system. Also, being a physicist, I have a special fascination with deep space exploration and near space maneuvers, asteroid mining, and SETI. This article won’t dig too deep into the scope of all that though, this focuses on a question that comes up a lot. How do I get started?
Getting started in astronomy is something that seems very complicated, but it’s actually easy. There’s a lot of misconceptions about astronomy that may stand in the way. First, you will never see those famous Hubble images through a telescope. You can see a lot with a pair of binoculars, or even just your eyes, if you have a dark site. Telescopes are for collecting light first, magnification is just a happy side effect. The best misconception is that you need to get a scope and wait for the sun to go down on a clear night. You can get started with astronomy right now, while you’re reading this article. So if you like space, download a copy of Stellarium. Then come back and read the rest of this article while downloading. It’s free, and it’s an awesome piece of software.
Start with the Constellations:
The first thing to learn for anyone interested in studying the night sky is to learn some constellations. Stellarium can help you here, as can a copy of Sky and Telescope Magazine from the bookstore. There is simply no better way to find things in the night sky. Sure you can get a goto scope, punch in what you want to see on the little pad, and have the telescope find it and point to it for you. Going that way has it’s own learning curve though, and a lot of objects in the catalog may not be visible from your viewing location, leading to frustration.
I like to pick out one constellation at a time and learn it until I can find it easily in the night sky. I like learning the names of the brightest stars too. Once I’m happy that I can look up and pick it out, I move to another constellation and learn some new stars. I generally spend a month or two studying a constellation, a little each night. Combine this with seeing where messier objects are on Stellarium, and I can find most of the brightest and biggest destinations quickly and easily, even if I can’t always remember their names. Right now, the area surrounding Sagittarius is my happy hunting ground. Lots of sights to be seen there. Stellarium will also tell you what planets are up and visible and where to look.
Definitely learning to find the northern constellations (if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere) is important. The big and little dippers are subsets of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Cassiopeia makes a large ‘w’ shape that’s easy to pick out. In addition, with it being summertime, learning the stars Vega, Deneb, and Altair is a good idea. They are all very bright and make what astronomers call the summer triangle. Think of it as a compass to guide you around the summer sky.
The Look and Feel of the Universe:
But Marty, you ask, what telescope should I buy? That’s a lot like asking me what girlfriend you should date or what restaurant you should take her to. Telescopes have different levels of appropriateness for different targets. My first recommendation to anyone is to get a pair of 5×35 or 7×50 binoculars. “That’s not a telescope,” you say, and you’re right, it’s two that you can use at the same time for twice the light, giving your brain twice the data to interpret. Faint fuzzies require a dark sky, the right technique, and lots of practice to see. “Practice? Why do I need to practice to look at something?”
This is where astronomy gets a little tricky. You do have to practice at astronomy. A quick glance in a telescope will show you neat things, but picking out details comes with staring at the same object for long periods. Sketching helps to focus your brain too, and can help you see the little veins running through nebulae, or details on Jupiter. Even if you aren’t an artist, trying to sketch what you see in the sky can bring out details that you didn’t see on the first glance or even the first trip out. This is because of the way your mind processes image data. Things that are familiar have more details than new information. Averted vision is a skill too. Looking just far enough away from your target to still pick out details while letting the light fall on the more sensitive parts of your cornea for a brighter image.
If you are only interested in planets then yes, you will need a scope to see some of the details. I’ll get to that in a minute, but most astronomical observing, at least the easy targets (the Messier catalog) can be done quite well with binoculars. For some views, binoculars are your best bet, better than any telescope. The reason is that not everything in the night sky is a tiny dot. Star clusters and the Andromeda Galaxy sweep relatively large areas of sky. If you want to see the “big picture,” you really need something at low magnification with a wide field of view. The bigger your telescope, the more that field shrinks, or the harder it is to get a flat image.
The Andromeda galaxy spans about 3 degrees in the night sky. To compare, the moon is half a degree wide. This means that to see the whole thing, your “scope” must present a large field of view. Most scope/eyepiece combinations can’t get you that, and you’ll be looking at pieces of it rather than the whole. Under a dark sky, Andromeda should be visible to the naked eye. The primary job of any scope, even binoculars, is to gather light. Binoculars allow your eye to see as if your pupils were the size of the primary lenses! It means that they gather more light to stuff into your cornea allowing you to see dimmer things.
Another beauty is Taurus, which comes out in the winter time. With your naked eye you can spot a big ‘V’ and some of the star field, but even in light polluted skies, binoculars will let you view the whole field and take it in. I think Taurus was the first object that got me into clusters. I used to just thing of them as a boring group of stars but many of them are quite beautiful. The Pleiades is always nice to look at and super bright, and my new favorite, M7, can be found in the summertime between Scorpios and Sagittarius. I call it the Christmas Tree. What do all of these have in common? They look awesome in binoculars. So before you go out and dump some cash on a telescope, if you have a pair lying around, take a couple nights out with the binoculars to a dark site and pan around the sky. There’s plenty to be seen at any time of the year. Any of the larger clusters looks good, as does the Lagoon Nebula and other large fuzzies.
Another thing you discover while you are out is closer to the ground. Do you like being out in the wilderness looking at the sky? Your backyard can be fun, the the sky above you is a huge limiting factor on what and how well you can see. Getting under darker skies is the only way to clean up the views. When hunting through the Messier catalog with binoculars, just keep in mind that any fuzzies you see won’t really get brighter in a scope, just bigger. Individual stars will look brighter, but any object that presents a surface gets dimmer the more you zoom in.
So, what are good binoculars for a beginner? There is something to be said for optical quality, and if you can, nitrogen purged fully multi-coated glass is best with BAK-4 prisms, but there you will be looking at upwards of $250 US. Cheap pairs will also suffer collimation issues which can make them hard to focus, but for a beginner, there is no better optical tool. Orion makes a pair of 7×50 for about $100, or you can find a cheap Simmons for around $30. The pair in the picture are my Simmons 10×50. Cheap and they work well enough for a beginner, allowing me to see little fuzzies and in some cases make out some structure, but planets tend to look like tiny jelly-beans. Even so, I love them, and until I get a better pair, they will follow me to every viewing site, whether I have the scope or not.
Binos covered, you are still going to want a scope(because everyone does), so I’ll give in and give you some to think about. My number one recommendation is a 6″-8″ Dobsonian mounted reflector. This is a point-to scope with no electronics, and gives you a lot of aperture for the money. Also, the mount being so cost effective keeps the manufacturing costs down, so the money you spend is going toward the optical quality. With a 6″ Dob, you are probably looking around $300 to $500 depending on what accessories you get.
Smaller scopes are going to have shaky mounts and sometimes questionable optics. Dobs can be hard to move to and from the viewing site for some people. They are a little bulky, and an 8″ mirror and suitable mount are not exactly light. My 8″ Orion weighs about 42 pounds put together. Ease of transport is one thing to look at with Dobsonians.
Outside of big Dobs, you can always go with a more traditional Newtonian or a refractor. Since you have a good pair of binos for the larger deep space objects, I would stay above 80mm regardless of the scope you get, which will allow you to peer deeper into clusters and get a decent view of the planets at 150-200x.
A note on magnification. Don’t get sold on advertising that says a scope can carry 525x or something similar. This type of marketing is employed by makers of cheap, junky telescopes. Any scope can have a magnification as high as you want, if you like looking at dim, blurry images instead of planets and galaxies. Consider your maximum magnification about 25-50 for each inch of aperture and don’t go over 350-400 in any scope. Even 12″ mirrors, which are more than capable of bright images at very high magnification, are limited by the atmosphere and there usually isn’t any more detail to be brought out by making the image bigger. People with very large mirrors can argue a little here, but for a beginner, don’t plan on going over 300x and being able to see anything worth looking at. Magnification is calculated by taking the focal length of your telescope’s optic and dividing it by the focal length of the eyepiece.
optcorp and telescopes.com are good places to look for a starter scope. If you are outside of the US there may be better places in your home country, but these are the places I like to order my stuff from. Even the smallest Celestrons and Orions are capable of enhancing your seeing, but don’t expect them to give you quality optics for less than the price of a halfway decent eyepiece. I would say spending over $200 on a Celestron is the way to go if you want a more traditional mount than a Dob. If you have some money to throw down, a 6″ or 8″ SCT is another option. Large mirror, long focal length, and fairly easy to transport, SCTs are nice, but the mount becomes important at high magnification, so don’t slouch on the mount and tripod if you want a big SCT.
A note on reflectors: Newtonian telescopes of any sort require collimation. It’s not difficult but it will be a learning experience if you have never done it. The first time I set up my Dob it took me about 20 minutes. Now I can do it easily in under 5. This is basically aligning the mirrors so that they reflect the light properly into the focuser. Just think of it as maintenance that you need to do every so often. It involves turning a couple screws. Refracting telescopes (they have a lens instead of a mirror) are more expensive for the same aperture, but they don’t require collimation.
Other accessories that you will want. Warm clothes, a comfortable chair, a dim red flashlight, and a sky atlas. These are basic little necessities that will help guide you to your targets. Stellarium makes a decent sky atlas, but paper can be a little easier. For the true beginner, sky safari is another piece of software that you can download as an app.
Thanks for Reading:
This was a pretty long winded article, I hope it was clear and enjoyable. I might do more astronomy segments in the future, specially if this gets some attention, so leave me a comment. I’m happy to try answering any questions you might have, so feel free to leave those too. If I can’t answer it, I’ll bet I can still point you in the right direction 🙂