By Jay Ryan
Astronomy is the oldest science, and was around at the dawn of recorded history. According to Josephus, the science of the stars was first developed by the children of Seth, the son of Adam! So the sky has been studied for thousands of years. But the telescope was invented only 400 years ago, and is a relatively recent addition to this ancient science.
Unfortunately, in our generation, the media and the schools center all astronomy education around the telescope. So one gets the impression that a telescope is indispensible for learning the stars. But one might wonder, what did astronomers do for all those millennia before the telescope was invented? This is the primary focus of the Classical Astronomy Update, to teach about the forgotten tradition of observing the sky without the requirement of a telescope.
A telescope can be useful piece of astronomy equipment, as long as the person is adequately prepared. But too many people with lots of enthusiasm and high expectations make the mistake of rushing out to buy a scope, before they are prepared. So after a few unfruitful nights under the stars, the unprepared observer can become very disappointed and disillusioned.
To save everyone a lot of trouble and expense, I always recommend that a person obtain a bit of experience with astronomy before buying a scope. Here are some points to consider before you buy a telescope.
Learn the Sky
Perhaps the biggest problem with new scope owners is they rush out and buy a scope, but then can’t find anything! They’re able to point the scope at the Moon, and not much else. They believe they can find something in the sky by pointing the scope at random. But this really doesn’t work, as they soon find out. So they look at the Moon a few times, and after that becomes a bore, the scope disappears into the closet forever. I’ve seen it happen a zillion times.
So in my opinion, you should not invest money into a telescope until you first learn a couple of constellations. The constellations are your “road map to the sky.” Without the constellations, you won’t be able to find anything since you won’t know where in the sky to point your scope. But scope ownership can work out if one realizes that work is required to learn the constellations. Too many people in our generation expect it to be easy, and fold up right away if time and effort are required to learn the sky.
Winter is an excellent time to being learning the sky, since Orion is visible in the early evening. There is a beautiful, bright nebula in the “Sword” of Orion that is easy to find with a modest scope. So if you are at least committed to learning the constellations, you can spot a good number of celestial sights on a “learn as you go” basis.
So be patient, learn the sky and, until the appropriate time, save yourself a few bucks. You might want to read Sky & Telescope magazine. That’s how I first learned the sky. They have articles, sky maps and skywatching tips. You can find it on newstands or any library.
Have Realistic Expectations
We’ve all seen splashy astro-photographs of brightly colored nebulas and galaxies. The Hubble Space Telescope has filled our televisions, magazines and computer monitors with brightly glowing cosmic vistas. From these photos, you would get the impression that the universe is a bright, swirling place. And you then expect to see such sights through the eyepiece of your scope. But if so, you would be wrong! Like I always tell people, if the views through a telescope were all that interesting or exciting, we’d all hear about it, and since they’re not, we don’t.
There are basically three telescope targets that I consider worthwhile — the Moon, Jupiter and Saturn. These sights are always impressive, even through smaller scopes. It can be fun to learn the names of lunar craters, or follow the cycles of Jupiter’s Moons. Over a span of years, you can watch the changes in the orientation of Saturn’s rings. The other planets are either too small or featureless to be interesting targets. And even the better targets can look “smallish” through a small scope at low magnification.
Galaxies and nebulas are known as “deep sky objects” and can be visible through smaller scopes. However, these objects are only visible as faint “fuzzy patches,” little puffs of celestial smoke. Even under excellent conditions, these objects do not in any way resemble the colorful, time-lapse observatory photos that we see in magazines. Also, you must be under a very dark sky far from the city to see these wisps at all. Most people (like me) aren’t much impressed with such sights. It’s definitely an “acquired taste” for many people! So be sure to adjust your expectations and not expect mind-blowing sights through the eyepiece.
Look Through Someone Else’s Scope
Considering the above, do yourself a favor and invest some time at someone else’s eyepiece before you decide to plop down a few hundred bucks for your own scope. I’d recommend finding a local astronomy club in your area and pay them a visit. Most clubs have public telescope viewing nights all year round, and many clubs work through planetariums or observatories. Your family can get a look through a scope and also learn a bit about the sky.
These astronomy clubs all have a least a few veteran amateur astronomers who are very knowledgable about the sky and would love to help your family learn. You can get a lot of information about the sky and advice about telescope buying, etc. Who knows, you might get hooked! A list of astronomy clubs, planetariums and observatories is found in the “Resources” section at the Sky & Telescope web site.
An Alternative to Scope Ownership
Before you buy a scope, I’d recommend you start out with a decent pair of binoculars. You should still be able to get a pair of Bushnell 50mm binocs for about $40-50. You can do a lot of sky exploring with some cheap $40 binoculars, even from a light polluted area in the city. Just lay back on the grass and you’d be amazed what you can see. Binocs are also useful during the daytime for birdwatching and looking at other distance objects on the ground.
There are a number of books available about binocular astronomy and what you can see in the sky in the binocular 7-10 times magnification range. I recommend Gary Seronik’s Binocular Highlights from Sky & Telescope, available at Amazon and other online booksellers. If you like looking at the sky through binocs, it will be excellent preparation for using a scope at a later time.
If You MUST Buy a Scope
If your family must buy a scope right away, make sure you don’t buy one from any “big box” retail stores, like stores that have “Mart” in the name. These scopes are just toys and will disappoint everytime. A quality optical instrument is going to set you back several hundred bucks. So if the big box stores are selling pricey scopes, make sure they are a good brand name, such as Meade or Celestron. You would probably do better if you buy a scope from a camera shop or other dealer that specializes in optical products.
Telescope selection in general is based on need. A scope suitable for high-power planet watching isn’t so good for low-power galaxies and nebulae. Being a traditionalist, I consider a good starter scope to be a six-inch f/8 Newtonian reflecting telescope. They tend to be small (only about 4 feet long!) and cheap (only a few hundred dollars!).
A good vendor is Orion Telescopes, where you can also find a selection of other type scopes. You also might want to look on the web at Astromart and places like that for a used scope. But as with all used item purchases — “caveat emptor” — let the buyer beware! The real question is not “what’s a good scope,” but “how much money d’ya got?”
A lot of people recommend these little computer-driven Meade ETX scopes. The ETX is supposed to be a good, inexpensive ($300) starter scope. Such scopes include a computer driven “go to” feature that locates objects in the sky and points the telescope in the proper direction. This “go to” feature assists newbies in finding celestial objects, and are supposed to help the viewer minimize the time and effort of finding objects.
But I am “old school” in that I believe that knowing the sky is most of the fun of observing. So in my opinion, you lose a lot if your scope does all the heavy lifting. Also, I’ve heard these “go to” systems are not perfect, and total novice can still encounter problems with finding objects if the scope is not properly set up and calibrated. But I’ve never looked through the eyepiece of an ETX so I can’t comment based on experience.
I’m not one to ask about commercial scopes since I’ve only made my own telescopes. Telescope making is a great hobby in its own right, but it’s a lot of work and has a very steep learning curve. But an amateur can invest the time and care needed to make a mirror that tests out better than a “production line” mirror in a commercial scope. In my opinion, the views through a $5000 Meade are inferior to the view through my 10″ telescope with a hand-ground telescope mirror, made at home for $300 plus about 100 hours of work. Check out Stellafane.com for more info on telescope making and a million links.
Maybe you will be one of those folks who are intrigued by looking at galaxies and other deep sky objects. If so, amateur astronomy is the hobby for you! But even for the loyal hobbyists, it can be a lot of work driving from the city to set up a scope in a suitably dark rural location. If you arrive at a site after dark, it can be a real hassle to set up in pitch black darkness. And then you get a stiff neck from leaning over the eyepiece!
Really, my favorite part of astronomy is just being under a dark sky with the optics God gave me! I’ve travelled hundreds of miles to amateur astronomy “star parties” and never even looked through a scope!
Anyway, sorry if these tips aren’t what some folks want to hear, but I’d rather share my unvarnished opinions and point you in the right direction. But whatever decision your family makes with respect to scope buying and ownership, please give it the proper consideration.
Jay Ryan is the author of Signs & Seasons, an illustrated, Biblically-centered homeschool curriculum for Classical Astronomy. He is also the creator of the Classical Astronomy Update, an email astronomy newsletter especially for Christian homeschoolers. Visit his website at ClassicalAstronomy.com.
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