Off Right in Astronomy: Part 2
Choosing your first bits of gear (and other items)...
Tom Trusock 10/08
provides beautiful vistas for cloudy nights
This is Part 2 of a series. If you haven't read
Part 1 yet, you
can find it here.
Get some good advice
OK, so I lied. Yah, I'm gonna give you some recommendations about
gear, but first I'd like to talk about some other things that I really
recommend - especially for beginners. The first and foremost is
If you're a noob, you've got questions, and since you're reading this,
I'm betting at least some concern how to get started in the
you live in a decent sized town, getting started in your astronomy club
is the obvious, and easy answer. If you're like me - well, that
"nearby club" might be 70+ miles away.
Internet to the rescue! For many individuals one of the online
becomes our "club", and as per social interaction - it's a fairly
decent substitute. I mean after all - around here you never
wade through the club minutes, and they're always open for
But there's some disadvantages here - more on that in a minute.
a stroll down memory lane as I share a couple of my "beginner" moments.
My first telescope was an 8" dob - it was twice the price of today's
offerings and about ~¼ the quality overall.
Back in my day,
need no stinking mirror cell. We RTV'd mirrors to a piece of
glueboard. Then made sure to encase it solidly with layers of
cardboard and duct tape. Mirror cooldown was not really something
worried about. And you had your choice of focuser - either
that slid inside another pipe, or if you wanted to upgrade, you could
pop for a helical focuser that took about 24,000 rotations to cover .2
inches. And so on. And ya know what? I was a very very
Like any beginner, I had my share of frustration. All of them
have been solved by having a mentor. Two that come to mind
These mirrors have to
Collimation really isn't a difficult procedure, but when you've never
done it before it can be a little intimidating. There's a
tutorials online, but many - although absolutly correct - are just too
technical for a first timer. I spent a solid three hours
my telescope for the first time. Three very solid hours.
frustrating hours. Last week, I collimated 4 8" dobs for my
class in less than ten minutes. Not ten minutes a piece mind you,
ten minutes total. By no means am I a collimation genius.
done it a few times by now. It's not a difficult procedure at all
it's just something that's far easier to learn by seeing rather than
reading about. A mentor would have eased that frustration
BTW - if you need it, John Crilly wrote A Primer on
Collimation of Newtonian Telescopes. But it's not as good as
having an experienced amateur on hand. There's
tons more out there as well, but a lot of it gets, um - rather
technical and you may not be ready for that. No worries.
So just what, exactly,
am I looking at?
Tantalized by the photos of deep sky objects (DSO's) I'd seen
throughout my formative years, I'll admit I had some preconceptions
about how things would look through a telescope. I wasn't
see Dejah Thoris (although I will confess that as a young pup, the
thought had run through my mind), but I was mislead by the advertising
a bit. I've always liked galaxies, and marveled that the detailed
color photos that surrounded my childhood. And yet I wasn't
Hubble. I was expecting - well - a a bit more. I received
in spring (as a birthday present to myself) and resolved to see how
many galaxies I could gather. Pointing my scope at the deeps of
expected to be stunned by the heavens. Uh, it didn't work out
like that. In fact, I couldn't even seem to find a galaxy.
galore, reflection nebula, planetary nebula - all these I recognized,
but galaxies? Nope. I figured there must be some problem
telescope. The only things I could see - when I should be seeing
galaxies - were these odd little faint fuzzies. No spiral arms,
grand interactions - just little bits of fuzz. It wasn't till the
when I got a peek at M31 (The great galaxy in Andromeda) for the first
time that it dawned on me the fuzzy things WERE the galaxies. A
would have been able to point that out to me in an instant.
Don't expect to galaxies to look
quite this good....
So, we're back to clubs. If it's an option, join.
Got one near you? Don't know? Take a look at the various
the net. The magazines (Sky and Telescope and Astronomy) keep
club locations and they usually have contact info.
Astronomy and Sky and Telescope keep records of clubs worldwide
If you don't have a club near you, then what? Well, you're in
cause there's this little thing called the internet. Online
clubs. Yahoo, Astromart and Cloudy Nights are all examples of
active online communities. All have a different
flavor and taste.
Do a little lurking and figure out which group is right for
introduce yourself and ask away. Forums are fantastic - they're
24x7 club meeting where folks get together to talk about their
passions. It's on your schedule - you can pop in at 4pm or 3am
your questions. Typically, amateurs are a kind and helpful
Like any crowd tho, keep in mind that we're something of a cross
section of society. This is where the idea of a moderated group
in. Some like it, others don't. You pays your money and you takes
chances. Except most groups are free, so it's a considerably
risk. Just remember when you join that group you're a guest in
someone's house. Mama always taught me to respect others.
As wonderbar as groups are tho, it's still a poor substitute for
actually being able to show something to someone and actually ask them
a question in person. Try to find an observing buddy nearby - it
like much easier to be able to bounce things off them.
Now lets talk about the stuff you actually need to get out there and
observe. Keep in mind that there's tons of stuff out there that
do just about as well, it's just for one reason or another - these are
the ones that I like. Remember the goal here is to get
can do course corrections after we set sail.
Charts and Guidebooks
First off, you're gonna need some way to tell what's up in the
Most folks will recommend Norton's Star Atlas (and indeed it was what I
cut my teeth on), but I'd probably recommend something along the lines
Backyard Astronomers Guide by Dickinson and Dyer.
Now in it's third edition, this book is a superb introduction to the
hobby. Another one I'd highly recommend by one of the same
would be Nightwatch.
If you're looking for charts, I'd suggest the Sky
Publishing Pocket Star Atlas would be a good place to begin.
In my book, print outshines Internet resources for several
- because it's usually vetted a bit better. #2 - A good
editor is a
thing of beauty. Trust me. I know this first hand. #3 - as
and science - it's often more reliable (especially if you're comparing
it to a conversation in a forum). Yeah, there's lots of good
there, and the net - especially net 2.0 with it's user driven content -
is an amazing place, but print ain't dead yet. If nothing else,
consider the look your significant other would give you if you tried to
take a computer into the - uh - reading room. It's a whole lot
to waltz in with a copy of S&T or Astronomy. At least
for some of
us. (And don't tell me if you're in there with a computer.
some stuff that should just stay private.)
But, there's LOTS of good stuff on the net. And much of it is
Who can turn down a freebie?
Free. By free, I mean no charge. Gratis.
No peso's required. You pay nothing. Zip. Zero.
Well, if it's free, how good can it be?
Amazingly, quite good as a matter of fact.
Here's a few FREE observing
resources NOT to miss:
Johnson's Mag 7 Star Charts
- Download em and print them off yourself. You may want to take
a local printer to have them done on larger paper or
go to mag 7.25, plot around 550 deep sky objects and are just the thing
for a binocular or small telescope user.
TriAtlas Project - This is a three in one deal that goes much
deeper than Andrew
Johnson's. The A series charts run to Mag 9 and consist of 25
The B series are zoomed in a bit more and consist of 107 charts that
reach to 11th magnitude. The C series charts include 571 charts
go to 12.6th mag, listing DSO's to mag 15.5!
du Ciel provides some rather extensive charting capability
But not all of us like printed Atlases, so here's a program that lets
you print out your own charts - Cartes du Ciel.
I've been using Cartes for years. It's an amazing piece of
that is heavily customizable and does a great job of printing
The sheer number of catalogs available for it is rather mind
IT's a piece of software that has seen a lot of community support, and
one that every amateur should have on their hard drive.
Cartes one drawback is that it isn't as pretty as some of the
commercial packages like Starry Night Pro - well, if you want pretty,
take a look at Stellarium.
Stellarium is one of those programs that automatically wows an
audience. I frequently use it when presenting, and I'll confess
just playing around with it on cloudy nights. It's absolutely
From the same people who bring us Cartes comes Virtual Moon Atlas.
is superior to some commercial programs I've used
This is for all the loonies out there, and frankly deserves a place on
every hard drive. The depth of this program is rather amazing -
especially if you install all the options.
If you're looking for observing sites, I've got a few to
First off, I'll blow my own horn a bit. I've been writing an
column called Small
Wonders for a number of years now.
Small Wonders was designed from the get go to be a free resource for
amateurs to get out and enjoy the beauty of the night sky. As
contains pretty much all you need to observe most targets. IE -
self contained. You'll find maps, dss images, descriptions of the
targets through scopes, and background information about what you're
observing. It's not as good as say Walter Scott Houston or Sue
but it'll do. It does contain the occasional error, so be
eh? It's within the last few years I've really learned the value
good editor. Small wonders is really a community effort - readers
contribute observations, sketches and photographs. We have a host
talented individuals out there, and this is one way to showcase their
talents. I only wish that I could post ALL the photos I get for
articles when I write them.
Another one I can whole heartedly recommend is Steve Coe's
Steve is a long time observer with more eyepiece time than I have
eyepieces. And I have a LOT of eyepieces (ok, I confess - while
blend of Bob and Al, I'm probably closer to Al.).
It's a PDF, but it's worthy of
And for the binocular lovers, be certain to download the Binocular
Certificate Handbook by John Flannery this one was a real labor of
love. 110 objects, descriptions, finder charts and space for
notes. What a superb work. Especially for the price.
Here's the actual website: http://www.irishastronomy.org/observers/challenges/index.php
But every time I've been there lately, the site has been down. I
manage to find another copy of it squirreled
away on the internet.
To me, these are the tops for actual observing, but there's tons more
out there that are fun to play around with. A few quick examples:
Ask around in the software forum. You'll find tons more.
- a really fun way to blow a lot of time
What's next? (Spending serious money.)
So, we gab online, we buy online and we get a ton of resources
But it's not quite as simple when it comes to gear choice. Yeah,
can ask online, but you quickly figure out is that 1) everybody (and
his dog) has an opinion, and 2) what works for one, may not work
well for you. So if you're a noob looking to get started with
let me point you in the right direction.
Before we get started, realize that if you pop into a gear forum,
you're going to find a lot of Al's. This is a wonderful thing -
you're an Al. If you're a Bob - well, it can get a little
frustrating. I mentioned before that you didn't need to spend big
bucks to get active in this hobby and that's true. But Al's
spend more money than Bobs. Just kinda keep that in mind.
First things first, set a budget and stay with it. That's going
depend on you, but I'd say that a reasonable budget to get started with
a set of binoculars would run around $150. A small telescope
$400-$500 for everything including some accessories. Directly
to the ideas some folks might get while reading the forums, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO DROP
UBERCASH TO GET INVOLVED WITH ASTRONOMY.
see, amateur astronomers like to talk gear. And this being a
scientific hobby like it is, we also like to split hairs.
the best dang hair splitters on the planet. Heck, probably in
quadrant of the Milky Way. We are very skilled at making
differences sound like mountains. Keep that in mind. For
scope, you're probably best off going inexpensive. It gives
chance to get your feet wet without going into debt, and equally more
importantly - for many of us - it means your significant other won't
When you read ads, realize there's a lot of "Ad speak" going on these
days. Take statements with a grain of salt. Remember most
reviews are worth about what you pay for em. Some maybe
and triple that. Some less. When you're reading stuff
yourself - what's this individuals experience? Do they know their
stuff? How long have they been observing? How many
of gear have they used? All reviews tell us something, but some
probably better than others. Eventually, you'll find people whose
tastes are similar. That simplifies the process a
bit. As you read,
realize that most folks who buy gear bought particular gear for a set
of particular reason. They found something that works for
Remember that it may not work for you - even if they think it
Everybody likes to think theirs is the perfect solution. And it
well be. For them.
Resist the urge to overspend. Particularly at first.
It's all to
easy to get caught up in the "well, just a little bit more buys me...."
bit. Without some restrictions, that way lies
madness. Or a 30"
Obsession. Maybe both. (Uh, if you do wind up with a 30"
feel free to give me a call. Well, several calls actually.
get those adoption papers ready, um-k? )
Realize you do get what you pay for. There's a reason why
are $300 and others are $3000. Why some eyepieces are $50 and
$500. It's not marketing. Really. Not everyone may
differences, but the differences are there. That said,
should be fully aware that the value of todays beginner gear is
absolutely amazing, and light years ahead of stuff from just a few - uh
- decades - ago. (Ok, now I'm starting to feel old.)
get 4x the quality for less than ~½ the price. Also
best way to choose gear is to see it in person for yourself. It's
bucks that are going into this thing, it's nice if you have a handle on
it upstairs. Get thee to a star party!
So, lets talk about gear.
Step One - Binoculars
Grab those binoculars and get a copy of Crossen's
Binocular Astronomy (or if you're in Europe - Sky Vistas).
Everybody's got a set lying in the closet. IF not, head down to
local wally world and pick one up on the cheap. They don't need
the superduperextrafancyapochromaticinfrarred binos - we're looking at
simply getting started here - those can come later if you decide you
enjoy the hobby. Binos are one of the easiest ways to enjoy the
If you're shopping for a pair, I have a few simple tips for you - shop
for something in the 7-10 power range, and in the 35-63mm aperture
range. In addition, avoid the following: Ruby or Emerald
fixed focus. Buying used (either here or on A-mart) is a
great way to
stretch your dollar, but there's no denying that some of us like to
have those toys minty fresh, and I'd really recommend that for a
beginner - especially with binoculars. Expect to pay around $40 -
for some basic binos. For this route, I'll leave the exact
recommendations to folks in our binocular forum, but will go so far as
to say the ones you select will depend on your own personal
preferences. I'd grab either 8x42's or 10x50's. The
magnification makes it harder to hand hold, but it does allow you to
see more. I've used both roof and poro prism, and while folks
debate to no end about which is better, don't loose sleep trying to
decide between them.
a lot to be seen with just a decent set of binoculars
I would definitely recommend Crossen's Binocular Astronomy
This is simply an awesome book, it not only tells you what to look for,
but give you a nice set of charts in the back. This is one you'll
probably want to consider for a small telescope as well.
And speaking of that, here are a few pairs of low cost binos that I'll
throw out there:
I like the Orion Scenix too. And you've got Nikons at the local
Like anything else, the more money you can drop the better the product,
but you'll be surprised at how nice the views can look through a set of
When you get them (and here's an argument for buying locally if you're
buying inexpensive), take a minute and perform these simple
First off, check for sharpness. Are things sharp in the
center of the
field? Do things stay sharp out to the edge of the field?
If so, then
move on to the next step and check collimation. Hold them up to
eyes and focus. Close one eye, then alternate. If the image
more than a very small amount, send em back. Binoculars are
two small low power telescopes. Not only do the optics have to be
functional for each half, but they also have to be aligned with each
other. If they aren't - well, it's a cause for headaches.
thinking there's more to it than that, you'd be absolutely right.
we're talking beginners here right? Lets keep it simple.
we want to do is induce paralysis by over analysis. On the other
if you're a budding gear head - you'll get some superb advice by
popping into our Binocular forum. We've got a slew of folks who
really know their stuff - just remember your budget - and stick to it.
Oh, before I forget - One other thing I'd do is poke around for a low
cost binocular mounting. You can use a 2x4, a pole, camera
even your car. You just want something that you can steady
on. You won't believe how much better the view looks when things
aren't jiggling around. Folks just aren't designed to be able to
hold things above around 10x or so.
Yup, binoculars are a good tool to have.
"But Tom, I really want a telescope!"
And that brings us to part 3....