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Kids: Would you like to take a look?

I have been using telescopes for close to 25 years now and have been queried with everything from a positive and inquisitive "Whachya doing?" to an irritated and threatening "what are you doing out there in the dark?" Regardless of the tone of voice, it seems prudent to listen between the lines and try and open up an opportunity for the interested passerby.

"Keep it simple, stupid." It has impressed me over the years that, people seem genuinely curious about telescopes. Overwhelmingly, kids of all ages respond to something they can see and recognize easily. Technical notes bore them or make them think you're some kind of nerd. Thus, it is important to interrupt what you are doing and to give your guests an opportunity to see objects that may light their desire or interest. Your success in helping newcomers see something interesting in the sky revolves around a little thought about how you can translate your knowledge of the sky to an appropriate level. It also helps to listen to your visitor's comments and nonverbal feedback.

What to Show Through Your Telescope

Picking objects to show depends on what is in the sky and what you can easily locate. This spring while setting up my telescope at dusk in Shenandoah National Park, the obvious choices were Saturn and Jupiter. Although I had specifically set up to find galaxies that night, it was much easier for children (and adults) to see bright objects. Many were surprised you can see the planets at all. The scenario in the contest is typical in that visitors often come in small groups, sometimes even a whole family. Since it takes time to position a newcomer's eye near the eyepiece, you need distracters for everyone else. You can often get away with letting everyone wait for the first observer. However, soon you need something for everyone to do while they wait. In the case of the brighter planets, make sure you point just over the telescope with your finger so everyone can find the brightest "star" over the horizon, in this case Jupiter. Use words and simple descriptions like, "Saturn is one handbreadth down to the lower right."

Selecting appropriate targets is crucial to a successful first look through the telescope. Remember that most people are not impressed with technical difficulty. Avoid any objects that require averted vision, fully dark-adapted eyesight, or more than a little imagination. A corollary to this is that there are almost always a few showcase objects in the sky.

This summer, Mars should be an obvious target. Despite all your inclinations, don't over do the magnification. It is the color that catches their attention. While they are waiting, ask them what color the stars are. Inevitably, you will be told "white." Any other answer should get rewarded enthusiastically by asking them to point out what colors they see and where. The more mundane responders should be challenged to look at Mars at intermediate power. Ask only what color the planet is. Most, though not all, older children and adults will appreciate the orange, not red, glow of our nearest neighbor. This is true even if the telescope is slightly out of focus. The best thing to show them at intermediate to high power is how fast the planet moves through the field of view with the drive turned off. "Remember, the telescope's magnification lets us see how fast the earth is rotating."

While you locate Mars, keep your eyes out for any intermediate brightness star. You will be able to point out the planetary disk as bigger than any star that is not so bright as to be enlarged by artifacts and unstable atmospheric conditions. Again, remember to point out with your out-stretched hand where Mars is in the sky and how obvious it is to the naked eye. Tell them how and where they can find it in the sky over the next few weeks if it is clear. Consider asking if anyone sees a Martian. Alternatively, if such frivolous thoughts don't sit well with you, consider mentioning the Martian canals once considered evidence of life on Mars. Admit you still haven't seen them either!

Many other objects are as interesting or more interesting to the beginner. While many serious amateurs avoid even setting up the telescope while the moon is up, visitors of all ages marvel at the wealth of detail on our satellite. However, the moon poses certain challenges that should be considered. First and foremost, it is too bright through most telescopes. Filter it down if possible to make it easier on their eye. Have them look at the moon while they are waiting their chance to look through the telescope. Ask them if they can see any craters on the moon with their naked eye. Point out the gray maria on the surface. Small children should look for the "rabbit on the moon," which is easier to see than the "man on the moon." Be positive about whatever they report seeing (within reason). Point the scope at the terminator where shadows increase the contrast and bring out details in the craters.

Before they look at the moon through the main scope, have them look through the finder scope if it is of reasonable quality (7x50 with okay eye relief). This is your best chance to talk about magnification. "Your eye is one-power, the finder scope is 7-power, and the telescope is 100 power." Make sure you point to craters and mountains. Ask them what they see! It will prolong how long they look and how much they appreciate at the eyepiece. If they are slow to answer, ask them if you can take a quick peak to check the focus. Blame focus or tracking if they missed things and try and give them another chance after you have "fixed things." Look for a quick detail to focus their attention on something. As they leave the eyepiece, tell them to tell their parents they saw cartes on the moon.

Other objects can really catch a newcomer's imagination. In the summer, my list of show case objects that are easy to find with star hopping include the globular cluster M13 in Hercules with "100,000 stars," the Milky Way if the sky is dark as the "center of our galaxy," the Dumbell Nebula M27 in Vulpecula a "dog bone shaped cloud of glowing gases," and the ring nebula M57 in Lyra which is a "small but nearly perfect smoke ring left over after a cosmic explosion." Speed in finding the objects plays an important role in keeping interest high enough to brave the cool evening sky. Depending on the stamina of my visitors, the temperature, and any limitations imposed by trees or clouds, I try and show at least one show case.

In the summer, I also try and point out constellations like the Big Dipper, Polaris the "North Star," the teapot in Sagitarius, Hercules the strong hero without much of a head, and Cygnus the Swan. By pointing out the constellations, it is not uncommon to see a satellite or a meteor streaking across the sky. These dynamic events are likely to be remembered for a long time to come.

Some Technical Details and Frequently Asked Questions

If people ask how much magnification your telescope can handle, start your education that other things are more important than magnification. If you can keep numbers in your head, tell them how much more light your telescope gathers than your eye. Aperture is a more important measure of telescope performance for much of what we do anyway. For example, my 11 inch telescope gathers about 1600x as much light as my eye does. The following table compares the light gathering area of several popular telescope sizes where the area of a light adapted eye is 1 unit. Don't completely ignore magnification. I usually tell them my favorite magnifications are 50x, 110x, and about 250x with my telescope.

Table 1. Light gathering of different size telescopes relative to a dark adapted pupil.

Diameter (inches)

Diameter (mm)

Relative Light Gathering

eye 7 1
2 50 51
2.4 60 73
4.25 108 238
6 152 474
8 203 843
10 254 1317
11 279 1593

Eyepiece selection is important for their enjoyment and your sanity. My favorite eyepiece for beginners is an inexpensive 25 mm Plossl. On most scopes this provides a wide field, low power overview with easy eye-relief. An amazing amount of detail is visible through even a 4.25-inch telescope with a 25 mm Plossl. It is hard enough for the beginner to see most of such a field of view continuously. While I particularly enjoy a 55mm eyepiece on my Schmidt-Cassegrain, the eye relief is so long many beginners lose part of the field. High power is even harder due to the very short eye relief of standard eyepieces. Most observers have a hard time positioning their eye optimally to use a short focal length eyepiece needed for high magnification work. Alternatively, newer eyepiece designs can ease access to either high power views or wide fields.

Even rough polar alignment decreases the amount of manual guiding needed to keep objects in the field of view. Simple motor drives like a tangent arm can make the transition from one observer to the next much easier.

What should you say when they ask how much you telescope cost? For me, I now say my telescope cost about what a home computer does but I hope it will last a lot longer. I also point out that there are a wide range of optical designs and an even wider range of costs.

Also remember to be sensitive to your visitors' comfort. They may not be used to the cold and may not be dressed adequately. Their tolerance to adverse conditions may be much lower than your own…

Keeping a few of these thoughts in mind can make it much easier for you to introduce a new set of eyes to our beautiful universe. By taking a little time and making a small effort, you can have a real positive impact on kids of all ages.


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