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CN Report: Starting Off Right in Astronomy Pt. 2

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Starting Off Right in Astronomy: Part 2
Choosing your first bits of gear (and other items)...

Tom Trusock 10/08

Stellarium 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 community.

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 hobby.  If 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 forums becomes our "club", and as per social interaction - it's a fairly decent substitute.   I mean after all - around here you never have to wade through the club minutes, and they're always open for business.   But there's some disadvantages here - more on that in a minute.  First 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, we didn't 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 we worried about.   And you had your choice of focuser - either a pipe 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 happy man.  Like any beginner, I had my share of frustration.  All of them would have been solved by having a mentor.  Two that come to mind immediately -

These mirrors have to be what? 

Collimation really isn't a difficult procedure, but when you've never done it before it can be a little intimidating.  There's a plethora of tutorials online, but many - although absolutly correct - are just too technical for a first timer.  I spent a solid three hours collimating my telescope for the first time.  Three very solid hours.  Three very frustrating hours.   Last week, I collimated 4 8" dobs for my astronomy class in less than ten minutes.  Not ten minutes a piece mind you, but ten minutes total.  By no means am I a collimation genius.  I've simply 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 greatly.  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 expecting to 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 expecting Hubble.  I was expecting - well - a a bit more.  I received the scope 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 Leo, I expected to be stunned by the heavens.  Uh, it didn't work out quite like that.  In fact, I couldn't even seem to find a galaxy.  Clusters galore, reflection nebula, planetary nebula - all these I recognized, but galaxies?  Nope.  I figured there must be some problem with my telescope.  The only things I could see - when I should be seeing galaxies - were these odd little faint fuzzies.  No spiral arms, no grand interactions - just little bits of fuzz.  It wasn't till the fall 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 mentor 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 resources on the net.  The magazines (Sky and Telescope and Astronomy) keep track of club locations and they usually have contact info. 

Both 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 luck, cause there's this little thing called the internet.  Online forums ARE clubs.  Yahoo, Astromart and Cloudy Nights are all examples of very active online communities.    All have a different flavor and taste.  Do a little lurking and figure out which group is right for you.   Then introduce yourself and ask away.  Forums are fantastic - they're like a 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 and ask your questions.   Typically, amateurs are a kind and helpful breed.  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 comes in. Some like it, others don't.  You pays your money and you takes your chances.  Except most groups are free, so it's a considerably lower 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 makes 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 will 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 started.  We 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 sky.  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 of The 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 authors 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 reasons.  #1 - 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 per news 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 stuff out 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 easier 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.  There's some stuff that should just stay private.)

But, there's LOTS of good stuff on the net.  And much of it is Free.

Who can turn down a freebie?

Free Stuff? 

Free.  By free, I mean no charge.  Gratis.  No peso's required.  You pay nothing.  Zip.  Zero.  Zilch.  Nada.

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:

Andrew Johnson's Mag 7 Star Charts  - Download em and print them off yourself.  You may want to take them to a local printer to have them done on larger paper or laminated.   They go to mag 7.25, plot around 550 deep sky objects and are just the thing for a binocular or small telescope user.

Jose Torres's 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 charts.  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 that go to 12.6th mag, listing DSO's to mag 15.5! 

Cartes 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 software that is heavily customizable and does a great job of printing charts.  The sheer number of catalogs available for it is rather mind blowing.  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 to just playing around with it on cloudy nights.  It's absolutely beautiful.

From the same people who bring us Cartes comes Virtual Moon Atlas.  

VMA 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 recommend.  First off, I'll blow my own horn a bit.  I've been writing an observing 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 such, it contains pretty much all you need to observe most targets.  IE - it's 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 French, but it'll do.  It does contain the occasional error, so be forgiving, eh?  It's within the last few years I've really learned the value of a good editor.  Small wonders is really a community effort - readers contribute observations, sketches and photographs.  We have a host of 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 the articles when I write them.

Another one I can whole heartedly recommend is Steve Coe's What's Up

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 I'm a blend of Bob and Al, I'm probably closer to Al.).

It's a PDF, but it's worthy of printed publication

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 observing notes.  What a superb work.  Especially for the price.  Like the others, FREE!

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 did 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.

WikiSky - 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 online.  But it's not quite as simple when it comes to gear choice.  Yeah, you 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 so well for you.  So if you're a noob looking to get started with gear, 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 - if 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 tend to spend more money than Bobs.  Just kinda keep that in mind.

First things first, set a budget and stay with it.  That's going to 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 maybe $400-$500 for everything including some accessories.  Directly contrary to the ideas some folks might get while reading the forums, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO DROP UBERCASH TO GET INVOLVED WITH ASTRONOMY.  Ya see, amateur astronomers like to talk gear.  And this being a somewhat scientific hobby like it is, we also like to split hairs.  Amateurs are the best dang hair splitters on the planet.  Heck, probably in this quadrant of the Milky Way.  We are very skilled at making miniscule differences sound like mountains.  Keep that in mind.  For your first scope, you're probably best off going inexpensive.   It gives you a 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 kill you.

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 Internet reviews are worth about what you pay for em.   Some maybe even double and triple that.  Some less.  When you're reading stuff online ask yourself - what's this individuals experience?  Do they know their stuff?  How long have they been observing?  How many different pieces of gear have they used?  All reviews tell us something, but some are 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 them.  Remember that it may not work for you - even if they think it will.   Everybody likes to think theirs is the perfect solution.  And it may 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" Obsession, feel free to give me a call.  Well, several calls actually.  And, uh, get those adoption papers ready, um-k?  )

Realize you do get what you pay for.   There's a reason why some scopes are $300 and others are $3000.  Why some eyepieces are $50 and others $500.  It's not marketing.  Really.  Not everyone may appreciate those differences, but the differences are there.   That said, however, you 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.)  Basically you get 4x the quality for less than ~½ the price.  Also realize that the best way to choose gear is to see it in person for yourself.  It's your 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 the local wally world and pick one up on the cheap.  They don't need to be 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 night. 

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 Coatings, 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 - $100 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 additional 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 will debate to no end about which is better, don't loose sleep trying to decide between them.  

There's a lot to be seen with just a decent set of binoculars

I would definitely recommend Crossen's Binocular Astronomy however.  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 wally world.

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 inexpensive binoculars.

When you get them (and here's an argument for buying locally if you're buying inexpensive), take a minute and perform these simple checks.  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 your eyes and focus.  Close one eye, then alternate.  If the image shifts more than a very small amount, send em back.  Binoculars are basically 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.  If you're thinking there's more to it than that, you'd be absolutely right.  But we're talking beginners here right?  Lets keep it simple.  Last thing we want to do is induce paralysis by over analysis.  On the other hand, 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 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 tripod, even your car.  You just want something that you can steady yourself 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 hand 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....

Hubble Images Courtesy STSCI: copyright notice

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