The Night Sky
Have you ever looked up at the night sky, been marveled by what you see, and thought about taking a closer look?
If this is you, then I can tell you that you are not alone.
Amateur Astronomy has really taken off in the past two decades, with the abundance of well priced, eminently capable, high quality equipment available today. But for the absolute beginner with no experience, the one question that will be especially obvious is, – "What do I need to get great views of the heavens?"
What Not To Buy
The first introduction many people have to astronomical equipment is when they visit their local Department Store, and find cheap telescopes offered in brightly colored boxes claiming 525X magnification and showing impressively detailed color pictures of planets and nebulae.
Do not be fooled by this. This is NOT the performance you'll get, and it's definitely NOT what you'll see – especially with the telescope in this box from this Department Store. This is so deceiving and has been responsible for more disappointments to wannabe astronomers than any other single thing, I'd suggest.
These are just toys. And unfortunately, even with equipment costing many, many times more, you still will not see the detail and color posted on these types of boxes.
What To Expect
Firstly, when you look into even a decent telescope, you will not see color. The minuscule amount of light coming from heavenly objects is just not enough to register as color – usually – on our retinas. That said, it is possible to see some basic color detail on planets and nebulae that are large and / or close enough to provide sufficient light output. But these are relatively few and far between.
For the most part, astronomers observing by eye have to content themselves with 'black and white' seeing. Astro-photographers on the other hand, have a whole different range of possibilities open to them. Using even modestly priced equipment, it's possible to produce impressively detailed color images of some of our most beautiful heavenly objects.
Even with all these limitations, there is something very special about looking through your telescope, and seeing stars, planets, nebulae, star clusters and so on, with your own eyes.
I can say that without exception, when I have introduced family and friends to their first ever view of Saturn in all it's glory with clearly visible rings and the gap known as the Cassini Division, the reaction is always a wide-eyed gasp and a " wow! ". Jupiter, likewise with it's four clearly visible Galilean Moons which move in real time if you watch for several minutes.
Moving Across The Sky
Naturally the objects you're viewing are moving the next time you're looking at them. In case it's not obvious, that means your scope as to follow them for as long as you want to view. Some telescopes you just push to follow. These are called Dobsonian Mounted Reflectors after the great sidewalk astronomer John Dobson, who introduced astronomy to the masses as a hobby. These are great telescopes for beginners and represent fantastic value for money. Alternately, you can buy telescopes that move on electronically controlled mounts. These are many and varied and usually cost quite a bit. But these are mainly for photographers, where quality and stability are paramount.
Either way, to see these celestial objects this close and personal, as you've never seen them before, gives you a wonderful strange, yet eerie, feeling of being just a tiny speck in a universe far larger than you've probably ever considered before. To see things in your eye-piece that are so far away that they may actually have ceased to exist millions of years ago, seems completely incomprehensible in a simplistic sense. It's so difficult to imagine the light from that dim and distant object taking millions upon millions of years to reach your eye.
If you're interested enough that this has whetted your appetite for more, then just take a note of the following points before dashing out and buying equipment that may not suit your needs.
Tip # 1 – Do not rush out and buy a Department Store telescope. They are just toys and will only frustrate and disappoint.
Tip # 2 – Be aware that there are three or four commonly available types of telescope. Without going into too much detail here, they are:
Refractor, Reflector, Schmidt Cassegrain, Dobsonian Mounted Reflector
Each is great for some things and not so great for others. Do a bit of research to make sure you get the one that's right for you
Tip # 3 – There's a saying in astronomy that says "Aperture is King". That means the larger the objective mirror, the more light captured, the better the view. This is so true. Do not ever underestimate the need for aperture if you're observing visually (rather than imaging)
Tip # 4 – Do not buy cheap. As with anything, you get what you pay for.
Tip # 5 – Consider just buying a pair of decent binoculars first and have a scout around the night sky. This is so much fun, and the beautiful wide-field, '3D' views you get with binocs are an incomparable delight.
Tip # 6 – Join a local Astronomical Society. That way, you can look through everyone else's gear first to see what you prefer. Plus these very folk will only be too happy to share their info and point you in the right direction.
OK, that should be enough to get you started, and looking in the right direction. There's so much information available on the web if you just Google it.
Here's wishing you a lifetime of enjoyable heavenly viewing.