Monday 16 January 2012

How to get (back) into Stargazing


I write this as someone who has always followed astronomical events, but pretty much gave up on observing a long long time ago, when I was heading into my A-Levels. I'd always follow the big time astronomical stories, but never really pay much attention to the sky, except for maybe the odd meteor shower.

Well, I'm nearly damn 40 now, and gradually over the last year or so I have been getting more and more back into it. Last month, I dug out my old 6 inch F8 Newtonian from my parents spare room, and found that 23 years out of use, you could still actually look through it and see something. I even took a really cruddy picture of Jupiter and its moons at x60. It was fun!

But it was also clear the old scope was very tired, mirror dirty and needing silvering, the finder out of alignment and the collimation shot to hell. I'm as clumsy as anything, and figure a resilvering job as expensive.

So it was with great delight that I got a pair of 10x50s for xmas, ostensibly more for birdwatching which you can probably tell I write about my hopelessness at elsewhere on this here blog. But I'm loving them for Stargazing. So, for someone who feels his love for the sky coming back big time, here's a few things I've learnt, and wish I'd learned back when I was 16.

1) Before you do anything - learn the sky! It seems obvious, but really knowing the constellations and principle stars will make things a ton easier later on. Nowadays folk are lucky with the new applications for phones and ipads. The Starwalk for Ipad is so amazing. Feels a bit like cheating really!

Some sort of good star atlas or planisphere will also be useful.

2) The sky is beautiful. Love it with the naked eye first.

3) When you want to try actually looking through something at the sky, binoculars 7-10x50 or so are best. Chances are you have access to a pair already, and they are a ton better than the nasty cheap telescopes you see in some camera shops and department stores, as well as showing stuff the right way up. But if like me you don't have super steady hands, don't go bigger than 10x without a tripod. Any less than a 50mm objective won't show enough stars either.

With binoculars, you will see lunar craters, jupiters moons, phases of Venus, and more stars and open clusters than you can imagine. The sights are beautiful, drink them in! I can find loads of Messier Objects with my 10x50s.

4) Oh did I say before? Don't buy cheap telescopes from non specialist outlets. Don't don't don't. They will be crappy. Do your research.

5) I see a lot of advice saying when it comes to your first telescope, spend as much as you can afford, aperture is king etc etc. Me, I don't buy into this. If you spend a lot of money, like I did back in 1987 - £600 for a 6 inch Broadhurst Clarkson and Clarkson reflector like a length of drainpipe. Spend a lot of money, you find yourself starting to force yourself to use the thing when you don't feel like doing so. You burn yourself out. This is not a good thing. It's what happened to me after a couple of years.

Nowadays, with decent quality telescopes at lower prices, if the kid gives up on the hobby, well, no harm, no foul.

These days, good quality small telescopes are much cheaper. Even big name proper telescopes like, say, Celestron, do good quality small scopes that don't cost a lot. Look at review sites, Cloudynights, Amazon, ebay, whatever!

6) Make sure that it has a good steady mount that isn't too heavy. If it shakes, its useless. But if the mounting is too heavy, you won't be bothered to take the damn thing in or out. Telescopes get heavier much quicker than the aperture gets bigger! Another reason to stay small.

7) As a very general rule, refractors - lenses, you look straight through them - tend to be better at looking at the moon and planets, than newtonian reflectors - mirrors, you look into the side of them - which tend to have wider fields of views and be better for star clusters and galaxies. What are you interested in looking at.

8) I like wide fields! Lower magnifications mean lots of pretty stars, and make it easier to find your way around. Higher mags make it easy to get frustratingly lost.

9) If you have a telescope, make sure it has a good finder or other method of homing in on an object so you see it in the main telescope. Optical finders of less than 50mm aperture are useless. I had a 6x30 on my telescope, and it was useless. It made it very difficult to find stuff from an urban back yard and drove me mad.

Nowadays some small scopes have laser pointers, I've never tried them! Sounds kind of fun.

10) Have a simple non polar aligned alt-azimuth or Dobsonian mounting. It's much more intuitive for the beginner to use and find stars and planets with, and at lower magnifications and wide field views, the tracking problem is not a major one. My equatorial mount frustrated me, you need to know what you are doing to properly align them, and it makes it awkward to find objects quickly and easily. This gets worse if you throw in those worm gears.

Equatorial mounts are heavy as hell as well. I'm not sure they are neccessary for smaller telescopes.

11) Make it social! Throw star parties. I plan to! I hate the fact that stargazing can be lonely.

12) Don't expect to see glorious colourful galaxies that you would see on a hubble picture. Our eyes aren't as good as that, alas!

13) Just love what you are seeing. Always! Even if you can't put a name to it!

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