Beginners Advice

Date: Sat, 27 Sep 1997 17:43:14 -0800

From: Matthew Buynoski)

Beginner's advice from Matthew Buynoski

***Welcome to the hobby!***

Everyone has a different advice for new people. This is written from the perspective of someone who wasn't a newbie that long ago himself; I did not get a telescope until 1996, although I'd done some unaided observing for years before that in the dark skies of river canyons (I also run rivers). The standard advice if you are very new to astronomy is to learn some of the basics first: where the constellations are, what you can see with your eyes or with binoculars, finding a local astronomy group to talk to the members and look through their telescopes. This is all quite sound. It makes sense. It is logical. It is not fast. It sounds suspiciously like work.

If you are like the newbies I've met (myself included), you've suddenly got a passion for the night sky--a 'fire' for seeing the magnificence of the heavens. The last thing you want to do is do a lot of work and research--boring. So you ask the web and get a battery of answers (including this one) that are:

       a. full of opinions, some of them quite strongly held
       b. often contradictory
       c. not really the answer to the question you had in your mind
          (amateur astronomers are no better at guessing intent than anyone
       d. sometimes loaded with jargon you don't understand, always a danger
          in any reasonably technical hobby.

That's not quite the instant gratification and education you were hoping for. Let's go back to that little passion. The key thing, first and foremost, is to start observing; keep that new flame alive and add plenty of fuel! So do dig out the binoculars that you probably have around and take a look; sweep the Milky Way from your backyard if nothing else. Do find that group of amateur astronomers and go to their star parties; go not with the intent of taking "Telescopes 101" but to look through scopes and see what's up there. All you need to do is show up with is a lust for seeing the universe; don't be shy about having no equipment. I have never yet met an amateur astronomer who wouldn't fall over backwards to show off what they're looking at to eager newcomers. (The exception here is the astro-photographers, odd folk who spend forever chained to their scopes, following one astronomical object and mumbling the mantra "No planes, no planes, just this once, no planes". It is best to leave them alone for now.)

Notice how I have maneuvered you into doing a lot of all that "sound advice" stuff in the first paragraph--but as fun event, not a set of tasks. The rest of it (learning about scopes, getting experience with equipment, starting to learn your way around the sky, finding constellations, etc.) will occur naturally as you begin to observe.

The day after you've found and ogled your first bright open cluster with binocs, or looked through a scope at the Orion or Lagoon nebulas, that little spark of interest in things astronomical is likely to become a flaming passion. Driven by the desire to know more, you find yourself cruising a bookstore or the web. There are lots of good resources in both places. This is a very basic starting list:

  Books:    "Nightwatch"
            "The Backyard Astronomers' Guide" (my personal favorite)
            "Turn Left at Orion",
            "Starware" (for equipment).

Web spots: The web of course is incredibly connected via links. Use these as starting URL's. These reflect my personal bias, of course, but there are literally hundreds more for you to look at:

      and for a little equipment stuff:
***Telescopes! What do I want?***

By now, you probably have a problem; your want gland is throbbing fiercely. You know you want to get a telescope, but you don't know which one. Let's start off with one basic fact: there is no perfect telescope. If there were, we'd all have the same one and there'd be no need to fret over a choice. Another key bit of advice is that you are not someone else and have a unique set of needs and wants; what works for another amateur astronomer may not be best for you.

If you can stand a bout of rationality (hard with the want gland pumping), make up a rating table. List all the factors that are important to you. Assign a relative importance to each. Then rate all the candidate scopes for each factor. Imagine AstroDad, a hypothetical father of two fairly young children. He took them to a few star parties at a local school, and now they and the wife are after him to buy a telescope. He harbors a secret passion for galaxies (having seen some through scopes at the star parties), does not have a very large car, and can scrape together money enough for a basic set up costing to $1200 (but would prefer less). The kids like planets, but he's not so interested; clusters are sort of nice, though. There's a place in the basement for storing the scope, and it's not that hard to get it in and out of there. At the last star party, the kids tried moving a big dob and had some trouble with it. Sitting down with pencil and paper, he writes the following:

                                   --------------Scope scores---------------
Factor           Importance        8" SCT     4" Refr.    8" Dob    6" Dob
Cost                10                5          2          8        10
View galaxies        8               10          4         10         7
View planets         5                5          8          6         4
View clusters        6                4          9          4         5
Portability          7               10          8          1*        6
Kids using it       10                6          7          4         5
Storage space        4                8         10          4         6
Gee-whiz neat        1                5         10          4         3
Score               --              346        322        281       325

* requires taking out spare tire to fit in trunk if kids are going to observing session and thus using the back seat.

AstroDad finds to his surprise that the second-most expensive scope scores highest (but there isn't a huge difference in score among the top three contenders). In this example the 8" dob got zorched by its size; if the car trunk were two inches taller, he'd have rated it a 6 on portability instead of a 1, giving it 35 more points for a score of 316 and virtual 4-way dead heat). AstroDad thinks it over, talks with the family, and in the end chooses the 6" dob due to a late feeling of guilt over the cost of the 8" SCT with its equatorial mount.

When you do this kind of exercise, your first-pass numbers really serve to spark a further examination of the choice; don't be shy about fiddling with the values of the importance factors and doing a few cases. Many people aren't that sure at first just how important each factor is to them. This kind of rational analysis often makes us think a good deal about what we really want, which is useful in itself.

There is just one problem with the rational-analytical method; you have to know enough to be able to fill meaningful numbers for the telescope scores for each category. It can take a while to acquire enough knowledge to do this. If you are sitting there burning up with desire to buy a scope, it chafes on the psyche to have to do more--ugh--research before getting your new instrument. We can be remarkably irrational in such matters; I well remember being consumed with throb-osis of the want gland when I started into buying a telescope. Yes, I'd read a couple of books and FAQ's, but I didn't know scopes that well.

You, like me, may not be able to resist the siren call of the telescope. In that case, buy an 8" scope if you can afford it, and a 6" if you can't. Why? An 8" scope will show a lot of deep sky objects, so that you will have almost all classes of astronomical objects available to see. That's key, because as a newbie you many have an early idea of what things astronomical interest you most, but your desires are still formative and may change. A good 8" (of whatever type) will serve pretty well for almost anything: clusters, planets, galaxies, double stars, nebulas. Also, a well-made 8" scope has theoretical sub-arc-second resolution; folks with bigger scopes may see more and fainter objects, but 95% of the time atmospheric seeing limits them to no more fine detail than the 8" scope will present. On those rare occasions of great seeing, the huge reflectors, mega-SCT's and ultra-refractors will "win" big time, but you don't really need to worry about that. "Winning" is not the object here. You'll have a telescope that can show you thousands of interesting heavenly objects, enough for a lifetime of viewing. If you later come up with a passion for some specialized aspect of the astronomical hobby, there's plenty of time to save for that specific kind of scope without running out of things to do with your 8". If your budget just won't allow an 8", even on a Dobsonian mount, then a 6" Dob. is a good compromise. It won't show quite as many faint deep-sky objects but is still a quite capable instrument.

Still above the budget? Here I'd suggest saving up for at least a 6" if you can. There are some alternatives. Join an astronomical club; many have club scopes you can use in the meantime. Use the binoculars a little while longer and steal a lot of scope looks at star parties. Haunt the used scope market; you may find a perfectly capable beginning scope on the market because its owner bought a shiny, big new one and has to pay for it (the seller will probably be pleased his old reliable is finding a good home).

Buying a smaller scope is another alternative; you will be giving up some flexibility--don't expect a lot of fainter deep sky stuff to show-- but for some classes of objects (clusters, star clouds, double stars, some bright nebulae, solar viewing with a special filter, planets) small scopes can be perfectly adequate if well made. That, unfortunately, is a big if. At the low end of the price spectrum, there have to be compromises and some of them are not especially obvious to the prospective purchaser. Be very wary of any telescope sold advertising high magnifications that exceed twice the aperture in millimeters (suspect anything over 160X mag. for an 80mm scope, for example.). Advertising overly-high magnification is a come-on used to lure the unknowing. Another marketing trick is to provide a very poor, shaky mount; the general public has no idea of how important stability is to a telescope and is easily misled. Such "trash scopes" are often found as a sideline in sporting goods or department stores. Avoid them. Telescopes are precision instruments, and very price competitive. You will get what you pay for and going below a certain point gets you junk. As I write this, the cutoff for a decent instrument is roughly around $300, new, sans accessories.

***Other Necessities***

When planning your budget, you have to count on a few extras. A telescope as delivered will work, but be difficult to use without a few necessary accessories. For instance, you almost certainly have to have some sort of star chart. This is a map of the heavens, and maneuvering around the sky without one is tedious at best. There are small atlases for $15, with the more detailed ones going for about $40 and up. A planisphere, which is a wonderful plastic gadget that shows where in the sky any particular constellation will be at any time of night during any part of the year, is almost a must. Fortunately, it's inexpensive, about $5 to $9.

Most new scopes come with one eyepiece; this is somewhat limiting, rather like having a guitar with one string. One of the great advantages of a telescope is the ability to vary magnification by switching eyepieces. You will probably want 2 eyepieces and a 2X Barlow or 3 eyepieces as a basic minimum set. Eyepieces (and other assorted gadgets astronomical) are a virtually endless source of future birthday and Christmas gift ideas for your relatives to use; don't feel you have to load up right now. Eyepieces come in an almost bewildering array of different optical designs and prices from a horde of manufacturers and importers. If you are just starting out, stick with good quality Plossl type eyepieces, 1.25" size, in the $70 to $110 (each) price range. Once you have done more observing and looked through a lot of different types of eyepieces (this is one of the general amusements among the amateur astronomers at star parties), then you can go for the more exotic types if you find you want them. Some of us (I'm one) are easily parted from our money for wide-field eyepieces like Naglers and Pentax XL's, but you certainly don't need them to start. If you have to observe with your glasses on [astigmatism is usually the cause; common near- and far-sightedness can be taken care of by the telescope focusing mechanism], then you may want to spring for some of the longer eye-relief designs. If you have this kind of problem, be certain to view through the prospective eyepiece on a telescope to ascertain comfort with glasses before buying.

Most telescopes need to have a finder scope. Shorter focal length scopes (less than 600mm or so) can have a wide enough field of view at low magnifications to serve as their own finder. But the majority of scopes are 900mm and up, and trying to move around the sky with their narrow fields of view (typically under 2 degrees) is just plain tedious. There are two main classes of finders:

a. Non-magnifying finders, like the Telrad, put a "heads up" display of circles or a dot of red light against the sky, and you can thus tell where the scope is pointed. They are great for quickly moving around from bright star to bright star, but less useful for fainter stars and in light-polluted city skies.

b. Magnifying finders are little refractor telescopes, typically 30mm to 80mm in aperture, designed to be attached to a main telescope. The bigger the aperture the better, but also the more expensive. Forget the 5X24 finders; they are just too small and most are very cheaply made. 6X30 finders are adequate but somewhat dim. 7X50 or 8X50 are good and can be had for about $100-150 including the mounting hardware. Bigger and fancier ones (upright image, illuminated reticles, etc.) are out there if you want to spend the money. Personally I find an upright image finder a blessing and worth having, but you don't have to have one to start.

You will, unless you live in a desert, probably need something for keeping the dew off the telescope. I see you smirking, but it's true. Your observing session will end fairly early if you don't account for this problem. There are a wide variety of such items offered for sale, or you can make your own dew cap from a cardboard ice cream container (for larger apertures) or a tin can (smaller apertures), some black felt, and a bit of glue--total cost, $3 (not counting the original contents of the ice cream container or the can, which you apply to the food budget...). If you're buying, expect to spend somewhere around $50.

To make life at the observing area comfortable, you will also need the proper warm clothes and something to sit on. You can observe without either, but the event is decidedly less fun. Almost everyone has sufficient warm clothes; just be sure to take them with you. A big puffy jacket, pull-over pants (snow pants are great), a warm hat, wool socks, and some gloves (thin ones so you can operate the scope) will definitely help keep the chills away. It gets cold even on summer nights under a clear sky. For a chair, take whatever is portable. Something height-adjustable is great if you have it, but almost any stable support will work. I used to use a kitchen kick-stool, inelegant but effective. Even a sturdy orange crate is OK, with the added benefit that you can put all your accessories in it on the trip to the observing site. There are fancy height-adjustable observing seats made for the hobby, but they're expensive ($150+). You can live without one unless you have something like a bad back. If you go camping, you may have camp chairs and a camp table; these are great for observing as well. The miraculous invention known as the Roll-a-table is worth having, for spreading out your star charts and not having to bend down time and again all night to pick up eyepieces from your eyepiece case.

Many observers carry a collection of nibbles and munchies to sessions. Don't forget a water bottle or thermos full of whatever liquid refreshes you, too.

Time for a review. By now, you should have something like:

                a telescope and mount
                some eyepieces
                anti-dew device
                finder scope
                star atlas
                observing paraphernalia (clothes, chair, table, etc)
                a burning desire to go out and observe (most important!)
***OK, What Do I Do with All This Stuff?***

The best thing to do is go observing with a group of local amateur astronomers. This way you can take advantage of all the scouting they have already done to find the most convenient observing locations with good horizons, minimal dew, no lights, and no legal access problems. You will often find they have worked out understandings with landowners or park officials to use good observing areas closed to the general public at night. Moreover, the more experienced amateurs will definitely be a great help at first, both in showing you how to observe (it takes practice, believe me) and what to observe. Astronomy is an old, old art and science; take advantage of the huge amounts of learning that have been accumulated since the beginnings of the telescope era some 400 years ago.

Do not expect to see miraculous views by the dozens your first time out. Getting familiar with your equipment and learning to find celestical objects take some patience and are skills that have to be acquired with practice. Even with an automated go-to type scope you need familiarity with how the electronics work and how to set it up using bright stars . Take your time. One of the joys of this hobby is becoming attuned to the clockwork of the heavens, which move at their own, immutable pace no matter what we do down here. You're going to stumble around for the first several observing sessions. Expect it. Don't worry about it. Learn from the errors (Who, me? Polar align on the wrong star??? Nahhh. Idle rumors...) and go on.

But whatever you do, keep observing. With practice the use of the tele- scope will become easier, then second-nature. You'll learn your way around the sky. The entrancing views will start to come: brilliant young stars in swirling nebulae, sparkling star clusters, Saturn's rings, Jupiter's moons. There is no end to the wonders of the Universe, and they are all out there waiting for you to see them.