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Astronomy for the Beginner or User of Small Telescopes

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How To Get Started In Amateur Astronomy

I'm an amateur astronomer. A pretty old amateur astronomer as it happens. I've been into astronomy since I was perhaps 10 or 12 years old. Like some of you, the bug for astronomy hit me early. I think it's because children who live where it's possible to see a rich night sky are just naturally curious when they look up at a night sky aglow with stars. Since I grew up in a small town, the stars dominated the night sky.

I was fortunate that my parents encouraged my fascination, buying me a couple of small telescopes in my childhood. Not super instruments, understand. One was a little 2.5 inch Newtonian reflector made by Gilbert, shown here at Uncle Rod's Astro Blog. I remember one summer I was working at our small town filling station, and had my little Gilbert set up to view a partial solar eclipse. The little Gilbert showed the eclipse by projecting the sun's image on a little plastic screen housed in a plastic funnel that fit over the eyepiece. A few passers-by stopped and looked, giving me a source of pride.

The other telescope my folks bought me was a little Moon Watch telescope. Mine wasn't like the ones pictured at the referenced site, but a little 50mm elbow telescope mounted on a small but sturdy Altazimuth stand. Modest, but I saw a lot with that little telescope. It was useful for looking at star fields, and I saw a few open clusters with it. I looked at the moon often with it. At only 7x magnification, it showed little detail, but the image was clear and the Mare with their subtle shades were always fascinating.

By the time I entered high school, I had somewhat outgrown my modest equipment, and was ready for something bigger. I got interested in ATM (Amateur Telescope Making), and decided to make a DIY telescope. Involved with that project was the need for my own DIY telescope tripod. At that time, what was available were optics and parts for a homemade reflector telescope, a big (to me) 6 inch f/12 Newtonian reflector. The tripod was made of pipe fittings, and was just capable of handling the Newtonian.

This site describes more of my experience in the world of amateur astronomy, and tries to offer some tutorials on telescope types, mount types, several do it yourself projects, and even a few astro-photography pointers. The site is designed for those who are beginning their venture into astronomy, or who have interest in small telescopes regardless of their experience level. If for whatever reason you have interest in small telescope astronomy, enjoy this site for some practical information on the use of small telescopes. Also consider the very popular NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe as a way to gently but significantly punch up your astronomical knowledge.

If you're on a budget, or handy at projects, you can make the DIY Refractor Telescope or the DIY Telescope Tripod. Other do it yourself projects include how to make a DIY Piggypack Camera Adapter and a Make Your Own Astrocamera. Another good option for the budget minded is to look for bargain priced old 60mm refractors. The 60mm telescopes of old were actually well built telescopes, and can be refurbished to be fine performers. Look at Monolux Review for a sense of what refurbishing an old 60 or 70mm might be like.

As proof that small telescopes can provide wondrous entertainment, I present pages of observations and photographs of the moon and planets taken through instruments as small as 2 inch (50mm) aperture, and no bigger than 6 inch (150mm). Take some time to view the picture pages, and see if these images through modest sized telescopes convince you of the power of small optics. Try your hand at astro-photography for a real challenge, and a real thrill.

Though I've been an amateur astronomer for some 45 years (and a professional astronomer for some of that time), I primarily use small and modest sized telescopes. I started the hobby with my copy of Norton's Star Atlas and Reference Handbook, using it and my Moon Watch telescope to locate many rich star fields and Messier objects. From there I moved up bit at a time.

From the very long f/12 six inch Newtonian that I assembled from parts, I leaped into a 10 inch Newtonian project my biggest DIY telescope project. I purchased the finished mirror from an individual's ad in a magazine. The 10 inch was my biggest bout with Aperture Fever. From there I downsized to a homemade 8 inch f/5.5 Newtonian, building it with a hand-made mirror made by a friend of mine.

After many years with the 8 inch as my primary telescope, I finally got rid of it and purchased a few professionally made telescopes, hoping I'd get better products than I'd been able to construct. In my case I probably did, because other than some successful tweaks I've made to telescopes, my own ATM skills are a bit meager. Now my biggest instruments are a pair of 6 inch Newtonians. One is a 6 inch short focus Newtonian, similar to the Orion 9827 AstroView 6 Equatorial Reflector Telescope, and the other is a long focus 6 inch Newtonian, longer even than the Orion 8944 SkyQuest XT6 Classic Dobsonian Telescope. The combination works well, in that both have moderate sized aperture which can deliver a lot of targets, and one is great at wide field targets, the other for high resolution observing.

While my 6 inch Newtonians are my big guns, I often use a Meade ETX-90 because of its charm and convenience, an earlier version of the Meade Instruments ETX90 Observer Maksutov-Cassegrain Telescope with Tripod. I still own and use a small 2 inch Jaegers refractor and two classic 60mm Japanese make refractors for their crisp views, low maintenance, and quick cool down times. One is a 60mm x 700mm medium length Monolux refractor, and the other a longer 60mm x 1000mm Carton refractor, constructed from parts. More recently I've added a Celestron NexStar 5SE, and a Vixen A70lf Refractor.

And yes, I even use binoculars for stargazing, comet viewing, and special celestial events. My favorite pair is my 15x70 Barska Binoculars which is mounted on a handy mirror mount. It may surprise you that many experienced amateur astronomers make considerable use of small telescopes as small as the venerable 60mm refractor or binoculars. My Barska binoculars weren't that expensive for what they deliver, and I notice that the Celestron SkyMaster Giant 15x70 Binoculars with Tripod Adapter are very much like my Barska binoculars, and also at a very affordable price. Binoculars are an easy and inexpensive way to get started in astronomy.

Above you see results of the Amateur Astronomer Survey which shows that fully half of the amateur astronomers who took the survey not only use binoculars in their hobby, but often use binoculars. Consider clicking on the survey link and adding your input to the database.

Linux Survey

Still haven't purchased that first telescope?

In case you're considering a telescope purchase, I've created tutorials that layout the basic characteristics of four major types of telescopes used by amateur astronomers, as well as some information on binoculars. There are certainly more telescope types out there, but the ones I give details about are by far the most common. The telescope types discussed in the tutorials are the refractor, the Newtonian equatorial, the Dobsonian, and the Cassegrain (2 types). If you want more detailed information about the astronomy hobby, check out The Backyard Astronomer's Guide. It will give more detailed guidelines about what telescope may be right for you.

If you haven't purchased a telescope yet, check out the following tutorials before you shop: Telescope Overview, or the specific tutorials on Refractors, Newtonians, Dobsonians, Cassegrains, and Telescope Mounts .

Hopefully, these telescope tutorials will help you get a feel for what type of instrument you need for what you enjoy or think you'll enjoy viewing, and reveal approximately what it might cost to satisfy your interests. Most of the information presented is obtained from my personal experience. Once you select a telescope, or even if you already have one, consider getting a good book on how and what to observe, like the very popular Turn Left at Orion. A source like that will really help get you off on the right foot, or left foot if that's your preference.

If you have logged a bit of time as an amateur astronomer, I invite you to take the Amateur Astronomer Survey, and see what most amateur astronomers are up to.

Some Telescope Shopping Suggestions

If you're just getting started, I strongly suggest that you begin modestly, as the Astronomy 101 t-shirt design suggest. Wait until dark, then look up. For starters (and for optics you'll use for years) consider a quality pair of binoculars. I often use a pair of 15x70 binoculars, and can see most Messier objects with them, though you may want to start with a 7x50 pair. Binoculars that magnify over 10 times cannot really be hand held, and must be on some kind of stable mount, so don't over buy.

With binoculars I can see all the Messier open clusters, several nebula, and a number of galaxies. The galaxies aren't full blown as in photographs, but show as soft fuzzy clouds. Still amazing, when you consider that even the closest are perhaps 2 million light years away.

My best comet views have been obtained with binoculars, and I've had very enjoyable views of special celestial events, such as the crescent moon passing near the Pleiades, and lunar eclipses are very enjoyable through binoculars.

Only the planetary nebula and small globular clusters are poor targets for my binoculars. The objects are not too dim, just too small to be distinguished from stars.

If you're a do-it-yourself type of person, you may want to consider making your own telescope. This can be a total project where you even grind your own mirror, or a less strenuous project where you purchase the optics already made. If you want to build your own telescope, check out the Dobsonian plans at Dobsonian Plans. It's a doable thing, especially if you like to work with your hands. I've ground a mirror from scratch, a 6 inch f/4.5. I'd say it was a successful effort, and made a nice wide field telescope that I used for a few years.

I often use a small, 50mm telescope refractor. At f/15, my 50mm Jaegers provides surprisingly good images of the moon, planets, and countless star objects. Some photos taken through it and a 135mm telephoto lens are found here. The 50mm's main limitation is its limited ability to resolve the dimmer galaxies, though some practiced observers can even detect many of those with a small instrument.

I still use my 50mm because I happen to have a Mylar solar filter that fits it, so it's my primary solar instrument (don't ever look at the sun without a properly filtered telescope). So don't feel that you must buy the biggest telescope in the store. You can have years of entertainment with much smaller and less expensive equipment.

Where can you get more information?

There are many places to get more information on the subject of telescopes and observing. Web searches, for one. It won't be easy, in that on the web you'll see many different opinions. Each of us inevitably cloud our advice with our own preferences. The fact that the advice offered by different writers varies doesn't make any of them wrong, it's just that each person has different hobby needs that he or she wishes to fulfill.

A good site for the beginner astronomer is Beginner's Guide To Astronomy. There you'll find information tidbits on telescopes, observing, and available observing targets for different times of the year.

Over the years I've accumulated a nice collection of astronomy and telescope books in search of information, and I really enjoy reading them. I'll be surprised if you don't eventually accumulate your own collection. You might begin your search at ABEbooks. Their site connects you to hundreds of new and used bookstores, and I'm sure you can find some bargains there.

Speaking of books, some freely available public domain books are available for instant download at the Gutenberg Astronomy Shelf. While some of this information is dated, the ones on astronomy history are still a good read, as well as are the observing guides.

If you want to know what's happening in the astronomy world, a web source of up to date astronomical news that will keep you up to date can be found at:

Universe Today - Space news from around the Internet, updated every weekday.

What's It All About?

What many people like about astronomy as a hobby is that each night can be an adventure. There are always the old friends up there, constellations and stars that return each season. But there's always change as well. The planets get closer, then further away. Jupiter has its moons move across its surface for entertaining (and scientifically valuable) displays, not to mention storms so vast that even amateur sized telescopes can see them.

Saturn flaunts its rings in varying configurations over the years, and each Mars opposition has surprises. You'll definitely regret missing an encounter with a comet, since many will never return within your lifetime. I invite you to periodically check out my Tonight's Sky page to see what's upcoming each evening.