Sunday, August 31, 2008

First Telescope Economics

How Much Should I Spend?

This is a question for which there is no one answer, because different things are going on in the minds of each person who asks. For some, they have a good chunk of money set aside. For others, they don't have as much of a budget and they're afraid the answer they're going to get from an astronomer is going to include a bunch of extra foo-foo that they don't really think they need since they perceive their own needs as modest, hopefully to be met by the modest costs they've seen on junky department store scopes and bargain spotting scopes from sporting goods stores.

Money to Spend

If you're in the first group--you've got money and you're prepared to pay for quality since your time and the experience are important enough to you to pony up for it--my advice is usually to force yourself to spend less than you're prepared to. First, you're not going to know exactly what all you're going to want and need at the outset. So you're going to buy more bits and pieces later when you have a better idea. Second, you don't know what sort of an astronomer you're going to end up as yet--there are lots of sub-hobbies within the astronomy hobby--so save your big bucks for the more specialized instruments later. Plan to spend half to two thirds of your planned budget on some quality pieces of equipment that will still have a place in your home even when more comes later.

Keep It Cheap

If you're in the second group--you'd like a telescope but even the prices of the ETXs and Stellarvues I recommend sound like an awful lot--my advice is don't break down and buy a cheaper piece of junk then hope that everything will turn out all right. It won't. Even big-name manufacturers like Meade and Celestron turn out complete junk. I have dozens of friends who own these scopes, I own a few, some I intercepted them on the way to the trash can. Do I have them because they work? No, I have them because I rip bits out of them for other uses. As telescopes they're useless.

Let's look at the economics of a telescope compared to another luxury item. Let's compare it to the cost of a Nintendo system.

A Nintendo Wii with a common package of accessories (extra controller and nunchuck, recharger/rechargeable battery packs) is going to cost you just about $400. Then you're going to want more than the pack-in games to play, so if you go with one older title and a newer one you're looking at another $70-80. Then you'll probably end up with some other annoying cost before you're playing, like a new power strip or video cable. So the total to get from the store to playing games is going to be about $500.

I ended up paying about $650 by the time I got my Wii in place and all sorted out. You can do it cheaper--at first--but once you've got all the bits you want to really have the thing working you'll just have spread out the $500 or more in cost over more time, not really reduced it.

You'll be able to buy games for the Wii for the next five years or so in the stores. After that, it'll be as dead at retail as my Gamecube and my Atari 2600. If you buy three games or so in the stores each year, you'll be spending another $80-150 per year. If you buy games on the Wii itself across the internet, you'll be spending $5-25 per game. If you're a cheapskate like me, you'll be able to keep games down to $50-100 a year by buying them second hand, but you'll also spend more on aspirin when dealing with scratched or otherwise non-working disks.

By contrast, if you spend about the same on a telescope, or even cap it at only 80-90% of the cost of a Wii, you'll have something that you don't need the stores to supply you with new content for. My newest scope is about the age of my Gamecube. It's a home made scope that cost me about $250 to build. That's about the same to build as I paid for my GameCube as a used system package with extras.

The Gamecube collects dust in my entertainment center today. The telescope is still the main telescope I use both for my own observations as well as at star parties where I show the sky to the general public. The Gamecube hardly gets used any more. About 1500 people have seen the sky through my telescope in the past year. The telescope doesn't go out of date.

A good Stellarvue scope, like the SV80, goes for about the same as a Wii package once you add on one of Stellarvue's nice mounts. You can start using it right away. If you spend about the same on accessories for it each year as you would for a Wii, you'll have all the accessories you could ever need within the first couple of years, and you can stop buying. Plus, unlike the videogames, you will be able to use those accessories on other telescopes. I still use every eyepiece I've ever owned.

I buy new eyepieces every five years or so. I keep buying new ones because I keep building telescopes that take advantage of features of eyepieces I don't already own. If I didn't keep making new scopes, I would be perfectly happy with the eyepieces I already own.

Cheaper telescopes are available. They're unusable as they are. Once you've spent the money to make a working telescope out of them you've spent as much as you would on a good scope. But chances are you're not going to. Instead you'll take it out, have it not work, and get discouraged. You'll probably blame yourself for not being smart enough to figure out the telescope. Nothing could be further from the truth. The problem isn't you, it's the scope.

A good scope is as easy to use as a pair of binoculars. You can point it at what you want to see, you can keep it pointed at it, and you can see it. It won't drift or wander off target. It won't frustrate you with a computer that you can't get figured out or that likes to drive the telescope right into the tripod. It won't make you break your neck and strain your eyes trying to figure out how to get something into a tiny little finder that's poorly positioned and that you don't even know if it's lined up with the telescope.

So if you don't have enough for a good telescope now, save up and get a good pair of binoculars. Learn the sky with those and your eyes with the help of a couple of good astronomy books. Contact a local astronomers' group. You can get scope bargains there from folks who are upgrading, and you'll have a chance to try out different scopes and learn to use them from experienced users.

Then when you buy, you'll know what you want and need, and have contacts to help you get the best prices.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Cut to the Chase: Portable Scope

I'll post more articles in the future about what you do and don't want in a telescope, but for now I'll give some specific recommendations. First, I'll recommend some scopes that are especially portable.

These are good if you need something small and easy to take with you, or you have very little space for storing a telescope between observing sessions.

First, I recommend the Meade ETX series Maksutov-Cassegrains. These presently include the ETX-90, ETX-105, and ETX-125. Different versions have different letters after the model name to indicate what features that specific model includes. I own an ETX-90RA, one of the earliest models. It includes a clock drive, but no guidance computer or other electronics. Newer models have replaced the RA, so these aren't available new any more.

On these, I recommend learning to use them without having to have the computer guide the telescope. Simply use the hand controller as you would a set of mechanical slow motion controls for pointing the telescope at first. Later, learn to use the computer drive as a clock drive to keep the telescope on an object once it is in view. This will require learning to do a "north alignment" on the telescope.

I don't give the instructions for doing so here since different versions of the computer-controlled ETXs use different software versions that do it differently. Also, I don't know how to do it specifically, I only know it's possible.

Once you've learned to align the scope, you should be able to use the computer to direct the scope toward objects as well. But it will be easier to learn how if you're already familiar with the objects you direct it toward while you're learning how to use the computer. So if you've already learned how to find some objects on your own without the computer, you will know whether the computer is doing what you want when you are figuring out how to use it.

For goodness sake, whatever you do, don't expect to invite a bunch of people out to see the sky on the first night you take the telescope out. There's nothing worse than trying to learn how to use the computer while a bunch of people are waiting on you to show them amazing things in the sky, especially if you don't know Altair from Antares! Expect to spend some time on your own figuring things out, and expect nothing but a list of questions from your first experience.

Set things up inside in the light first so you can learn the controls and familiarize yourself with the menus. Then go into the yard someplace where it's easy to go back inside and refer to a good website (like Mike Weasner's excellent ETX site) to find out why things aren't working the way you expect.

Once you've had a couple of successful sessions on your own, you'll be ready to invite others over for a look.

Even better than the ETXs, since they don't have computers on them, are the wonderful wide field refractors made by Stellarvue. These are not the refractors you see in discount stores. They're a whole different animal. Well made, easy to use, high performance. They come in a number of different packages with mounts and accessories. They can show you things you didn't know you could see in a scope that size. The images I've seen in every Stellarvue I've looked through have been excellent. The price of an SV80 is comparable to the price of an ETX, but the SV80 comes with a lot more "fit and finish" if you know what I mean. And the Stardust Blue coatings just emanate a feeling of "classy."

Plus the Stellarvues come with an excellent case. I paid over $100 extra for a nice case for my ETX, since all it came with was a cardboard box with a styrofoam insert.

You can get them with a computer controlled mount if you insist. ;) But I'd recommend learning to use the scope without a computer, first. Besides, when you've got such a fine little scope in front of you why let a computer get between you and the sky? (You can always add it later by upgrading your mount.)

What's nice about scopes this size as a first scope is that even if you get a larger scope later the small scope won't just become a dust collector. There'll be plenty of times when the big scope isn't convenient to have along. A small scope packs along easily. I have a large pair of binoculars that used to come with me when I travelled. Now my small scope does. I actually got my small scope after I got a larger scope. I now have two larger scopes, I'm building a third and fourth, but my light, little, easy to pack scope will never go unused. I even use it at home when I don't have enough energy to haul the big scopes all the way to the patio.

For accessories, you're going to want to get a good, solid, easy to use travel case. The Stellarvues have you covered here. For ETXs I recommend the after-market case made by JMI. I picked up a closeout/overstock case from them for a discount, and I love it. The Meade hard case is pretty good, too, but I have a preference for the one from JMI. The finder that comes with the ETX needs replacing, too. The little telescope thing represents everything I hate in commercial pack-in finder scopes. Get a nice red-dot finder or a Telrad. Granted, the Telrad is almost as large as the scope, but believe me the scope's not worth a darn if you can't get it pointed at what you want to look at. The

Stellarvue comes with a red dot finder, so once again, you're already covered at no extra expense. Plus the Stellarvue has a wider field of view than the ETX, making it easier to get objects in the eyepiece.

I'll post another article on the economics of a scope purchase, then I'll post my recommendations for a larger first telescope.
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