Monday, November 29, 2010

All I Want for Christmas is...a Telescope That Works

It's the holiday season. Prime time to buy a telescope, either for yourself or someone else. Unfortunately, it's also pitfall season for those getting a telescope for the first time.

Buying for a Youth

You know an intelligent, inquisitive young person. You want to give them a gift that encourages their interest in science, gives them access to the universe for their own study, and gives them a chance to stretch their mind. A telescope is a great choice. Iin astronomy, amateurs are as active in doing real science as the professionals. They may not have first hand access to new data from the Hubble Space Telescope, but there's a whole universe of stuff that pro scopes like the Hubble don't have the time to look at--that's where the amateur astronomers come in.

That first scope can be a blessing--or a disaster. A good scope, even of the most modest type, can be used to learn and grow and do real science. A bad scope can bury an interest in science and convince the poor youngster that they're "no good" at it.

Here are some prior articles I've written that apply to telescopes given as gifts:

If you read no other article, please read
Department Store Garbage Scopes.

Also, at least scan Telescope Mounts, What Not to Buy. It gives some common bad designs to avoid.

You'll also want to know about advertising claims that are misleading. High Magnification: Forget It!" explains why those claims are bogus, and what you should look for (telescopes don't work like microscopes, but advertisers take advantage of people who don't realize this.)

Glance over A Kids' Telescope, if you can.

You may also consider giving a pair of binoculars that are good for astronomy, rather than a telescope. Have a look at Starting Small.

Buying for Yourself

If you're buying for your own use, you'll want to have a look at the above, plus review the articles below:

First Telescope Economics

Don't Buy a Telescope That Doesn't Fit

Want to Test-Drive a Telescope?

Happy Holidays, and may all your astronomy purchases bring happiness and enlightenment.

Monday, August 9, 2010

How to See Through Your Telescope

When I take my telescope to star parties, to show off the sky to the public, I get two types of people at the scope. One type of attendee approaches the scope, darts their eye toward the eyepiece, then is away again almost immediately.

"Did you see it?" I'll ask.

"Yeah, I saw it," they'll say as they buzz away, as if they're in a hurry to get somewhere.

Yet they'll have been at the eyepiece so briefly that they'll not really have even had a chance for their eye to focus properly. They've glanced at the image like a quick glance at a picture in a book. They saw the light, but not the object itself. They didn't give themselves a chance to see whatever it was I had in the scope, its shape, color, or any detail. Even when I know what I'm looking at, I can't really see it that fast.

The second type of viewer takes their time. They allow their eye to adapt to the view through the scope. Looking at an image in a telescope is not like looking at a TV screen, or a book, or at something that we see without any assistance in front of our eyes. It takes a moment for our eyes to adapt. The second type of viewer gives their eye a chance to adapt to the view.

They actually get to see what's in the scope.

When the object I'm presenting has fine detail to it, I make suggestions to the viewers who are willing to take the time to really look. I ask them if they can see some specific detail, to give them an objective. "Can you see the light yellow bands on Saturn?" "Can you see the dim star just below the brighter star? It's hard to see in the glare of the brighter star." "Can you see the dark area just below the bright nucleus?" And so on. Then I tell them to take their time to allow their eye to relax, since a relaxed eye is more sensitive to detail.

Learning to See All Over Again

When you're learning to use a new telescope, really taking time to learn to see is important to getting the most out of your scope. A lot of it is simple experience, coming from looking at many different objects and types of objects. Part of it is using good practices, giving yourself a chance to get better at it. With time, you'll find that you learn to see more of what you look at. You'll see more detail, and see more of what distinguishes one object from another. The galaxies won't all just look like "gray fuzzies" any more. You'll be able to make out the weather patterns on planets, and so on.

The Downside

The downside to this is that you may find that you notice flaws with your telescope that you didn't notice before. There are some instruments that this may never happen with, the fine ones at the top of the market, for example. But even some of these will show imperfections if they're of a sort that need adjustments to the optical train, like a Newtonian reflector.

Many telescope flaws are easily fixable. But with some telescopes the limitations may be something you can't overcome. In some cases, you may simply find that the scope, while fine for some types of observing, no longer fits your preferences for the type of observing you do.

Remember how I've recommended not to bet everything on your first telescope? This is why. No matter how good your first telescope is, it may not end up fitting your preferences that develop as your observing experience grows. Also, a scope that looks optically perfect to an untrained eye may look very different to a more experienced eye later on.

So be prepared to have your taste in telescopes change. Don't worry, it's a good thing.

Give Your Eye A Chance

Here are some practical things to do to allow yourself to get better views through your scope:

  • Allow yourself to look long enough at each object.
  • Make it so that you can relax while you observe.
  • Read other observer's reports, so you have specific details to look for.
  • Try observing the same object under different conditions, either by using filters or different magnifications during one session, or on different observing sessions at different times of year or under differnt sky conditions.
  • Observe reasonably often, if possible. You "forget" if you go too long between observing sessions. If you can do a number of sessions over a short period of a few weeks, then go without for a while, you'll get more than from the same number of sessions spaced out widely in time.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The StellarVue SV115T20 Telescope

I had an opportunity to attend the StellarVue Dark Sky Star Party this year. (Read my report.) While I was there, I got to experience the sky through quite a few of StellarVue's telescopes, as well as a variety of other scopes.

See the SV115 in the Star Party Picture Gallery!

The scope that had the greatest impact on me was StellarVue's 115mm refractor, the SV115T20. It's a small scope, both in aperture and its physical size. It's small enough to put in a carry-on bag when flying. But the views it provides are far beyond what you'd expect for a telescope of its aperture.

What M82 looked like through the SV115 as  best as I can recreate it. The above image has been heavily modified from an original image by Markus Schopfer.

One of the most spectacular views I had through it was M82, a.k.a. Bode's Galaxy or The Exploding Galaxy. I have never seen so much detail across the center of that galaxy through a small (less than 10 inch) scope as I saw in the SV115. I've tried to recreate the view I had in the image above, but it still falls short of what I saw--there was even more subtlety in the center of the galaxy than I show above.

Another impressive view was the entirety of the Veil Nebula. It stood out from the background as strongly as the Ring Nebula, but with all the detail in it that the Ring doesn't have.

Normally, I don't recommend a scope in this price range as a first scope. Even if a first time buyer has the budget for a scope like this, I usually recommend they start with a cheaper scope, then go for the big purchase after they have a year or so of experience. Well, this scope breaks that rule. If you've got the budget for this scope, go ahead and get it. No other scope that you'll buy later will turn this one into a "closet scope." It'll be something you continue to use alongside any other instrument you buy later.

StellarVue SV115T20. Image by StellarVue.

If you don't have the budget for this scope, StellarVue has a line of scopes that range from low cost to high. Each one is exceptional for its cost, and every scope at any price is individually assembled and tested by the folks at StellarVue. There are no scopes from SV that are mass-assembled overseas and shipped here in containers, never to be inspected until the customer opens the box. The extra care is worth a bit extra in cost compared to similar scopes from other manufacturers that don't receive this care.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

What Can I See with: 35mm Binoculars

I have a bunch of different telescopes. They range from 2 inches to 12.5 inches in diameter. But the instrument I use more than any of my telescopes is a pair of 7x35 binoculars.

antique binoculars
My binoculars aren't as good-looking as these, but they work the same way.
My binoculars are light, easy to pack along (they take practically no space at all) are easy to carry along even when I'm not observing near my car (when hiking and so on), and they're easy to share with others.

There's plenty that even a small pair of binoculars can be used to observe. And it's not just sort of generally looking around, either. You can do serious observation with binoculars. Not only that, but binoculars are a perfect helper when you're using a telescope, too.

What Can I See?

In the Solar System

The Moon (and features on it),
Mercury, Venus, Mars,
Jupiter and four of its moons,
Saturn and 2 to 3 of its moons,
Uranus, Neptune,
and about 26 asteroids.
Don't look at the Sun!

Seeing asteroids through binoculars can be a lot of fun. In some cases, they move across the sky quickly enough to make tracking them with a telescope over extended periods of observation difficult. They look like small dim stars, but in some cases you can see their brightness vary as you watch them. You're seeing the effect of the rotation of the asteroid when this happens!


You can see something like a total of 650,000 stars in the sky with a pair of 7x35 binoculars. Now, this is across the whole sky, even the parts you can't see. And, let's face it, not all stars are very interesting. Here are a few of the ones I find most interesting:

  • Albireo, a binary star in the Swan, one amber star and one blue one.
  • Cor Caroli, a binary star in the Hunting Dogs, one is bright, the other dim.
  • O1 Cygni in the Swan, a three-colored triple star
  • delta Scorpii, in the Scorpion, a sextuple star of which you can see three stars
  • Herschel's Garnet Star, a deep red star in Cepheus

A car as a bino mount
The top of a car can provide some stability at a pinch.

Star Clusters

Stars tend to be more interesting in groups. There are two kinds of star clusters, "open" clusters are groups of stars that formed out of the same cloud of gas and dust and are in the process of each going their own way in the galaxy. Globular clusters are like mini-galaxies of stars that are held together by the gravity of the stars.

Globulars are called that because the stars form a sort of "globe" shape due to their gravity. They are among the oldest objects in the universe, and probably have something to do with how our galaxy got its shape. Some of them may be the left-over cores of galaxies that merged with out own.

There are about 100 globular clusters that can be observed with 7x35 binoculars. The dimmest ones are very challenging. I have observed about 55 of them through my binoculars, getting more will take a trip to the southern hemisphere or extremely good sky conditions. When I observe globulars, I look at a few things. How is the light distributed across the area of the cluster? Does it have a tight core, with a faint halo of stars around it, or does the brightness taper off gradually toward the edges? Some are very bright out to the edge, then suddenly dim at the edge. I also look at how tightly bunched the stars appear to be, and the shape (compared to a circle.)

Some of my favorites are:
M22 in Sagittarius, which has a large, bright center and misty glowing edges,
M13 in Hercules which is just plain bright. It's center is bright and it fades out gradually.
M4 is large and misty, covering a large area of sky near Sirius, the Dog star.
M80  in the Scorpion is small and tightly bound.
M55 in Sagittarius is small and bright, with a faint haze around the edge.
M2 is big and bright in the center, fading out rapidly to its edges.
M5 is large and has a large central bright area.

Open clusters are often near nebulas, either gas and dust left over from the material they formed from, or other nearby nebulas in which other new stars are forming in our galaxy.
The trifid nebula has a nearby cluster called M21, for example.
In Perseus, the Double Cluster lets you see two star clusters at once.

Binos on a long neck bottle
A long necked bottle is another improvised bino mount.

Deep Sky Objects

Star clusters are one of the various types of so-called "deep sky objects", which includes nebulas and galaxies. One of the most famous lists of deep sky is the Messier list, named for astronomer Charles Messier. He and his associates were comet hunters. They spent night after night looking for fuzzy-looking patches in the sky, trying to find new comets. Often they would see other things that weren't comets. The Messier list was a list they made of things frequently mistaken for comets.

Now the list is far more useful to amateur astronomers as a list of relatively bright things in the sky that are interesting to look at. There are 110 objects on the list, from stars to galaxies to nebulas. All but three or four are visible through 7x35 binoculars (and if you have excellent skies and are a very skilled observer, you might be able to get all 110!)

Man Made Objects

There are a wide range of man-made objects you can see with your binoculars. For most of them, binoculars are the best way of observing them. You can easily see the space station. In fact, as you watch it you can pick out some of its details, such as the solar panels running crossways to the main boom on which it is built. As it moves, the reflection of the Sun will reveal different parts, such as the habitation sections and heat radiators, if you look sharp.

There are also the Genesis habitat test satellites, which are highly reflective. The Iridium satellites can be very bright, and with binoculars you can follow them through the sky far longer than is possible with the eye when they are dim.

Dusk and dawn are the best times for satellite observing, as you are seeing them when it is dark where you are, but they are still in the sunlight. Polar orbiting satellites are visible all through the night.

a pair of binoculars held on the end of a walking stick.
A walking stick, or tent pole, can hold up a pair of binoculars for astronomy, too.

Sweeping the Sky

One of the best things about binoculars for astronomy is their wide field of view. This lets you look at things that cover too much sky to be seen in a regular telescope. For example, many nebulas cover a large part of the sky, so only a small part of them can be seen through a telescope at any one time. You have to move a telescope around to see it, a piece at a time. With binoculars, however, you can see the whole thing or much more of it. Perseus the Hero and Cygnus the Swan are good constellations to go looking for this sort of nebula.

The Andromeda Galaxy (also known as M-31), is too big to see all at once in a normal telescope. You can see it all at once in binoculars. It covers about five times the width of the Moon in the sky. Under dark skies, you can see its bright heart (nucleus), and the faint cloudy outer parts (the halo.) The edges can be made out in binoculars, where the cloudiness sort of seems to just go away.

And then, there's the binocular's favorite--the Milky Way. With a pair of binoculars you can see the Milky Way like you've never seen it before. Not only can you make out the individual stars, but you can see little knots of brightness in it, and dark patches. The bright areas are nebulas and star clusters buried in the Milky Way. The dark areas are usually dark nebulas that block off the light of the stars behind them.

One particularly interesting area of the Milky Way for binoculars is the area around the constellation of Scutum (the Shield.) This is north and east of Sagittarius the Archer. There are clouds and whorls of stars in this area, as well as cloudy nebulas. With a bit of experience, and taking the time to look with relaxed eyes, you can pick out the details of what you're seeing from the general mass of the Milky Way. The more you learn about what you're looking at, the more interesting it will be to observe. I will often make an effort to remember something that is particularly interesting, then go look it up in a guide to the sky to find out what it was. Later, I can come back and see more detail yet, since I have a better idea of what it is I'm looking at.

Holding Binoculars

In order to see things well, you need to make the binoculars hold still. If they're moving, it's hard to make out what you're looking at and to relax to let your eyes see as much as possible.

hand held binoculars
How to hold binos in your hands to keep them stable.

By Hand

To hold the binos as steady as possible by hand, bring your wrists close together under the binoculars to form a sort of table for them to rest on from the heels of your palms. Then rest your elbows and upper arms against your body to support them. Take in a deep breath, then let it halfway out and hold your breath. Don't strain to hold your breath, just don't breath for a half a minute or so while you look. Then take a breath, and do it again.

With a Support

Placing the binoculars on something makes them far more steady than you can hold them by hand, and you can breath as you please while you do it. Aside from dedicated binocular stands I've supported my binoculars during observation in many ways. A fairly flat tree branch will do. For objects that aren't too high in the sky there's the roof of a car. A long-necked bottle will often sit nicely between the barrels of the binoculars to act as a simple "monopod", or a walking stick can be used.

Halfway In-Between

In some cases you can't rest the binos somewhere and see what you want to see. Then holding them by hand while resting your wrists and the backs of your hands against a steady object will have to do.

Binoculars into Space

Binoculars are great for astronomy, they have a wide field of view that gives a "space walk" experience, they're easy to use, find things with, and take along. They can also help you find things so that you can look at them through a telescope afterward.

They're what I recommend for starting stargazers who are thinking about getting a telescope. It's possible to do serious observing "campaigns" with binoculars, like collecting as many globular clusters or galaxies or Messier objects with them as you can. Using them is great training for learning to see objects in the sky that will pay off with a telescope later. They're cheap, and useful for things other than astronomy.

Check out some of these books on using binoculars for astronomy:


Friday, April 2, 2010

A Kids' Telescope

One of the most popular reasons to buy a telescope is to advance a youngster's interest in science and the world around them. Unfortunately, this is also one of the things that leads to the sales of department store junk scopes. Junk scopes convince kids that they can't handle science, that it's hard and frustrating and not worth the effort. If you want to drive them right back to video games, get them a junk scope.

There are some decent scopes out there, though, and some things you can do to increase their interest in using and having a telescope.

Meet the Astronomers: Star Parties

Find a local star party and take your favorite youngsters to it. There they can meet amateur astronomers, and sometimes professionals as well. They can also see the different types of telescopes around, and get a chance to talk to their users and possibly even try one out.

Don't think that all the astronomers at star parties are some sort of hard-core astronomers with expensive equipment, either. At the star parties I take my scopes to, the astronomers range from beginners who've just got their first scope to those of us who make our own and have been showing the sky to the public for decades. The equipment varies from hand-me-downs to high end commercial equipment. But the hand-me-downs and inexpensive scopes are represented there alongside all the rest.

Preparing for a Telescope

There are few things as frustrating as having a telescope and not being able to see something through it. No matter how fancy the electronics are, the user still has to know something to get the scope to point at things.

For a first scope, I recommend going without electronics.

Next, the kid should have a resource to help them learn they way around the sky. I recommend both software and something in writing they can take out in the backyard at night. For software, check out the free programs like Celestia, Stellarium, or KStars for Linux.

For written resources, a good start is one of the annual specials from the major astronomy magazines like Astronomy or Sky & Telescope. Both also have web sites with a variety of resources, like star charts that can be printed out. Another good resource would be a beginner's star chart, or a book like The Stars by H.A. Rey, or his other book Find the Constellations.

With some basic information, kids can make use of a good telescope once they have one.

Not a Telescope

One thing to consider is getting something useful for astronomy that isn't a telescope. I usually recommend binoculars for beginners. Not only are they useful for astronomy, they can be used for a range of other purposes, like bird watching or sports events. They don't take much skill to use well, and they are still useful even when a telescope is obtained later. I use mine to help find things with my telescope that I can't see directly with my eyes.

A Telescope

If you still feel a telescope is the best way to go, there are some things you'll want to look for in a scope for kids:
  • Steady Mount: If you can't keep the scope on it, you can't see it.

  • Rugged: Because kids aren't always careful.

  • Small: If they have to ask for help to lift it or move it, it doesn't feel like it's theirs.

  • Simple: They should be able to use it and understand it without help.

A great way to get a scope is to ask around at an astronomy club or star party. There are usually more telescopes than astronomers, as we astronomers tend to end up as "rescue homes" for other people's "closet scopes."

Here are a few commercial scopes I think can work as first scopes for kids, if you end up buying one:

The Orion Starblast and Funscope models are fun and easy to use. They come the closest of anything on the market to what I consider a good kid's scope. A friend's son gets good use out of one.

Orion Funscope

Orion Starblast 6"

Orion Starblast 4.5"

The following are more along the lines of traditional starter scopes, and will work well for a kid at about 12 years old and above. They are similar to the ones my daughters built.

Orion Skyquest 6"

Galileo 5"

Skywatcher 5"

Ongoing Support

Remember those star parties? Well, if you're not an astronomer or not in a position to be around while the kid is learning to use the scope, you might get them a year's membership to the local astronomy club and make sure they can get to meetings. You will also want to check out the Astronomical League. They have observing programs, a quarterly magazine, and scholarships.

A lasting connection to others with an interest in the sky is the most important astronomical tool a kid can have.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Make Discoveries with Your Telescope!

Don Machholz has discovered his 11th comet with an amateur telescope. This last one, with designation "C/2010 F4", was discovered using his 18" diameter Newtonian telescope. His tenth comet was discovered using a 6 inch telescope from his back deck.

It doesn't take anything special in the way of a telescope to do astronomy. If you're interested in comets, and possibly hunting for them yourself, check out Don's website at There's a whole bunch of info there, including one of Don's books, "A Decade of Comets", and a spreadsheet for comet-hunters.

Comet Hunting information

Don's telescopes are very simple, but very effective. What he accomplishes using them is a result of planning and skill, not fancy expensive equipment. Check out his site for yourself, there's a lot there on many aspects of amateur astronomy.
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