For Christmas I got “the kids” a telescope. This was largely motivated by our home schooling, since the kids both have an astronomy component. But it was equally motivated by my desire to learn my way around the night sky.
I never understood astronomy. What’s so cool about looking up? One of my fraternity brothers in college was so “into it” he would road trip to remote spots (like Alabama) far from light pollution to look at the stars. Maybe it is this lingering memory that had me thinking it might really be interesting (thanks Paul!)
I agonized over what to purchase, and how much to spend. After way too much web surfing, I decided to get a decent but low-end refractor telescope. I was tempted to spend more and buy a 6″ Dobsonian, but decided on something “good enough” to see some interesting stuff and make me (and the kids) decide if we want something more. I purchased this model from Orion, both for it’s price point ($99), the table top mount (easy for the kids), and the fact that the bottom had a tripod mount that enables me to use Gwyneth’s hefty Bogen tripod. This is an 80mm scope with a 350mm focal length, and comes with 10mm and 20mm lenses. This results in magnifications of 17.5x and 35x. I also purchased a Barlow lens (changes the focal distance of the eyepiece and allows a 2x magnification).
To learn my way around the night sky, I also purchased the book Nightwatch. This book is excellent. It starts using easy to recognize stars and constellations (Big Dipper and Orion), and has a different initial sky walkthrough depending on what season (and what hemisphere) you are in.
I was hoping that a brief trip to Florida this week would provide the clear sky needed for learning my way around. Our trip yesterday to Kennedy Space Center provided added motivation. Two hours later, I am utterly awed.
The writer of the aforementioned book emphasizes learning your way around the night sky with a decent pair of binoculars. My parents have a a nice pair of 10×56 Nikons – decent magnification and a wide field of view. I was amazed what you can see with the binoculars! The Pleiades star cluster, barely visible with the naked eye, is just mind boggling with the binoculars. Even my father was wowed when I showed him where to look with the binoculars. The Orion nebula (M42) is also able to be made out. After learning a few key stars (Betelgeuese, Bellatrix, Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius) I decided to try out the scope.
The field of view is definitely different with the scope. The 17x images were not too different than the binoculars, but obviously steadier with the help of the tripod. I wish the focus had a remote control – just like using the microscope at work, the act of even touching the focus perturbs the image.
I then set my sights on what I assumed to be Jupiter. Wow. Even at 17x, the fact that it was a larger disk than anything else made it clear that I was looking at a planet. At 70X (20mm eyepiece and 2x Barlow) I could actually see features. Once my eyes adapted, it was possible to see the faint bands of clouds that run across the planet. As well as what I think were 4 of the moons. Due to the narrow field of view, it was necessary to nudge the scope every minute or so to track. I decided against an equatorial mount (has an axis of motion that moves the scope to compensate for the earth rotating) since I did not want a complex thing to deal with, but I see the attraction.
I’m now hooked on the night sky. A pair of binoculars, if not the telescope, will be a must on any camping trip to North Georgia, where the night sky is amazing and far from major sources of light pollution. In fact, I’d like to buy a decent pair with a tripod mount.
Seeing Jupiter, the Orion Nebula, Pleiades, and several stars via both the scope at different magnifications and just using the binoculars has given me an amazing appreciation of “how much” is really up there that our eyes cannot even make out!
Now I need to go back out, since it is about time to try to spot a satellite flying by 🙂