Here's an article I wrote for a beginer's astronomy magazine. I might make up a section about amateur astronomy but until then, this is it:

My first telescopeI finally bought a telescope. Here’s my story, maybe it will encourage you to take the plunge as well.

Space and astronomy have fascinated me since I was a child. My older brother used to amaze me with his knowledge of the night sky. He could actually tell the difference between a star and a planet just by looking at them without a telescope (I eventually learned this trick myself – planets don’t twinkle).

Astronomy has mostly taken a back seat in my life although I would occasionally watch for satellites or the space shuttle from my back yard. Once, I proved to myself that you can see some of Jupiter’s moons with a pair of binoculars. Another time I struggled with a cheap department store telescope at a friend’s house. I was pretty sure Saturn was up and when I pointed to the neglected scope in the corner and asked if we could try it, he said, “be my guest – have fun”.

Well, it was fun, sort of. Locating Saturn with my naked eye turned out to be less than half of the battle. Getting it in to view with the telescope was extremely difficult. Once I finally got that bright object into view in the eyepiece it was time to focus, which presented a new problem. Unfortunately, focusing required touching the telescope. This delicate touch moved the rickety scope so much that my target would quickly leave my sight again. After about 20 minutes I finally got it focused and in view. What beautiful rings, what a spectacular sight! But soon, the rotation of the Earth took my view away from me with astonishing quickness. Gracefully following my target with this cheap telescope was not going to happen.

My reward for wrestling with that “less than ideal” telescope for an hour was about five minutes of gazing at Saturn. One hour of work for five minutes of fleeting views. That’s not a good ratio, but it was worth it because for my first time I was seeing one of the most incredible views one can see. The transformation of a point-of-light in to a beautiful ringed planet is spectacular. I enjoyed it but the work and frustration kept me from being hooked.

I decided that most of my troubles with that scope were not my fault but due to the poor quality and upkeep of the instrument. I certainly didn’t want to think that all telescopes are that difficult to use!

That was years ago. Recently I came down with new, stronger case of “telescope fever”. A stray scientific gadget catalog at the office rekindled my desires to see the heavens up close. I decided to do some research on the Internet. I wanted a telescope and I wanted a better one than I had previous experience with.

A first-time telescope buyer has a confusing amount of choices. Different types of scopes have strengths and weaknesses and the prices range from under $100 to over $5,000. I wanted my fist scope to cost between $150 and $500, preferably closer to the lower figure.

Of course I wanted a computerized “go to” scope. I love gadgets and I thought it would be fun to have a little computer to help me find interesting sky objects and point the scope automatically. There are several fairly affordable options here but I did not settle for one of these models. According to my hasty research, the “affordable” computerized scopes tend to be small and of questionable quality. I didn’t want to make a mistake with my fist telescope or with my money. I knew that I wanted something that would not be too limiting or frustrating. Good quality optics and enough light-gathering aperture to see some deep space objects was essential.

I also knew that the base, or mount is very important in choosing a telescope. My experience with my friend’s department store telescope taught me this valuable lesson. That scope was so shaky, just touching it would send whatever you were looking at to fly out of view.

The internet provided more information than I could easily absorb. My quest for the best “bang for the buck” was a little bewildering at first. Fortunately, a pattern started to emerge. There seemed to be a respected type of telescope and mount combination that would suit my needs and pocketbook: A Newtonian reflector on a Dobsonian mount, also referred to simply as a “dob”.

A Newtonian reflector is a type of telescope that uses a curved mirror to provide primary magnification instead of lenses. As you may have guessed, it was invented by Sir Isaac Newton who loved physics and math as well as studying the heavens. They are well known for providing the most aperture for the money. The Dobsonian mount was invented in the 1960s by John Dobson, an amateur astronomer. Dobson wanted to give people an affordable, stable mount for larger telescopes. He designed an easy to use base that holds a telescope near its center of gravity, allowing it to smoothly pivot up and down (altitude). This base sits on turntable (think “lazy susan”), allowing smooth motion left to right (azimuth). This combination allows the scope to be pointed anywhere quickly, easily and intuitively, and is quite stable.

I set my sights on the SkyQuest line of inexpensive dobs from Orion. They come in a wide variety of sizes, from 4.5 inches in diameter (aperture) all the way up to 12 inches. The smaller ones are the easiest to transport and maintain, and are, of course, the more affordable scopes in the range.

I finally decided on the ‘little’ SkyQuest XT 4.5. I think the convenient carrying handle (and the price!) settled it for me. This is by all accounts an excellent starter scope and I soon had one on the way.

It arrived in two boxes about a week later. The manual was very good and no parts were missing. The Dobsonian mount required assembly which took me about 45 minutes, including correcting a mistake or two from carelessness. The telescope itself only required placing the finder scope on it, and mounting it to the base was a snap. I had read on the Internet that the scope itself would probably require a relatively easy adjustment called “collimation” but the manual mentioned that it had been adjusted at the factory and might not need it for a while. I decided to chance it.


The Moon, taken by me!

Fortunately it was dark and clear when I was ready to take it outside. The Moon was my first target. What a fantastic view of craters and mountains. I recognized Mars nearby and easily moved the scope to my new objective. The Dobsonian mount turned out to be everything that people say about it – very stable and easy to use. I soon had the red planet in my view. Time to switch to the higher power eyepiece supplied with my new scope. It was surprisingly bright and very pretty. It appeared to be about the size of a pearl held in my outstretched hand, and even more beautiful. I could just barely make out some surface detail, or was it a dust storm?

The next night I reacquainted myself with my two new friends, and made some more. In the constellation Orion, I located the Great Orion Nebula with ease. The famous Horsehead Nebula, also in Orion, eluded me. I’ve since read that it is best viewed via long-exposure astrophotography. Then I tried an old naked eye friend, the Pleiades star cluster, which provided a pleasing view. Next, I looked for the Andromeda galaxy, the largest galaxy in the “local group” of galaxies that our own Milky Way belongs to. That took a little while but I found it using a search technique that I discovered using the Dobsonian mount. I pointed the scope close to where I thought it should be and little higher, and then I swept gently back and forth, moving the scope down slightly with each sweep. The Dobsonian mount made this search technique very easy and it didn’t take too long to find that beautiful galaxy. In less light polluted skies, Andromeda is visible to the naked eye and relatively easy to find without conducting a “search pattern” with the telescope. But where I live, city lights severely limit the stars and deep sky objects that I can see without the telescope.

After some very satisfying views I took the scope inside for the night and felt a great sense of accomplishment and pride in my new instrument. Then, with the aid of my computer I realized that Saturn was up in the eastern horizon! I probably would have let a larger, heavier telescope sleep the rest of the night knowing there would be other opportunities.

I brought my scope back outside and swung it eastward to the bright yellowish point of light that was not twinkling. Definitely Saturn! I put the higher power eyepiece in and carefully focused. It was so beautiful and just like I remembered it, but this time it was much easier. And this telescope has a wider field of view than my friend’s scope did, so I could gaze longer without moving it. This wider view let me see three of the moons, as well. And before my prize left my view, I could easily track it thanks to the superb Dobsonian mount. It sure was good to see an old friend again.

© 2005 Geoffrey Noles (contact)