Stargazing Without Breaking the Bank

by Kurt Dugger-

Days are getting shorter. Soon, some of us will be leaving for work and heading back home in the dark. It’s not all bad though. This is a great time of year to pick up a new hobby—stargazing. The night sky is an amazing thing once you slow down enough to appreciate what you’re seeing. With a modest investment, you can see wonders from your backyard that most people will never experience. With a decent telescope, you can enjoy views such as, the rings of Saturn or clouds on Jupiter. You can see the ice caps of Mars and turn the Milky Way from a smooth white streak into millions of individual stars. And did you know that astronomers are discovering thousands of planets orbiting other stars, just like we do?

A telescope is an investment and no one wants to spend money needlessly. Here are a few tips before you buy.

Find someone who has one. One of the biggest thrills for amateur astronomers is sharing their hobby with others. Keep an eye out for “star parties.” There you’ll find a variety of telescopes and stargazers who love to answer questions and let you try out their equipment. The West Kentucky Amateur Astronomers is a great place to start. They meet at the observatory at The Land Between the Lakes. Also, Discovery Park of America will host star parties from time to time.

Avoid the box store Christmas scope. You don’t need to break the bank to get a good telescope. Advances in technology have lowered the price considerably. Keep in mind, though, you get what you pay for. A $60 telescope that boasts 200-times magnification will usually give you one night of teeth-grinding frustration. After that, it will collect dust in a closet until the next yard sale. These scopes often have plastic lenses that distort images. They often have unstable wooden mounts that shake in the slightest breeze. I know that $180 is a hefty price for most people, but for that price, you can find an instrument the whole family will enjoy for years.

Do some research. Telescopes and mounts come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations. The most common telescopes are reflectors and refractors. There are others but we’ll keep this short. Reflectors can be made larger to gather more light and show fainter, deep-sky objects. Reflectors also require maintenance from time to time to align and clean mirrors and eyepieces. Refractors can give you sharper images and have a more robust design in general. Refractors are also good if you want to experiment with astrophotography, as they allow more room for focus adjustment. On the downside, refractor size is limited to around 100mm (diameter of the objective lens). This means you may have trouble finding very faint objects. I have a 90mm refractor built by Orion, and I’ve never regretted the purchase.

The most common mounts are altitude/azimuth (alt/azimuth), equatorial (EQ), and GoTo mounts. Alt/azimuth is the most basic. It travels up and down (altitude) and left and right (azimuth). EQ mounts require a little more setup but are still very easy. Line up your mount with the North Star, and instead of up/down left/right, your telescope will swing in an arc just like the stars across the sky. This makes it a little easier to track objects you find. You’ll be surprised how quickly things move across your eyepiece. The third is the GoTo mount. These are computer controlled. First you find a few bright objects the telescope can use to reference where it is sitting. After that, type in what you want to see, and the telescope will go to that object automatically and begin tracking it. These tend to be a bit pricier.

Tripods are the backbone of any good telescope setup. A lightweight wooden tripod will constantly shake and tends to move off target. These are what you usually find on the dreaded “Christmas scope.” Look for something with a decent aluminum tripod or sturdy Dobsonian base.

Go to Youtube for additional research, as are thousands of reviews and walk-throughs for different pieces of equipment. I researched several telescopes here before making my purchase. Youtube also has tutorials on astrophotography and better methods to use your gear.

Remember, practicing with your equipment is more important than how much you spend. Good luck and clear skies.