This lesson is purely practical guidance to get started observing on your own with some basic equipment and references. Where I have provided some cost figures, they come from checks on Amazon or Google on prices today (June 30, 2014) and do not include shipping. We do not sell any of these things; we buy them like you do. Remember, you can learn and begin with your eyes today, if you follow some of the lessons we have given. This guidance is for those who might want to go the next step in magnification using binoculars or telescopes but have never done so and do not want to wade through lots of information to figure out what to do.
June 30, 2014
INTRODUCTION. You can find very nice beginner’s guidance for observing the heavens in dozens of books and online sites. Even reputable vendors of equipment often have a section on their sites that explains the basics about getting started. We highly recommend doing some searches online and getting a basic kit of equipment. Notwithstanding, we will recommend some particular items because we are used to them. And, they are not that expensive. The good news about observing tools and gear: if you take care of it, your kit will last for years. Optics last for decades with proper care. Once you know basic observing skills (the discipline of observing), they are good for a lifetime and cost nothing but a little time. In terms of pure cost, a few hundred dollars will buy what you need to start with a small refractor telescope. One hundred dollars will get you started observing with a binocular. Read on….
- THE DO-NOT SECTION. There are a couple do-not-do-this suggestions. First, DO NOT buy a little telescope package that you can typically find at a large department store (like WalMart) that advertises big magnification numbers that are associated with a long skinny telescope. They are usually less than a $150 but almost always are close to useless and hard to use. Most observing is done modest magnifications. Ease of use is also connected to having a relatively wide field of view, which means a short focal length. Second, there are some things to avoid in binoculars, too. You can get highly advertised big zoom binoculars that have lots of advertised magnification, but they are often harder to use than a decent 7 to 10 power binocular with 35mm diameter objectives. It is also easy to buy a set that is too heavy also (over 2.5 pounds). Third, lots of stores have small and cheap 10 or 12 power binoculars with just 25mm objectives, but that really is not enough light gathering for the night skies. To sum up the DO-NOT guidance whether buying binoculars or telescopes, if you buy junk, it will be used once or twice but end up in a closet, so buy right the first time.
- GREAT BOOKS AND KITS. We admit to being partial in this. There are several really good references that you can take outdoors with you. So we are telling you ones we still use or wore out they were so much fun to use. For a book, try “Turn Left at Orion” (Consolmagno and Davis) or “Nightwatch” (Dickenson). Each is less than $20 at Amazon when I checked. The best kit for observing that has a binocular guide, a great sky map (planisphere), and mini-star atlas is called the “First Light Astronomy Kit” from the David Chandler Company. It runs a little over $30, and it is worth every dollar. It also usually includes a little binocular observing guide book that we use a lot. Be sure to choose the right latitude range for the planisphere. Quite a few vendors carry this kit. You can buy it in parts, but the kit is the cheapest way to get it.
- BINOCULAR. We are partial to tough inexpensive beginner level binoculars that work consistently and are well built. We recommend two made by Bushnell: Bushnell Falcon 7×35 (about $30) or the 8×42 Bushnell Legacy (about $75) at Amazon. Orion also has a couple nice options (7×50 or 10×50 for less than $100. The sky is the limit on binoculars; they get expensive fast. But you do not have to choose these kinds of options to get started.
- TELESCOPE. There are many options, and they also get complicated or expensive fast if you are not careful. However, there two inexpensive options. One is the Orion Short tube 80 with a entry-level German Equatorial Mount that has been around for a long time and is a nice first scope. The second is the Orion GoScope Tabletop 80mm Refractor. Later, if you get a bigger scope, these will still likely be used. Either option can be used for terrestrial viewing if you get a separate erect image diagonal. The short tube 80 with the tripod runs $300; the tabletop 80 runs about $130. Both can be seen at the Orion site: http://www.telescope.com. Other vendors carry the scopes. In general, we recommend at least 80mm of aperture and a wide field set of optics for a small first refractor telescope. Both of these fit that criteria, which means a focal length of no more than 5 times the aperture. This keeps the field of view fairly wide, which makes the scope easier to use for new users. There are other types of scopes you can get, but we have found these little refractors easy to use and relatively tough. If you want to dive in deeper with a bigger system, the choices are manifold. We started with an 8 inch Schmidt Cassegrain (SCT) – a complete system with a diagonal and couple of eyepieces and a finder scope. It is still a widely used type of system and it is nicely portable. Meade, Celestron, and Orion make candidates. You can buy them used for as little as $500 and a couple thousand or more for a brand new complete system. Whatever you buy, it should come with a basic finder scope, tripod, mount (either an Alt-Az or German Equatorial mount), and a couple eye pieces. The learning curve for the 80 mm short tube refractor is a few hours or so; the learning curve for a 8 inch Schmidt Cassegrain is more than triple this time. Want to see what is available? Go to a local “star party” where observers have their scopes. You will get lots of advice and get to see lots of options. If you cannot afford an entry level telescope, then start with decent binocular.
- THE COURSE. We have a free course that we use to teach parents, teachers, and others. It is called “Astronomical Observing from a Biblical View” and is available on our ministry site (currently www.christworksministries.org) or by sending us an email (firstname.lastname@example.org). We will send you a link or send the actual course in a few sections. This course teaches the basics of observing disciplines (including the development of observing sheets) but also introduces the subject from a biblical creation world view. By the time a person is done with the lessons and associated observing, most types of star objects will have been observed and studied. Practical exercises are included in the lessons. You will need an easy-to-read Bible for the course to check verse we reference since God has quite a bit to say about the heavens.
- PERSONAL CONTACT. We teach at some camps and conduct observing sessions to introduce observing the created heavens. While located in Virginia, we have occasionally presented series and instruction in other locations in the US. We have taught the same material in the Philippines and Uganda (two of our ministry projects). Feel free to contact us for more information. We would be glad to answer questions if time allows. Just send us an email.
For the next few lessons we will introduce observing a couple of specific types of objects using a basic telescope (an 80mm refractor) and a binocular (7 or 8 power).
Have a wonderful time observing in the meantime using your wonderfully created eyes. If you decide to stay with just eyes, we still recommend the Chandler First Light Astronomy kit so you can learn to get around more easily.