Increase your astronomy knowledge and enjoyment; impress and inspire neighbours, friends and family using low-cost, commonly available gear with these helpful tips. Your personal observatory can be your balcony, yard, driveway or even a public lot or field nearby...
Take it from a guy who spent years and thousands of dollars only to realise the most fun was often had with low-cost gear (no waiting hours for scopes to cool, dragging heavy mounts onto my balcony or cursing as knobs dropped off the balcony and electronics failed in the dead of night. I am a reformed telescope nutter who at one point had a 2nd bedroom not too dissimilar to Ed Ting's:
Keeping it simple is wise starting-out in amateur astronomy - from a telescope nutter who has come full-circle to appreciating simple gear and foolproof techniques for fun at a moment's notice and with little time/money invested.
Before reading this next section, please take a moment to familiarise yourself with this astronomy jargon:
Achromatic refractor - In plain English, achromatic refractors are telescopes which use a glass lense containing two pieces of curved glass at the front of a tube.
Mount - A tripod or stand used to hold telescopes or binoculars to allow easy viewing without neck strain.
Alt-Az - Stands for Altitude Azimuth. This means that the telescope mount moves up and down (Altitude) and left and right (Azimuth).
Field of View - The area in which you are looking - usually a circular area through an eyepiece or lense.
Degrees - Referred to in the context of astronomy for measuring the sky. You can find more tips and information at: http://www.oneminuteastronomer.com/860/measuring-sky/
Power / Magnification - Refers to the amount of zooming-in to view an object. Higher powers make smaller objects appear larger. For example, 150X (One Hundred and Fifty Times power) magnifies the object 150 times its original size. 150X would generally be considered the start of high-power viewing for planets, etc.
Wide-Field or Rich Field - This means being able to view large areas of the sky at once at lower power. As a general example, a Wide-Field view would be at least the size of a full-moon or larger (5 degrees or the size of your three middle-fingers held at arms-length).
F-Number or Focal Ratio - This one is hard to explain in simple terms but you can refer to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F-number . Binoculars or telescopes with Low Focal Ratios or F-Numbers will generally display lower Magnification but may be prone to chromatic aberration (purple fringing or a situation where the colours of objects viewed are not as they would be viewed naked eye). For this reason, I recommend staying at or above F/8 for refractor telescopes and at or above F/5 for reflector type telescopes.
Fellow Cheap Astronomers, I have spent hours combing the Internet and thinking things through and have boiled everything down to a few recommendations for low-cost high-quality astronomical instruments:
In many ways the best way to start in the amateur astronomy pursuit/hobby is to just go out at night and familiarise yourself with the night sky and heavenly objects in it. All that is needed is a starchart which can be downloaded free from the Internet (please see links below). Your eyes are always the best, simplest 0X telescope you will have ;)
Also attending star parties or joining an Internet Astronomy forum (such as www.iceinspace.com.au in Australia or www.cloudynights.com in the USA) can be a great way to get more information about skywatching, techniques, gear and astronomy (and also by reading Up With Chris ;) Attending a star party is a great way to test different telescopes and gear before spending your hard-earned money. You can find out star parties in your local area through the forums at iceinspace.com.au.
A decent quality pair of binoculars is a wonderful way to explore the night sky. In many ways it can provide even more impressive views than telescopes in the sense that you are using both eyes which gives you a "3D" view of the stars. Also most binoculars provide a lower-power (rich-field) view of the sky, hence giving you wide-field vistas and sweeps of stars. You are also free to explore at a moments notice with binoculars stored easily in your bag or car and instantly on-hand. I recommend going to your local astronomy shop and keeping your budget below $100. Most astronomy shops stock binoculars which are of a quality and power well-suited for astronomy - The staff at your local Telescope shop will have applied their knowledge to source the best instruments which will avoid you wasting money on binoculars which may or may not do the job. If you are going to be using your binoculars quite often, it is probably also a good idea to invest in an inexpensive binocular mount which will decrease neck strain when using binocular to view the sky for extended sessions.
Achromatic Refractors on Alt-Azimuth Mounts
The achromatic refractor telescope is the same design Galileo used to discover the moons of Jupiter over 400 Years ago and in many ways remains the simplest and easiest design to operate. Benefits include a sealed tube with no dust fouling the optics inside and a normal orientation for viewing (reflector telescopes which use mirrors often reverse the image which can make positioning the telescope more difficult for beginners until they are used to it).
One word of caution is to avoid overly cheap alt-az mounted refractors - these can be hobby killers - Shaky, wobbly mounts and cheesy, foggy optics will generally not inspire anyone to want to continue viewing the night sky. For your convenience, I have selected a short-list of inexpensive, high-quality mounts and telescopes as follows..
Achromatic refractors with a focal ratio (F number) equal or higher than F/8 - Lower-cost refractor telescopes with F/Ratios lower than F8 tend to display annoying purple halos on bright objects but refractors with F/Ratios at or above F/8 have much less purple fringe on bright objects and also handle higher magnifications
for viewing planets, etc.
Here is a low-cost, high quality achromatic refractor and mount package:
The Sky-Watcher AZ4 102 Refractor Telescope
Review - http://www.universetoday.com/41852/the-sky-watcher-az4-102-refractor-telescope-how-sweet-it-is/
Review - http://www.cloudynights.com/item.php?item_id=1959
Searching for the phrase "skywatcher AZ4 102 Refractor Telescope australia" should find you many local suppliers for this great scope package.
If you decide to purchase an inexpensive refractor (refractors can be bought on ebay for under $100), make sure to buy yourself a good alt-az mount.
Spending a bit more on a solid, lightweight mount will increase viewing pleasure dramatically as the views will not shake around - here are two wonderful
high-quality Alt-Azimuth Mounts:
Vixen PORTA II Mount
Review - http://www.iceinspace.com.au/44-353-0-0-1-0.html
Sky-Watcher Az4 Mount
Small dobsonian telescopes are the simplest reflecting telescopes owing to the fact they are a tube mounted on a simple alt-asimuth mount. I recommend staying at or above 114mm (4.5 inches) for these mini-dobsonians. A 4.5 inch mini-dobsonian started-off my obsession with telescopes a few years ago :)
After seeing Jupiter in my mini-dobsonian, years of Astronomy passion followed. Mini Dobs are great on a tight budget and can usually be obtained for under
$250! Here is one I can recommend:
Sky-Watcher Heritage 130P
Review - http://telescopereviewsuk.wordpress.com/2009/10/28/the-sky-watcher-heritage-130-flextube-dobsonian-telescope/
Review video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FEs_MMcJ7JA&noredirect=1
Simply google the phrase "Sky-Watcher Skywatcher 130mm 5 inch Heritage Dobsonian Telescope" to get numerous Australian supplier online links.
Recommended Observation Techniques, Charts & Tools
Push-to or Human Go-to - A number of years ago the phrase 'push-to' was coined and is used by many amateur astronomers to describe the simplicity of Dobsonian telescopes that relies simply on the telescope user to either push the scope to objects of interest or else just randomly moving the scope around until an object of interest comes into the field of view. I have spent many a night in my 'star drive' with stars wizzing-by as a blur in my hand-pushed telescope.
When some intersting smudge wizzed past I would i simply stop and reverse my hand's motion to bring the object back into the eyepiece's view - Light-speed, Chewie!!!!
The push-to method is not only limited to dobsonian telescopes. This method can also be applied to most all telescopes including Refractors on alt-az mounts. By using the 'push-to' method, I got more enjoyment and learning than my fancy 'goto' systems (which I often spent as much time learning how to operate and maintain as I did learning the night sky).
So for now, cheap astronomers, let's not bother with the fancy go-to gear [computerised, robotic telescope mounts] and invest the time in learning the sky by naked eye (or using cheap gear) with assistance from star charts or smart-phone/computer software applications).
One of the easiest ways to acquaint yourself with the night sky is with the aid of one of the many freely available sky mapping / star chart software programs available for most popular smart-phones and portable computer devices. Please see the next section for links which explain how you can download these free applications for your device.
If you do not own or wish to use a portable device, then you can use your laptop or computer with the free online Star Chart at Sky View Cafe: http://www.skyviewcafe.com/skyview.php
Free Star Chart Downloads
Stellarium - is a free, multi-platform, open-source planetarium for your computer, laptop or Apple IOS-based device. It shows a very realistic sky, similar to what you see with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope. Surprising feature-rich, easily surpassing many paid-for apps.
SFA Observatory is providing this free downloadable .pdf (Adobe Reader required). The SFA Star chart also contains instructions on how to use the star chart and the last page explains which chart to use for your location with tips and techniques explained.
TUBA - Touring the Universe through Binoculars Atlas -
Free star chart software tailored to objects viewable with binoculars. TUBA runs on all computers running MS-Windows.
Also please see Phil Harrington's: Binocular Universe - http://www.cloudynights.com/item.php?item_id=2712
This website provides a free star chart software download and also an online version:
Star Chart & Sky Mapping apps for portable devices
Apple iPhone / iPad & IOS-based devices
Stellarium - Free planetarium / star mapper for your Apple IOS-based device. If you want the Apple iPhone or iPad versions, simply click on the "App Store" icon on your iPhone/iPad and search for "Stellarium" It will appear as a free download and you will need to log-in with your Apple ID to complete the download.
Starmap Pro (paid) - If you crave more features than the free apps, this is in my opinion the best-of-breed iPhone Star Charting app for the serious amateur astronomer. iPad users are also supported with a separate app called Starmap HD.
Android Phones & Devices
SkEye is free in Android Market. "SkEye is an advanced Planetarium that can also be used as a PUSHTO guide for telescopes..."
Google Sky Map (Beta) - free for Android
Vortex Planetarium (low-cost)
Free Astronomy weather & moon phase apps
Apple iPhone / iPad & IOS-based devices
PocketWeather - This great free app provides current local weather, forecasts, telescope sky visibility and moon phases in one convenient app -
Android Phones & Devices
Astro Panel - This handy free app provides weather and information for telescope sky visibility and also moon phases -
Astronomical Images courtesy of: Antilhue amateur astronomy observatory - http://www.verschatse.cl/ and AstroGarage - www.astrogarage.com/
Star Charts courtesy of: Phil Harrington's TUBA -http://www.philharrington.net/tuba