The telescope was invented more than 400 years ago by a Dutchman named Hans Lippershey, and improved early on by Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton. Today, the most powerful telescopes are massive structures that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build, and can relay images of galaxies more than 100 million light-years away!
Luckily, backyard astronomers don’t have to access to anything so grand as that to enjoy the beauty and wonder of the night sky. As technology improves, sky watchers can get their hands on a good telescope at increasingly reasonable prices. But getting started in amateur astronomy takes more than just the right equipment. It also takes some basic knowledge and skills. Many beginning astronomers give up in frustration before they’ve ever truly begun.
Here are a few tips that will help you to better enjoy the stars:
– Know what to look for. Before you open the box your telescope came in, open a book. Visit your library and check out an atlas of the sky. Subscribe to an astronomy magazine. Visit Web sites to find out what stars, constellations, and other attractions are most prominent in your area at this time of year. Get acquainted with the sky through your naked eyes, so you know where to look.
– Set your finder scope before taking your telescope outside. This helps you center objects in your sight, and can cause untold frustration when not properly aligned.
– Spend at least half an hour in total darkness before using your telescope. This will allow you eyes to become dark-adapted, so you’ll be able to see faint objects. Because it takes only seconds of bright light to ruin dark-adapted eyes, astronomers use red light to read star maps and perform othr tsasks requiring light. Invest in a flashlight with a red lens, or make your own by inserting red cellophane under the lens or coating it with red nail polish.
– Find a dark spot away from light pollution, or from buildings and pavement. These objects tend to absorb heat during the day and release it at night, creating heat mirages that can interfere with your view. The best sky watching locations are open, grassy fields.
– Start small and move slowly. One of the biggest temptations for a new telescope owner is to use it at the highest possible magnification level. It’s best to keep the magnification down, especially early on, because too much power can result in fuzzy, dark images. Find what you’re looking for at the lowest possible level of magnification, then gradually zoom in on it, little by little. Stop when you begin to sacrifice clarity for size.
– Join a club. Like most hobbies, stargazing is more fun with friends. An amateur astronomers club can help you get past some of the rookie mistakes that cause many would-be sky watchers to give up. Fellow club members can provide hands-on tips to improve your experience. You don’t even need to have your own telescope. Many clubs allow members to borrow or rent equipment until they’re sure they’ve caught the astronomy bug.
Remember these simple tips, and you’ll be an expert sky watcher in no time!