The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Telescopes and Amateur Astronomy
12/26/2013 8:37 AM
Got a new telescope for Christmas or a birthday? Congratulations! If you're a bit lost now, I have made these videos just for you! They will take you through those confusing-looking mounts, how to understand your telescope and accessories, how to find your way around the night sky, what apps / software / books can help you, how to see more planetary and deep sky object detail at the eyepiece, and finally, tips on improving a small, inexpensive telescope to get the most out of it - all in a little over an hour's time. In short, this is the
Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Telescopes & Amateur Astronomy.
First, if you have alt-az mount (up/down / spins like a photographic tripod), skip these first two videos. If you have an equatorial mount, those things look confusing don't they?!? So then learning how to align it with the celestial pole will help you use it much more easily - watch this next video to learn how to set up your equatorial mount telescope.
However, once aligned, some people are confused on how to use an eq mount; the video just below here will help. Do this during the day first, to learn how to manipulate your mount so it is easier to do when the sky is dark and you cannot see the mount as well.
All about telescopes
Here's an overview of the basic types of amateur telescopes. This will help you understand what you have, and what the advantages and disadvantages are compared to other types of telescopes, as well as a basic tutorial on how they focus light.
The next step during the day is to align the finderscope.
Then there are a few things to calculate. "What, math?" Yes, but it's *easy* math. Begin with determining the focal length of your telescope; that is usually listed somewhere near the nameplate by the focuser. It may be listed under "F" or "F/L" or something similar. The other number, if one is listed (perhaps with a "D" or "A"), will be the aperture of your telescope in diameter.
With the focal length, you can determine magnification based on the eyepieces you have. Those should also list a focal length on them, usually on the top or sides. Divide the focal length of the telescope by the focal length of the eyepiece to determine the magnification each eyepiece will provide you.
It helps to know the field of view that your eyepiece will provide to you. Unfortunately not all telescope manufacturers tell you the apparent field of view or eyepiece type in order to determine this. You can probably estimate it though; this video can help you learn how.
Your telescope may have come with a barlow lens. To be frank, most "included" barlow lenses that arrive with telescopes are either of poor quality or provide more magnification than the telescope can realistically handle.
You can calculate magnification with the addition of a barlow by multiplying your previously calculated magnifications by the barlow multiplier. So if you get 50x from a given eyepiece, and your barlow is a 3x, then you would get 150x from that eyepiece with the barlow inserted into the telescope optical system as your instructions guide you to do.
But most any telescope has a maximum practical magnification; on the very best nights of atmospheric seeing, you can push your telescope to 50x per inch of magnification. So a 4.5" telescope can practically be pushed to 225x magnification, but no additional detail will be seen beyond that, and likely the image will just get fuzzy anyway.
However, no matter the size of the telescope, on many nights, 150x is the maximum magnification no matter what, due to the cells of air above our heads distorting the view. For more information on viewing planets and lots of detailed info on telescopes, there is an excellent treatise here that is well worth reading.
Learning the sky
Now you'll need to learn the sky, and how to find things in it. Understanding the basic directions and locations of places in the night sky will help you find the planets and other objects. Even for those not using a telescope, this is a useful video for learning where to look.
Knowing how the magnitude scale works will help with identifying one star from another when looking for different brightness between them.
But one area beginners often have some difficulty comparing is the relatively small distance between stars on a star chart, and how the stars appear in the sky. So learning to measure distance in the sky will help you find dimmer objects more easily from brighter ones.
One thing that beginners can do is download the free monthly Skymaps.com star charts. Use a ruler with millimeters to estimate degrees (the maps are 180 degrees across), then convert that to the sky using the techniques from the measuring distance link above. The objects listed there are often the best ones for beginners to view - start with those. Some people prefer to use a smartphone; if so, get one (or more) of these:
For a PC or laptop, download the free software Stellarium. Prefer to read a good book instead? No problem; here are some excellent beginner references:
There are also weekly videos right here on the homepage of Eyes on the Sky that detail how to find great objects to see in small telescopes.
How to see more in a small telescope
If you're still not seeing objects with as much detail as you thought was possible, there may be some ways to enhance your view at the eyepiece for both planets, and for deep sky objects (deep sky generally refers to objects like galaxies, nebula, and star clusters).
Some beginner and even intermediate telescopes are not as solid or well-made as they should be. They kept the telescope within a reasonable cost for you (or whomever purchased it), but some corners may have been cut in design or manufacturing to keep the price low. That means there may be some inherent problems like vibration or poor eyepieces, etc. But the good news is this: There are ways to improve many small telescopes.
First, if you have a small, tabletop telescope - but no suitable table - then a Super Simple Tripod 2x4 may just be the ticket for you. It is easy to build, and very solid.
For other telescopes, there are many ideas for area(s) your scope may benefit from improvement, such as tripod stability, eyepieces, finder, focuser, among other things.
Keep your eyes on the sky
All that should help you get more out of your new telescope and a lot more enjoyment of the night sky. Be sure to aim or shield your lights down (or turn them off entirely if they spill light upwards), as this reduces light pollution that makes seeing objects in the sky more difficult. You can learn more at the International Dark Sky Association.
There are many knowledgeable people at several online forums such as cloudynights.com, astronomyforum.net and stargazerslounge.com that can answer more detailed questions on particular telescope models should you require that assistance.