How to get started in Astronomy for under $200.
by John Rummel
Did I read that right? 200$? Indeed, pleasant surprise, isn't it?. First, let's get rid of a major misconception. You do not need a telescope to practice amateur astronomy. Sometimes having a telescope can be an obstacle to newcomers. Why? Many people rush out and purchase a telescope at a department store for about $200. The colorful box adorned with pictures of nebulae, planets, and galaxies is too tempting, coupled with claims of 450x magnification.
Upon getting the telescope home, they discover that its mount is so wobbly that it's difficult to lock on anything, and that the view through the cheap plastic eyepiece is so fuzzy and indistinct that it's practically impossible to find anything in the sky except the moon. Many such people soon put the telescope in a closet or basement, and eventually forget all about their burgeoning interest in astronomy. $200 is wasted and the victims may never try again.
What's the solution? Binoculars. Binoculars give a wide field of view to make it easier to find things in the sky. The eyepieces and exit pupils (amount of light that reaches your eyes) are comfortable. Coupled with a fair tripod, binoculars are almost the perfect astronomical instrument, and far and away superior to any telescope in the $150 to $250 range.
Follow the steps below, my $200 recipe for guaranteed satisfaction in viewing the night sky:
1. Go to a bookstore and get Star Ware: The Amateur Astronomer's Ultimate Guide to Choosing, Buying, and Using Telescopes and Accessories by Philip Harrington (about $20 at Amazon.com). This book will give you a thorough introduction to astronomy and astronomical tools, including a wonderful section on binoculars. Written by a guy who loves the hobby, his enthusiasm positively radiates from every page. Reading this book is the single best thing you can do before spending any more money.
2. Get a planisphere. Having read Star Ware you'll know what a planisphere is and how to use it. Eagle Optics in Middleton has several available for as little as $10.
3. Go out and use the planisphere to find and identify the constellations. If it's summer, find and identify the stars of the "summer triangle:" Deneb in Cygnus the Swan, Vega in Lyra the Harp, and Altair in Aquila the eagle. Use the planisphere to learn how the constellations are arranged relative to each other. In a few weeks, you'll start to regard the constellations as old familiar friends.
4. Now, and only now, buy a pair of decent 7x50 binoculars. Be careful at department stores, make sure you take your copy of Harrington's Star Ware with you. I got a wonderful pair of 7x50 Pentax binoculars from Eagle Optics for just over $120. These are by far the best binoculars I have ever seen for the money, and comparable to pairs costing two or three times as much. Start exploring those constellations with your new binocs.
5. Get Turn Left at Orion: A Hundred Night Sky Objects to See in a Small Telescope-And How to Find Them by Dan M. Davis and Guy J. Consolmagno ($17.47). Though designed with users of small telescopes in mind, this book will be your best introduction to finding the best deep sky objects you can see with your binoculars. Drive out of town. Look for state parks that are open after dark, or just dark country roads. Even on cloudy nights, you will enjoy reading Davis and Consolmagno's description of the many accessible galaxies, clusters, and nebulae. Their easy "star hopping" directions are great for beginners to follow.
6. With the remaining money from your $200, get a fully reclining lawn chair. Gazing up at the night sky can be a pain in the neck. Also dress warmly. Even on summer nights, the air can cool more than you think!
Congratulations. You're now officially an amateur astronomer. If you have any money left, go out and buy yourself a copy of Astronomy magazine. Read it cover to cover (even the advertisements).
The value of good binoculars simply cannot be overestimated. Though I am the very happy owner of a respectable 8" telescope, I actually use my binoculars quite a bit more since they're so portable. They're usually on the kitchen counter just steps from my southwestern-facing deck, so I can be out observing in less than 60 seconds when the urge strikes (compared to nearly 30 minutes to lug out and set up the scope). Even when I have the scope set up, the binoculars are always on the tripod close by. I've even spent nights at the Madison Astronomical Society's dark sky site (south of Brooklyn, WI) when I hardly used my telescope at all, such was the beauty and pleasure of doing binocular astronomy with others gathered there.
Somewhere during this process, attend a meeting of the Madison Astronomical Society (2nd Friday of each month at Space Place). Meeting with others who share your interest in astronomy is a great way to learn more. There is no better way to learn the night sky than to be out with somebody who can show you how to find the truly great sights.
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