Introduction: Get the Most Out of Your Entry Level Telescope
Congratulation you have a telescope. Welcome to the world of amateur astronomy or welcome back if you have been away for a while. Chances are you have looked online at the wide range of telescopes and then looked at your budget and seen that most don't fit into your life right now. Thats OK because we can still do a lot with a modest $150 scope seen here (Celestron Powerseeker 114EQ).
I believe that people usually fit into one of two groups "More time than money" or "More money than time" and like a lot of us I am in the first group. But usually the first group people have more fun in life especially if they like making things and getting use out of what they have. I believe that we appreciate things more and have the opportunity to learn more. So what you see here in the photo outside of the $150 for the scope cost me about $30 and I have been able to see galaxies, nebulas, double stars, planets, the sun, and be able to take photos of the planets and sun.
So lets get it started shall we...
Step 1: Simple Improvements That Make a Big Impact
The popsicle stick focuser.
The idea is a very simple one here, it a lever. When you get close to focus using the knob use the popsicle stick that is taped to the side of one of the knobs to dial in the focus to perfection. Because its a lever we can move the end a large distance and it will in turn move the other end attached to the focuser a much smaller distance.
So most entry level tripods are a bit unstable but we can help that with a large bottle and a rope. The idea here is 2 things
- Lower the center of gravity of the entire system making it more stable
- Because of the rope and water extra vibration is absorbed into the string and bottle as they move independently of the tripod and telescope
This too is very simple fill a large bottle or jug with water or sand or a bit of both and tie it from the base of the tripod to about an inch or 2 from the ground. Immediately you should notice the improved stability.
Step 2: Accessories!
Get a decent size case if you don't have one already. This will make going out and staying organized much better. Remember the less time you spend looking for things on the ground the more time you can look for things in the sky.
A red light (Not shown):
Get you a red light. Let me say that a again, You need a red light that is basically a standard flashlight with a red film over it. If you have the flashlight you can get the red film over at a craft store for a dollar or less. I actually acquired a head lamp that has a red light option that makes it much better so if you can spring for the do it.
Astronomy does not need to be one of the things you do at night, you can do it during the day to by looking at the sun. Get a filter and a bit of cardboard and boom you have a solar filter and can see sunspots! A bit of warning here make sure when you do this that you:
- NEVER take the solar filter off the telescope while its pointed at the sun
- NEVER use a solar filter that you have not inspected before use for any holes or gaps in the filter that will allow unfiltered light from the sun to pass through
- ENSURE that the filter will not come off because of wind or scope movement
Observing the sun is very fun and rewarding but make no mistake it is not something to be taken lightly. If a gust of wind blows off the filter or you knock it off or even a small amount of light gets through you can damage your eyesight. For me I only observe the sun by myself and don't make it and event like I would with the planets.
Makeshift moon filter:
This may work on some dust caps like the one that came with my scope. There is a center part that comes out that reduces the light that can enter the scope. This while not as good as a true moon filter allows you to comfortably look at a full moon without hurting your eyes (trust me if you haven't see the moon though a scope its very bright) If your scope's dust cover does not have this then you can make one out of cardboard and a compass.
Step 3: Learn to Observe
You may be thinking that you know how to do this because you have been looking at things you whole life right? Well its a little more involved than you think and it does take practice. The way you brain processes information is first to gather a basic overview or simplified view of the world around you and then when it has time to gather the fine detail later. Example your standing on the road and a car drives by. You dont usually see that its a Ford or if it has 4 doors, leather or cloth seats, upgraded radio, navigation system, rear view camera, etc because you dont need that information to keep you safe and stay out of its way. But if you were going to buy the car you will look at all of the other information because you now need that information. Astronomy is no different, First you see a very general overview of the object then if you need it you will then gather more information about what you see. To help with this there are a couple things we can do to help out.
Keep a log:
So you have been looking for something and you found it, Congratulation! Now you should always have a notebook and a pencil with you can take detail information as to what you see. The more information you write down the more you will see. This is telling your brain that you need all the information that it can give you about the object you are looking at. Remember you may LOOK with you eyes but you SEE with your brain.
Sketch the objects:
This can be done at the same time as your log but it is a blast. You don't even need to be an artist to do this you just need to do it. Remember astronomy has been around for thousands of years and we have only been taking photos for the last 176 (1840 was the first photo of an astronomical object, the moon) so for the rest of the time we were drawing what we see. Pro-Tip: If you sketch on white paper and then scan it and make it a negative it will make it look like the images above and look like the sky.
Step 4: Learn Your Constellations
This may seem out of place it is kinda is in this instructable but I have my reasons. You have a scope you want to use it and so you run outside and use it. It happens to all new astronomers and really a fact of amateur astronomy. So really at this point you may have found a couple things using an app on your phone or what have you but for the tricky stuff you need to learn the sky. Just like here on land I can go to any city and find a gas station even if I have never been there but how about that great sandwich place that only the locals know about on main street well then I need to know the area. In astronomy you need to know the local scene. The constellations are our landmarks of the sky. If we take the time to learn them finding the objects in the sky that we cant see with out a telescope becomes much easier. So take that app out and look for the constellations and do this every time you go out. You need to walk the dog or go to the mailbox at night then learn a constellation or two. Then when you get your scope out and I tell you to look for the Ring Nebula in Lyra you will know where to start.
Step 5: Get a Star Map
This will help a lot. There are a lot that you can buy if you wanted to but there are just as many good ones for free on the interwebs. This is not a go big or go home area its a just what you need. Sure you can get a map that has millions of stars on it but you will not see stars that faint through your scope so you will get lost in the sky. I recomend getting one at about a 10 magnitude (how bright the star appears from earth). I have always liked the ones created here: http://www.deepskywatch.com/deep-sky-hunter-atlas...
They are detailed, accurate, and best of all free! Print them out, put them in a binder and grab your scope and red light and try and find something.
Want to make your own map of an area of the sky? Well you can do that too with Skychart: https://sourceforge.net/projects/skychart/
Its open source, easy to use, can control a computerized telescope, and will allow you to print a chart for any object/area of the sky.
Step 6: Astronomy Is Like Beer...
But dont mix. Astronomy is like beer because its better with friends. When you take your scope out and see someone walking by ask then if they want to see Saturn or Jupiter (if they are up). I have rarely meet a stranger (unknown friend usually) that doesn't want to see Saturn and usually they go on their way with the biggest smile on their face and shocked at what they have seen. I will tell you that when you can make someone's day like that you will never feel better. Who knows they could have been having a really bad day or the most unexciting day of their life and then you with your small scope show them something they will talk about for the rest of their life.
Find you a local amateur astronomy club, you have a problem with your scope or have a question about something these are your life lines. Most times they will almost bend over backwards to help you. Hop onto an online forum for astronomy.
Usually what I do is I make my telescope days an event. I invite people over, I make a plan of quick to find objects in the sky (Planets, Moons, an easy to find nebula or two) and I get some facts about what I am showing them. This way I will say point it at Saturn and say something like "You see that bright star looking object off to the left. Well that not actually a star the Saturn's largest moon Titan". Then when they all go on their way amazed to do what they are going to do or head to bed I do my real work and try to discover something new. Pro-tip: If you do this only pick objects that take a minute or two to zero in on. If you want people to leave just spend 15 to 20 minutes looking for a nebula or galaxy. When you look away from the eyepiece to tell everyone that you have found it you will realize that you are talking to yourself.
Step 7: Thats It
So you have some information, some new tips, and things to make. But the best way to get into astronomy is to quote Jack Horkheimer from the PBS show Jack Horkheimer: Star Gazer"
"Keep Looking Up"