The Astronomical Curmudgeon
Telescopes, not binoculars for newcomers
I’ve seen it said many times – ‘The best telescope for a newcomer is a pair of binoculars’. I disagree. The best telescope for a newcomer is, well, a telescope. At public star parties do the people who look through your telescope get excited about dim galaxies or about dim smudges of light? Of course not. You do, because you understand what you’re looking at.
The public gets excited about what they are seeing when it is nice and bright, and when you have a good story to tell about it. Saturn, Jupiter, and the Moon are the ‘wow’ objects for public star parties. After those, bright clusters (the Pleiades), a nice asterism (the coathanger) or a colorful double star (Albireo) are great public star party objects.
The telescope market has changed in the last few years and there are now quite a few choices of telescopes that are inexpensive. In fact you can get a 3” reflector with two eyepieces and a finder for under $50. With this, and other inexpensive telescopes the owner can see Saturn’s rings, the moons of Jupiter, the craters on the moon, and many bright nebulae and clusters.
For more money, the number of choices grows substantially and there is a wide range of options for telescopes that cost a few hundred dollars.
Binoculars will show an observer clusters and bright galaxies, but unless they are on a mount it will be difficult to get views of the objects that newcomers want to see. Image stabilized binoculars are terrific, but expensive.
We know, because we’ve done public star parties, what newcomers want to look at; we need to recommend the tools that allow them to see those objects. Binocular observing is for amateurs who have some observing experience and who can marvel at the binocular views because they understand the object.
Perhaps the arguments about go-to telescopes versus manual telescopes are over. I hope so. I understand the value of learning our way around the sky – constellation names, relative positions, bright stars, etc., but I also understand that observing time is precious and often hard to come by. Most of us who are amateurs must squeeze in observing when free time, clear skies, and new, or near new moons all coincide.
Those of us who have been in amateur astronomy a while have found objects in the sky by star-hopping and I don’t expect the practice to go away any time soon. Some observers enjoy the hunt; they like the process of looking for the object themselves. Nobody wants to take that opportunity away from them, but for those of us who are comfortable with technology, who don’t enjoy the process of manually finding an object in the sky and who want to let the technology do the work, go-to telescopes are a great benefit to our observing program.
Having the telescope mount find the object for me, once I’ve completed the initial alignment, is one of the great pleasures of modern technology. This capability is being incorporated into smaller and less expensive telescopes and is becoming more accessible to enthusiasts.
One variant of this is the ‘push-to’ telescope mount. With one of these, you enter the object name or coordinates into the telescope computer, and the device prompts you to move the telescope until, say, a pair of numbers equals 0. I have a mount like this, and it works just fine. The computer operates on a 9v battery (no external power supply or cables required) and allows me to find objects to look at with ease.
The rate of change of technology is astounding. More and better technology is coming along all the time. I say, take advantage of it. Just because your ancestors had to hand-crank their automobiles to start them, and your parents had to look at maps (not a GPS) to find their way doesn’t mean that you have to.
A friend of mine makes it his practice to use small telescopes, almost exclusively. For him, and for a lot of us, the portability and ease of setup of a small telescope outweighs the limitations of small aperture. There is an old saying in amateur astronomy, “The best telescope is the one you use the most”. It is likely that the one you use the most will be the one that requires the least time to set up.
I have a small alt-az mount and a small refractor that I keep near my back door. When I want to do some quick, casual observing I open the back door, set the telescope and mount down (it can be carried in one hand) and I’m ready to go. With this setup I get good views of the large planets – Jupiter is up right now – and I can visit some bright objects quickly. I have the several books that list binocular objects that can be seen from urban skies. One of my favorites is Binocular Highlights by Gary Seronik of Sky and Telescope magazine. The book contains maps to find the objects, many of which are new to me, and most of which are bright enough to see in the city.
The October, 2010 issue of Astronomy magazine has an article by Phil Harrington, 10 Top Autumn Binocular Treats, and the September, 2010 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine contains an article by Hugh Bartlett, Binocular Showpieces for Light-Polluted Skies. There also a S&T item each month by Gary Seronik called Binocular Highlight. All these objects will show well in a small telescope that you can set up quickly.
Am I contradicting myself?
I hope not. I’m recommending a telescope for a beginner over binoculars, but I’m also recommending binoculars or a small, easy-to-set-up telescope for experienced amateurs who want to do some quick observing. I’m recommending computer controlled (go-to) telescopes for more ‘formal’ observing sessions but not necessarily for informal sessions (quick looks from your back yard).
Whatever you do, enjoy it and get out under the sky as much as you can.