how to view the night sky



There are several ways of observing the celestial wonders that can (supposedly) be seen in the skies over Columbia (or more likely, 30 to 40 miles out of town). Perhaps the most inexpensive and easiest method is to simply look up (to prevent a crick in your neck, lie down on a blanket or lawnchair). Using just your eyes, you can see the Moon, planets, meteors, stars, and one or two galaxies. But if you are really interested in observing and want to see more, then you will need some optical aid (other than eyeglasses!).

So you are thinking about buying a telescope. And you saw a great deal over at the department store. You know- that telescope with the long, shiny, red tube. STOP! THINK! A telescope is a precision instrument. So buying a telescope is going to require some time just like buying a stereo or a car. Surely you wouldn't buy a car without comparing it to others?!

To help you decide on what kind of astronomical equipment you need, consider the following questions:

  • How much do I know about astronomy?
  • Will I still be interested in astronomy in a year or two?
  • How much money am I willing to spend on equipment right now? in the long run?

If you are just starting out, then the best idea is to obtain a handbook of the night sky, learn the constellations, and look. Borrow or buy an issue of ASTRONOMY, SKY & TELESCOPE (monthly magazines for amateur astronomers). Attend local astronomy club meetings (Midlands Astronomy Club, Inc. here in Columbia) and their observing sessions. Visit a planetarium and an observatory (Melton Memorial Observatory on the University of South Carolina's Columbia campus). Ask questions.

Now after you have learned a little about astronomy and you think you still want a telescope, consider buying a good pair of binoculars. Most amateur astronomers and even professional astronomers with their giant telescopes have binoculars. Binoculars are low power magnifiers which means that typically objects are magnified about 7 times (as in 7x50 binoculars). However, binoculars can also be used for other purposes, are easy to transport, and a pair with excellent optical quality is relatively inexpensive. Also the larger field of view and being able to use both your eyes make it easier for you to find many deep sky objects that are not visible to the naked eye.

Now if you still want to buy a telescope:

  1. Learn about the different kinds of telescopes (reflecting, refracting, Newtonian, Schmidt-Cassegrain, Dobsonian,...).
  2. Go to your local astronomy club's observing session or to the observatory. There you can look through the different kinds of telescopes. Feel free to ask the owners or staff questions such as how much their scope cost, how much time is involved in setting up, how difficult is it to set up, how hard is it to clean or repair, why did they buy that telescope, and other questions that come to your mind.
  3. Obtain a past copy or wait for the issue of Astronomy OR Sky & Telescope which has the "Guide to Telescopes." (Nov 1997 S&T) Basically, it is a listing of commercial telescopes arranged by style and price range. Comparisons are then made in each grouping as to quality, stability, and other factors. There is also a book now available - I think it's called 'Starware.'
  4. Once you have picked out a telescope all you have to do is buy it. Unfortunately, there is no store in Columbia yet that carries every brand of telescope make. Check photo shops and hobby stores. Here in Columbia, Jackson Camera carries the Meade line of telescopes and can order any Meade telescope. Otherwise, and most likely, you will have to order your telescope from a catalog.
  5. After your telescope arrives, read the directions, fill out warranty cards, familiarize yourself with the buttons and knobs, and enjoy the night sky!

Other sources of good astronomy advice for beginners:

The Astronomy Connection has some good advice on its Beginner's Page.

The Astronomical League offers several AstroNotes and Observing Clubs suitable for beginner to advanced amateurs.