Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Stars of My Driveway

I'm greatly enjoying Seeing in the Dark by Tim Ferris, and on this unusually warm and rather clear New England evening, I decided I should try a little seeing in the dark myself. Although the waning gibbous Moon, street lights, and the glow of nearby Worcester don't make for especially dark skies, Orion and the Moon itself were attractive enough targets for a little driveway observing. I got OK results with 10x50 binoculars, which gave decent enough views of the Pleiades, the Orion Nebula, the Moon, and a few other objects, but these binoculars are not image stabilized and my arms got tired fast.

So I decided to haul out the cheapo telescope I got for my daughter a couple of years ago in a discount store (during her three week burst of interest in astronomy). It's a Tasco 60 mm refractor with a "Starguide" system that I never really got to work. It has a crude plastic focusing mechanism and a shaky tripod, and even with a couple of better eyepieces that I bought to replace the terrible ones it came with, it's really not good for much more than looking at the Moon, just as I remembered. So back to the binoculars.

I recently joined an astronomy club and have started to help out with star parties, something I will be doing a lot more of this year. This means that I'm thinking more about the skies and I'm getting to peek through some decent telescopes. I think I can see where this is heading but before I buy a real telescope, I think I better talk to some of my fellow club members who have some experience in this area. The fact that I'm an optical engineer means that I know how to design and simulate telescopes in software, but there's a lot of practical stuff that I don't know that much about when it comes to evaluating the many options and buying something decent (as you can probably tell from the fact that I bought that Tasco, though it was basically a very cheap impulse buy).


Andrew said...

This winter has been wonderful so far.I live in Laconia NH and was able to wear shorts and open the windows for a while.I get quite upset at some of the telescope makers for making false claims about their scopes.They draw buyers in by printing spectacular color images on the boxes causing people to believe,these are the views that they will see with the scope.While these images are beautiful,they are far far far beyond the actual scopes capabilities,even under perfect seeing conditions.I believe,these false claims are why a lot of people get frustrated and drop astronomy as a hobby.Do yourself a favor and not buy a department store telescope!!!!.
Good luck and clear skies!!

Eric M. Collins said...

I can certainly sympathize with your situation. I was given a similar telescope when I was about ten years old. I have a particularly strong memory of a very cold evening spent searching the sky for Halley's comet and being very disappointed. Not only could we not find the silly comet, but the cheap telescope was almost impossible to adjust (by nudging) and never really gave a decent view of anything other than the moon (which was incredibly bright).

The only thing that saved me from being turned off about astronomy and space in general was my aunt. She was mostly just an informal stargazer (much like I am now), but she took the time to show me the stars, tell me their names, and point out the constellations. It was around this time that I began developing my sense of wonder about the universe and the time I spent stargazing with my aunt gave me a place to focus my interest.

I'm now the proud owner of a pair of 10x50 binoculars which I pull out on occasion. They are actually much better for casual stargazing than that cheap old scope ever was. Meanwhile, I'm still awaiting the day when I'll get a real job and be able to afford a decent telescope.

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