Taking up astronomy

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Tom

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We've seen a few posts from astronomers here recently, so I thought it might be appropriate to ask some basic questions:

I see a wide variety of telescopes when I walk around the stores, but have no idea what's a decent one vs a toy. What are the things to look for in a 'scope and what are the minimum requirements for a newcomer to this activity? How much ($) are we talking about? What are the good brands? It's pretty tough to try out a 'scope in a store in daylight, so how do you know it will do the job?

Is this a case of continual upgrading of equipment? Is it better to get an inexpensive 'scope to start with, or skip a few steps and start with a better one?

To me, as someone who knows nothing about astronomy, 'scopes mean optics and optics mean you get what you pay for. Is this a correct perspective?
 

Kenneth

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Tom,

I found this link with some useful information.

http://www.ralentz.com/old/astro/tele-amat-purchase.html
 

Tom

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Kenneth, thanls for that link. Lots of useful information and advice there - more than I can digest in one reading. The author also has a good sense of humor.

I understand his suggestion of joining an astronomy club, but that's not something that some of us would want to do. I'm wondering if astronomy is a hobby of many RVers. After all, they have plenty of opportunity to be beneath the stars.
 

Ned

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To do amateur astronomy, you don't need anything beyond your eyes and a star chart or planisphere.  In the desert, away from the lights of the city, there are so many naked eye objects to see that you never knew were there.  A pair of 7x50 binoculars will let you see so much more that you may never need a telescope.  Mount the binoculars on a tripod for best viewing.  Higher power than 7x50 will require it.

Check out http://skymaps.com/ for free star charts.
 

Jim Dick

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Tom,

Years ago I had a refractor telescope which we sometimes set up in the backyard. It was a cheap one and the performance mirrored its cost. I think you need to spend a decent amount before you get one that can really perform. I used to have a brochure from one company which I think was Meade. Can't remember for sure. I do know the scope I was looking at was around $400. I think that might work pretty well. :)

I think if I ever did it again I would opt for the reflector scope as that type is designed pretty much for astronomy and not a multipurpose scope. There are some pretty nice looking units that are not too large though I would have a problem finding a place for one unless I removed something. The desert would be a great spot to do some star gazing.

As Ned mentioned, a good set of binoculars will open up a lot of vistas that the ordinary eye might miss. I would opt for the 10X50 minimum with IS. A tripod would definitely help and Russ has one of the neatest setups I have seen. It makes it extremely easy to pan the skies without having to "lock" the unit in place. Perhaps he'll bring it to QZ this year???

When we were in Tucson many years ago, before the RV, we had a private tour of Colossal Caves. After the tour, which was around 6pm, we came out into a dark parking lot where we couldn't see a thing. The UofA astronomy club had set up several high powered scopes for us to gaze at various star clusters and nebulae. Each one was trained on a different point in space. I was blown away with what I could see. Of course these are monsters compared to what a normal individual might own. We could see twin stars and nebulae that you would never see with binoculars. It's one experience I will not forget.

 

Tom

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Thanks Jim. Meade was one of the two "good" makes mentioned in the referenced article.
 

valleygeocacher

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This is one of the best links I've seen re "Getting Started"
http://skyandtelescope.com/howto/basics/

Sky & Telescope Magazine's advice says, "The most important aspect of selecting a telescope is the size of the objective." That's the "far" end of the telescope. The size for amateur 'scopes ranges up to 18-24" in diameter. Those can be pretty cheap if one can get by with a low-cost or home-made mount like the one on page seven of this link.
http://skyandtelescope.com/howto/scopes/article_241_1.asp

My own Celestron is exactly like the one shown on Page two of that link; small, but adequate for occasional viewing; even has computer-controlled star-following.

The top image on Page three of that link shows one that's several times better.

Page 7 shows a home-made mount that works great.

Don't be misled by Department Store 'scopes that claim "500- power". That's deceptive; you can increase the power of your eyepiece and get higher magnification, but not necessarily good resolution. Do get several eyepieces; you'll often find the need to go up or down in power, ant that's accomplished by simply changing eyepieces, a ten-second procedure.

Try going to one of the Astronomy Forums and talking to the pro-ams. This google search gives hundreds of those:
http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=astronomy+listserv
 

Tom

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Thanks for those links.

Just for clarification, I'm not planning to take up astronomy personally, although I might one day. The reason I started this topic is that I'd seen a few astronomy-related messages here and it just made sense that this might be an ideal hobby for some RVers. Hopefully, this discussion will help answer questions for budding astronomers, or even encourage some folks to take up the hobby.
 

valleygeocacher

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The real problem with astronomy as an RVer hobby is the LIGHT POLLUTION. Our ranch in North Texas is ideal; no street lights, no neighbors for 1/4 mile; dark as the bottom of a well. It's just too cold up there in winter -- and that's when the skies are clearest.

Most parks such as Quiet Village-2 in South Texas are so light-polluted that it's simply a waste of time to get the scope out. The population in this park is composed of a half-dozen Texans and 200+ scaredy-cat snowbirds. The snowbirds are continually on a campaign to ADD MORE STREET LIGHTS. Several more were installed last year. The glow from those lights totally rules out star-gazing.

BTW, security was never a problem in QV; before the campaign started, it had been 2-3 years since a QV resident had a theft.
 

Tom

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I didn't consider the issue of light pollution. Presumably, somewhere like the desert around Quartzsite, away from the town, would be OK.
 

Ned

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Light pollution is possibly the biggest obstacle to amateur astronomy unless you want to go far out of town to find good seeing conditions.  The city of Tucson has done a good job of controlling light pollution due to the proximity of several large observatories (like Kitt peak), unfortunately, the RV parks haven't followed suit.  Even here in the Yuma foothills with no street lights, people keep putting lights on their walls and ruining the seeing.  I'm afraid that backyard astronomy has almost disappeared as a result of too much lighting everywhere.
 

Marsha/CA

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Tom,

Tim has a 10" Meade refractor scope that weights a ton.  It has a computer program, which when you punch in what you want to see, it goes and finds it.  My kinda scope.  We've had the thing for nearly 15 years.  He also has a CCD camera which connects to the eye piece and I was supposed to begin my world of astrophotography.  We haven't started that as of yet.  (grin).  He also has a cord that connects to the telescope and then to the computer.  As we sit in our warm coach, we can move the scope all over the sky.  It's fun to look at everything on the computer, but not near as exciting as looking through the eyepiece of the scope.

If we were ever to go full time, we would opt to sell the big scope and buy a Meade or Celestron long tube reflector telescope on a tripod with a computer driven program.  It's light, easy to carry and store, and gets great views of the sky. 

As others have mentioned, backlighting can be a very big problem; as well as bright moon.  A no moon, crisp, cold high elevation location is the best situation for star gazing. 

There are also quite a few internet forums similiar to this one where people RVing can make connections, ask questions and get together.  One of the biggest areas for groups to star gaze out here in So Cal is in the desert near Borrego Springs in a valley called "Shelter Valley".  There is also a horse camp nearby that location and we try to get out there in the winter for riding and skygazing.

I've never been to Quartzsite, wonder if there would be too much backlight for us to bring the scope?

Marsha~
 

Carl L

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Los Angeles has an interesting situation with respect to light pollution.  The Mt. Wilson Observatory overlooks downtown LA directly and is only about 16 airline miles from it.    The Observatory and its 100" reflector are still active in spite of the 15 million person megalopolis below.  (see http://www.mtwilson.edu/ )

The trick is the marine layer.  Most days of the year, it is 1500-3000 feet deep and full of fog/smog.  The water vapor traps the urban light pollution in it below the thermocline.  On such nights, one can stand on Mt. Wilson and see LA below as a glowing cloud of light stretching over a thousand or so square miles.  The sky above is perfectly dark and full of stars.  Quite spectacular.

That said, us folk down in the murk get to see stars only in the fall and winter and then only after a storm or during Santa Ana weather.
 

Tom

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Thanks Masha. That all sounds quite complicated. Sitting inside the coach looking at the computer can't be called stargazing though, surely  ??? Is this the techie version of it?
 

Tom

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Carl,

I recall one of my profs in college had previously worked in the LA basin doing something or other with smog and fog studies. He showed us time lapsed photography taken up on the hills and it was quite revealing to watch.

BTW they the Lick obervatory on Mount Hamilton, above San Jose, similar to the Wilson Obs. Quite a drag getting up there, with lots of switchbacks, but a great view of the valley or fog or smog below.
 

Ken K

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Tom, second Marsha's comments.  A few years back I got the Meade EXT- the smaller one before the automatic tracking. Ordered a couple of different eyepieces and was very impressed with what I could see. The first time you see Saturns rings - well, pretty cool. Anyway, suburban light, smog, etc. really does effect your view, but you usually will still see the larger planets. 
 

valleygeocacher

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Regarding the smog and light pollution, I'm always reminded of how we've ruined so much of what we once took for granted.

In the 40's when I first started flying, my first solo cross country was too uneventful; It was from Meacham Field (Ft. Worth) to Abilene and return. When I took off from Abilene for the return flight, at 8,000-feet altitude, I could see the cement plant that was next to Meacham. Get lost? No way. Just point the nose of the J5 East and home in on the cement plant's smoke.

You can barely see that smoke from 20 miles away now.

Never realized then how that smoke could change things so much in just a half-century.
 

Ned

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At http://www.universetoday.com/am/publish/whatsup_2006_book.html is a free downloadable book in PDF form that has a different sky watching task for every day of 2006.  It's a 13.5MB file, so don't try this without a fast connection.
 
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