Buyer Beware: An Astronomer's Guide to Amateur Astronomy
As summer approaches thoughts turn to finding that special outdoor gift for that science minded individual in the family. Invariably the idea of telescopes comes up, especially when the optical department at the local Mega-Mart is advertising the "Super Deluxe 400 Power Star Scope". For most gifts, the phrase "it's the thought that counts" is appropriate this could not be further from the truth when buying an off the shelf telescope. Usually the ones purchased at local super chains are so poor that they eventually end up in the garage sale the following summer. If you are looking for a gift for the aspiring astronomer in your family, here are a few helpful hints.
First, don't jump right in and get a telescope. The reason for this is simple, a telescope is a tool for studying the sky; but unless you have a basic knowledge of the sky, you won't know where to look for interesting objects. The best way to get to know the sky is using 3 simple tools: A planisphere, a basic book of astronomy, and a pair of binoculars. A planisphere is a year-round star chart that shows the positions of the stars and constellations for any date and time. These items are simple to use and come in a variety of sizes and price ranges. There are literally thousands of books on astronomy on the market. However, many of them are written to address specific branches of the science, like planets for example. Others are huge coffee table books filled with beautiful photographs taken from the Hubble Space Telescope. But all books of this type suffer two disadvantages: one they are not general in their scope and two they are not very portable. An astronomy book for the "backyard" astronomer should include some information, some star charts, an ephemeris for locating the planets and some photos. My personal favorite is the National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Night Sky. This book has lots of information, pictures, star charts and best of all it fits in your glove compartment. Finally, binoculars can be purchased at any good sporting goods shop. The best ones for astronomy have wide fields of view and good magnification (7 x 50 for example). The small "opera house" glasses or ones suitable for bird watching are good but not necessarily right for astronomy.
Second, with these simple tools in hand, it is time to find some objects to look at. The moon is a great first target, as are the planets. However, don't expect to see the huge close up full color images that appear in the magazines. A pair of binoculars will magnify some details but a planet like Jupiter is still going to look like a small round dot. Another good target for binoculars are star clusters such as the Pleiades or seven sisters. Most star clusters are wide scatterings of stars and the wide field of view of most binoculars is perfect to this task. Many such star clusters can be found along the Milky Way and are clearly marked on star charts.
Finally, once you feel you know the names and locations of the constellations, which seasons they appear and how to most effectively use the planisphere in conjunction with binoculars you can decide whether armature astronomy is really that much fun. If you can't wait to get outside even when the temperature is hovering near freezing, then a telescope might be for you. If that is the case check out several web sites such as www.telescopes.com and learn the different types and uses of various kinds of telescopes. Follow their buyer's guide to see if you are more inclined to observing the moon and planets or if you are looking to explore the furthest deep sky objects. A little research will mean the difference between getting a telescope that gets worn out over the years and one that sits in the garage collecting dust.