'Tis the season

For buying a cheap telescope.

Hello Everyday Astronomer,

Welcome to the second edition of Observations. I am really happy with the response to the first issue. Changing things can be risky, but this change has worked out well so far. I’d love your feedback, just reply to the email if you want to share your thoughts with me.

Last year I was at an astronomy event. Actually we were trying to break the record for the number of people observing the sky at one time. We actually smashed the record. The previous record was 7960. Collectively all over Australia over 40,000 people watched the Moon through a telescope for 10 minutes straight.

We could buy a little telescopes for five bucks. They were tiny and pretty terrible, but you could find the Moon and look at it a bit magnified.

At the observatory in southern Sydney there were hundreds of people, some with their own magnificent kit, others like me, with their $5 event telescopes.

One young boy and his grandfather were sitting on a blanket next to us. The boy had his cheap department store telescope with tripod and dicky little mount. He was struggling to set it up. The scope kept slipping out of the mount, and seemed to want to point only to the ground. Tempted as I was to offer my sage advice, he refused help from Grandad so I thought it best to let him solve the problem by himself. I’m not sure that he actually got any observing done.

I didn’t know the kid’s situation, or his experience with his telescope, but I did see that he was getting increasingly frustrated. He badly wanted to observe, to take part in the event. All I could do was hope that his passion for observing survived his fight with his telescope.

And this is the risk. A good experience with astronomy is the best way to get hooked on stargazing and start discovering the universe. Potential passion can be extinguished by a bad experience.

Buying a telescope as a gift

If you are buying someone special their first telescope as a Christmas gift there are some thing to consider to help make the purchase the first step to a great experience.

My first tip goes with everything technical. If it is held together with bolts and screws, has gears, levers, moving mechanical parts or electronics, buy the best you can afford.

I know budgets are tight, and it is easy to overspend on a gift purchases. The problem is that quality of cheap department store telescopes can discourage someone quickly.

Pay attention to the tripod and mount. If it is difficult to setup, use, and maintain a steady view throughout an observing session then it will be frustrating and more quickly abandoned to gather dust. Mounts can be complicated and they are often quickly loosened, or slip in position, even after tightened. Better mounts have a strong hold when tightened, and some traction to help move small distances as you follow an object. You'll often loose, or unstable mounts on very cheap equipment.

A tripod should be adjustable and not easy to wobble. the more solid the better, but that will increase your cost. Try creating stability with a bag of sand or rocks hanging between the legs. It's not a perfect solution but it can stabilise a weak tripod enough for a better experience. 

Remember that for younger humans, they want to see things, and not muck around with equipment. Viewing an object through an eyepiece is a skill and your young giftee may not register what they are seeing, or find it difficult to align with the eyepiece. Help them set up the equipment to their height, the fewer obstacles they have to viewing the more likely they will stick with it.

Don’t mistake magnification for high quality view. At the cheap end of equipment higher magnification is often achieved by poor quality lenses and a long barlow lens. Neither of these will offer a satisfying experience. Even on my high quality eqipment I mostly use the lesser power eyepieces. The high power eye pieces such as the 9.4mm gives me a bumpy, narrow, dim view of objects. My favourite eyepieces is my 26mm. Clarity is much more important than magnification.

One thing that will make a big difference is to offer your own experience to support the gift. Your own relationship with the giftee will guide you on how to do this best, but a telescope without the context of how the night sky works and what there is to see. 

Trying to figure out how equipment works in the dark isn’t going to be a promising start to a life-long hobby. Spend some time helping your giftee to set up the telescope in the light, and encourage them to read the manual.

Don’t mistake magnification for high quality view. At the cheap end of equipment higher magnification is often achieved by poor quality lenses and a long barlow lens. Neither of these will offer a satisfying experience. Even on my high quality eqipment I mostly use the lesser power eyepieces. The high power eye pieces such as the 9.4mm gives me a bumpy, narrow, dim view of objects. My favourite eyepieces is my 26mm. Clarity is much more important than magnification.

One thing that will make a big difference is to offer your own experience to support the gift. Your own relationship with the giftee will guide you on how to do this best, but a telescope without the context of how the night sky works and what there is to see.

Trying to figure out how equipment works in the dark isn’t going to be a promising start to a life-long hobby. Spend some time helping your giftee to set up the telescope in the light, and encourage them to read the manual.

If you have a decent budget, take your giftee to a telescope shop and let them discover the perfect telescope for themselves. Help them do some research, take them to a few events to look through telescopes. This way they can figure out the best telescope for them.

It’s also useful to set expectations. No visual observing will give you astrophotography views. Everything you see will be small. Deep sky objects will be faint and fuzzy, and fainter and fuzzier through low grade equipment. This time of magnificent images shared on Instagram are perhaps setting expectations a bit high. For me it is the experience of seeing these things with my own eyes.

Start with the Moon. This is an easy target. It is easy to find, and provides some great WOW factor through a telescope. it needs fewer adjustments as the sky moves. It also has enough features to hold a new astronomer's interest for a while.

If it’s not the right time for a telescope, or your budget does not reach that far, there are other options such as membership to a local astronomy club or an online course.

Remember though, a telescope is not enough to spark an interest if there is nothing there. Not everyone will become a stargazer.

If I could, I’d buy everyone a telescope and help them discover the universe. It’s a gift of way more than a piece of technology, it’s a doorway, a space ship, a time tunnel.

Watch a launch

I’ve never seen a rocket launch in person. It’s on my bucket list. Thanks to the internet we can watch launches live. While you don’t get the sound and fury, you get a close up view and you can enjoy it with a cup of tea.

Here are some launches for your enjoyment of the holidays.

  • NASA is launching a test of the Starliner on Friday 20th. You can watch online.

  • SpaceX are launching more Starlink satellites scheduled on December 30. They stream launches through their YouTube Channel.

Best Wishes for your Season

Christmas, Hanuka, just another Wednesday, whatever and however you celebrate I wish you and your family the best. I wish you clear skies, calm days, good food and a chance to relax and find the best in the moment.

This is only the second edition of Observations, and I thank you for reading through to the end. I look forward to sharing astronomical observations with you in the New Year.

I’ll be taking a little break over the holiday period. Expect the next edition of Observations in mid-January.

Lisa Harvey
Founder and Host of Everyday Astronomers

How to find me.