By Chris Fellows
In my travels I have been amazed by two juxtaposed facts. One, people love looking at the stars/moon/planets with their own eyes, and two, people haven’t really tried it for themselves.
Let’s take a moment to think about that second point more closely. The sky is over our heads our entire lives and yet very few people take the time to simply look up! There are literally billions of things to see and learn about up there and some of them are fantastically beautiful. Why don’t people try astronomy for themselves? I think folks find the idea of amateur astronomy technically intimidating, assume it would cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, and/or don’t think they have the room in their RV for all the equipment. In this article I will attempt to relieve those anxieties and encourage everyone to take that first step into an appreciation of the universe.
What you will need and what it will cost
Although it is true that you can spend a lot of money on equipment, it is by no means necessary to get a completely satisfying observing experience. Here I am going to recommend a setup that will cost less than $200 and allow you to see good detail on the moon, atmospheric bands on the surface of Jupiter, and the rings of Saturn — all this with minimal setup and technical know-how.
First, and maybe surprising, I am not going to recommend a telescope. Using a telescope can be a bit daunting at first. There is a lot to learn, many different designs to choose from, and finicky adjustments and alignments that must be performed. Instead, I think a decent pair of 12 X 60 or larger binoculars is a better choice for beginners. Binoculars have many advantages: They are extremely portable, rugged, low cost, useful for wildlife/landscape viewing, and technically simple to operate. There is a huge variety of size and design options available and almost any of them will do the job, but there are a couple of features you should look for:
• Primary objective (front lens size) of at least 60mm
• Porro or BAK4 prism design
• Multi-coated optics
You can find many choices online but here are a couple by Celestron that I have used and can recommend:
Celestron SkyMaster 12×60 Binoculars (approx. $70 at Amazon.com)
Celestron SkyMaster Giant 15×70 Binoculars with Tripod Adapter (approx. $75 at Amazon.com) (This second set is very large so will be more limited to tripod use but has the required “L” bracket included.)
Next you will need to mount your binoculars on a tripod to get a steady view. Because planets are optically small, handheld observing is very difficult and not very satisfying. To battle the shake and wobble of handheld observing we need a tripod and a way to attach our new binoculars to it. A binocular “L” bracket is a simple adapter that connects your binoculars to a tripod. Normally made of aluminum or high-impact plastic, it is designed to fit on the camera shoe of the tripod and has a hand screw that will mate with the front center of your binoculars. Here is an example from Amazon: Solomark L Type Metal Tripod Mounting Adapter for Porro Binoculars (about $8)
Now we’ll stabilize our binoculars with a tripod. There are literally hundreds of choices here and almost any of them will work just fine. I would recommend a sturdy one with a fluid head or Alt/Az slow motion controls. Here are a couple of examples I found on Amazon and made by Celestron:
Next, I am going to recommend you buy a red light flashlight. It takes up to 30 minutes in the dark for the human eye to adapt to the dark and get the most satisfying views of the night sky. Just a flash of white (full spectrum) light will reset your adaptation to zero and you will need another half hour to readjust. Red light is much less damaging to your dark adaptation and is all that should be used when you are out observing. Any flashlight with a red bulb or film will do the trick. I like one that I can strap to my forehead so my hands remain free to do tasks. Here is one I found online: Tactical Headlight RED Hunting Light (about $25 at Amazon.com)
Finally, you are going to need to know something about the night sky so you can find the objects you would like to observe. Nowadays there are many paths to this knowledge: internet web sites, smartphone applications, magazines, and paper star charts. Here I am going to recommend a subscription to one of the big astronomy magazines and a smartphone app. The magazines are very useful to the beginner because they will point out binocular targets and tell you how to find them in the night sky. Each month the editors of Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines publish beginner articles and point out targets for small telescopes and binoculars. They also have extensive online tools and charts to assist the amateur astronomer. Here are the links to those publications:
Both of these publications offer a digital-only option at reduced cost.
There are also many smartphone apps that can assist you in finding and identifying celestial objects. You can search your app store for “planetarium” and find the one that you like best. I use “Skyportal” by Celestron because it has an extensive data set and will interface with my telescope.
That’s it! That is all you need to get out and start enjoying the night sky. Finding objects can be a bit challenging at first but stick with it. There is nothing like the satisfaction you will get the first time you center a planet or globular cluster in your field of view. I hope to see you out in the night sometime in the near future with your new toys and enjoying the beauty of our universe.
Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory
Find Chris on Facebook (or, if you’re lucky, at your campground). (Editor: Check out his amazing photos on his Facebook page!)