I usually write about telescope do’s and don’ts with telescopes around the holiday season, but I thought I’d write about it now for a change. After all, it’s a lot more comfortable this time of year for stargazing. The tradeoff is that the skies don’t get dark until much later in the evening. If you’re like me, you’re not a big fan of reading instructions, but following the rules of telescope observation is essential. I want you to enjoy that new or older telescope and not have it wind up stuffed away in a closet or attic.
Never, never, times a million, look at the sun through your telescope, even if it’s rising or setting!
You will go blind in that eye permanently. That’s all that needs to be said.
Always use your telescope outside.
Poking your telescope out of the window just doesn’t work. The waves of heat or cool leaving your house will definitely interfere big time with what’you’re trying to view. It’s always important to set up your telescope outside and let it sit out there for a good half hour to 45 minutes before you start using it. Also, make sure to let any eyepieces you’re using sit outside ahead of time as well. In my mind, this is the No. 1 rule for nighttime observation, and for good reason. The lenses and/or mirrors in your scope have to acclimate to the outside temperatures, or there’s a good chance you may get blurred images.
Set up your telescope on firm ground
Avoid setting up your scope on any kind of wooden deck. No matter how well the deck is built or how solid it is, vibrations from your movements or anyone with you will jingle around your scope just enough to drive you crazy. Always set up your telescope on solid ground or a cement or stone patio.
Synchronize your finder telescope or device with your main telescope.
In all my years of putting on Starwatch programs, the No. 1 complaint from folks who buy a telescope is that they can’t find anything with it. Maybe the moon and a few bright planets, but that’s it. It’s imperative that you make sure that the finder scope or device (such as a small laser) are aligned or synced with each other whenever you set a telescope up for viewing. It’s normal for scopes that get moved around to have their finders get easily bumped out of alignment. Every time you use your telescope, the best thing to do is to first put a low-power magnification eyepiece in your main scope and aim your scope at a prominent object such as a flag or church steeple on the horizon. Once you have your land target centered in the main telescope, adjust the screws on your smaller finder scope or your laser, so your object is centered on the same land target as well. Most good finder scopes have crosshairs to help with this.
Once that’s done, you’ll find it much easier to find celestial targets by first getting them in your finder scope. If you’ve synced it up correctly, you should see your celestial target in the main scope, or at least be darn close.
Start with low-power magnification eyepieces.
When you look at something through your scope, start with a high-focal-length, low-power magnification eyepiece. The focal length should be labeled on the eyepiece. 25mm to 40mm focal lengths work best to start with. If you’re not sure which eyepiece is low magnification, it’s the one with the wider lens. Then you can start to use higher-power, lower-focal-length eyepieces if you want.’Don’t be discouraged if your target loses some of its clarity with increasing magnification. This is normal.
Look high enough.
Make sure your celestial target is high in the sky, if possible. A third of the way from the horizon to the overhead zenith or higher is best. When you try to observe anything close to the horizon, you’re forced to peer through a thicker level of Earth’s atmospheric shell, which has a most definite blurring effect. Also, keep in mind that even if the skies are clear, some nights will be better than others, depending on how high the winds are in the upper atmosphere. High winds aloft have a noticeable blurring effect no matter how high or low you observe in the sky. This is what amateur astronomers call “bad seeing” conditions. There’s nothing you can do about that except to try looking on another night. A great website to help you determine the seeing conditions is “Clear Sky Clock.” There are others as well.
Take long looks.
This is where it takes some discipline. Try to take long, continuous views through the eyepiece of your scope, even 10 to 15 minutes at a time, especially when looking at planets. That will allow your eye and brain to adjust to the light level in your eyepiece, which will enable you to see more subtle details. During that time, you’ll undoubtedly have to shift your telescope to keep up with Earth’s rotation. Nothing stands still in the sky. Some telescopes have motors to help you do that automatically, but you can also successfully do it manually.
Above all, be patient!
Read as many of the instructions that come with your telescope as you can, and remember, you don’t have to conquer the whole universe in one night or even one year. Amateur astronomy is meant to be a life-long passion! It certainly is for me.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Mike is available for private star parties. You can contact him at [email protected].