I've been interested in astronomy for a very long time. One of
my strongest memories is seeing the Milky Way for the first time over
Lake Superior at a cabin my parents and I had rented. All the lights
were out, and there was hardly any light pollution from anywhere else.
The Milky Way was clear as could be, and it nearly floored me.
Looking at the stars can have different effects on people...
For some people, it makes them feel small and insignificant, like they
are powerless against a cruel universe. For me, though, looking at the
stars reminds me of how small my problems are, and how the universe
doesn't really deal in "problems" anyway, and how much beauty there
really is in the world. Sometimes it's hiding behind annoying cloud
cover, but it's still there, waiting.
From 1996 to 2004, I lived in Taiwan. Taiwan is a really cool
place for a lot of reasons, but it is also one
of the most light-polluted places on Earth. Even in the
mountains, you're never really out of the light cloud of the cities.
That was one of the reasons I left Taiwan.
Once I came back to the US and got myself a somewhat-steady
income, I decided to get back into astronomy. Eventually, I bought
myself an actual telescope. It's crappy, but it does the job. Anyway,
here's what I have right now:
This is a 4.5" Newtonian reflector with a go-to
mount. I bought it used on eBay for about $105.00.
Overall, the scope seems to be crap. The mount is a
particular problem. It is very clunky and coarse; I can rarely get the
scope to 'sit' in a particular elevation, and instead have to support
it with my hand. I believe this is a symptom of low-quality gears, but
in any case, it makes it very hard to keep objects in view or to slew
to them. The mount is also very wobbly.
I haven't had much chance to use the go-to system much
yet; it's been too cold, and the battery pack that came with the scope
was cracked, so I'm still trying to find a good replacement. From the
couple times I've used it, though, the clunkiness of the mount made it
difficult to actually find anything.
The scope uses 0.965" eyepieces, which seem to be
universally railed against. That said, the optics actually seem pretty
good. I've been able to see Saturn pretty well (though not clear enough
to see the bands), and M42 looks quite nice. The Pleiades are always
Overall, it's a crappy scope, but at $100, I shouldn't
complain (any more). Don't buy it for more than what I paid, but if you
have $100 and no other choice, it's not a bad scope.
The eyepiece tray that came with the scope is particularly
bad. Getting it on isn't too hard, but getting it off requires pushing
on the little flange around the tripod so hard that I'm sure either the
scope will fall over or the tray will crack. So I've made my own tray.
I punched three pairs of holes into a Tupperware-like
plastic tray. Then I tied rubber bands into the pairs, so that each leg
of the tripod can be threaded through and the tray 'hung' on the
tripod. Okay, enough description -- here's what
it actually looks like. It's not a work of art, but it does
the job quite a bit better than the tray that came with the scope.
There's a Yahoo
group specifically for owners of Meade DS scopes. It's
actually more for Meade's more recent DS2114/DS2130 series, but there
are DS114 owners there, too.
XT6 Classic (aka Skyquest).
This is a much better scope. It's a Dobsonian, so the mount is vastly more stable than the DS114's. The altitude has effectively no limit to its fineness; moving up or down by tiny amounts is very doable. It's not perfect, of course; it can take a little bit of oomph to overcome the scope's inertia, leading to slightly larger hops than intended. But it's still a vast improvement over the DS114.
Disadvantages? Well, it's a bit big for one smallish woman to lug around. But it has a nice carrying handle, and if I carry it low
to the ground, like a suitcase, I can balance it pretty well at least, and it's just a matter of bulkiness rather than really being too much
of a load. The base and the OTA separate, so I can transport it in two parts if necessary. The movement isn't absolutely perfect, but then nothing ever is.
An aside: The scope seems to have been made in China. A lot of amateur astronomers seem to berate all Chinese-made scopes as garbage. But it isn't. It's really a very good scope for a pretty good price. (I wish I'd had another US$150, so I could go for an Intelliscope in a larger aperture, but still...) There are definitely some crappy scopes made in China
and Taiwan, but there are bad scopes made in the US, too. The problem is not a blanket one; different models, and indeed different individual scopes, will have different problems and advantages. Don't shy away from a scope just because it's Chinese; avoid it if and only if it's actually bad.
There's a pretty good Yahoo group for Skyquest telescopes, too. It seems slightly biased towards owners of larger-aperture Intelliscopes, but there's help for lowly Classic owners, too.
A pair of Bushnell Sportview 7x50 binoculars.
Another thing I got used on eBay. I paid about $20 for these, I think. The pair is a bit old and the lens caps don't match, but they're great binoculars. They're great for looking at the Pleiades -- M45 fits completely within one FOV -- and for general spotting.
A pair of NXTCO 10x50 binoculars.
Ah, the mysterious power of eBay. I bought these just before the Bushnells for about the same price. They're supposedly more
powerful, but I've always thought the view through these binocs was blurrier than through the Bushnells.
Other Hardware Resources
There are a lot of other good places to look when thinking about buying a telescope or dealing with the one you've already got:
This used to be my main workhorse program, until I switched to Ubuntu and couldn't get it working anymore. It's not as pretty as KStars, but it does the job far better.
Part of the KDE environment, KStars is far prettier to look at than XEmphem, but there are numerous things about it that don't work. Printing is utterly messed up; there's no specific way to set deep-sky object visibility; and solar system objects are pretty much either all or none.
Cartes du Ciel (aka Skychart).
This has become my main program recently. It installs easily in Linux, it comes with good databases of stars and it has lots of nice features. I haven't been able to get its image saving or printing to work well, though; I always end up having to save the chart as a BMP, import it into the GIMP and then invert it. Bleah. But otherwise it's a great program.
The Backyard Astronomer's Guide.
This is a great book. It has excellent information about all kinds of topics: choosing the best eyepiece, what kind of scope to start with, how to set up an equatorial mount, how to do star-hopping, how to keep an observation log, etc. etc. The authors have a very pragmatic approach throughout; for example, when discussing how to set up an equatorial mount, they basically say that they think beginners shouldn't start with GEMs, but since a lot do anyway, they're going to talk about how to get working with one. They also have a good balance of long-exposure astrophotography and realistic, eyeball-only shots. Too many books give the impression that you'll be able to see all the purple streamers of M42, for example, causing a lot of disappointment (and unnecessary frustration with astrophotography) when people realize the truth. The book is a little expensive, but it's all been worth it.
The Year-Round Messier Marathon.
This is the book I take with me most when I go out observing. It has pretty good sky-charts, and it's pretty easy to use.
I'm taking the title literally: I'm trying to spot all the Messier objects in a year. It will be a long time before I can do it all in a single night.
Turn Left at Orion
Another great beginners' book. Better in some ways than Year-Round; it has some better finder charts, has slightly glossier paper (important when you're considering dew), and doesn't just focus on Messier objects.
I can't do my own astrophotography (not yet, anyway), but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy the hobby. There are some really cool galleries out there, all of which are worth looking at.
Here are some other interesting links and useful things.
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