Dark sky, cheap telescope, totally inexperienced operator. What can I see?
June 19, 2012 8:14 AM   Subscribe

Astronomy/Skygazing Beginner: I'm gonna be camping out in a dark place, and I have access to a cheap low-consumer-grade telescope. Is it worth it to take it? What could it see? What could I reliably find? Three technically-competent operators, but zero experience/familiarity with the use of any telescope.

I'm going camping. I looked up the location on the great "Dark Sky Finder" website and saw that it's quite favorable for stargazing.

I remembered that my pops got a cheap telescope as a retirement gift -- the quality is probably very low, and it wouldn't surprise me if it was manufactured so as to be nothing much more than a prop. I was wondering if it'd be worth it to take it.

I'm a technologically competent person who can follow directions/procedure and RTFM, but please assume zero experience/familiarity with the use of any telescope.

I've just finished a few long audio lectures about astronomy and cosmology, so I'll likely be familiar with the objects you might recommend; but I know nothing about the process of viewing them. Kind of a "I know what's on the menu, but I have no idea how to go about ordering it" sort of thing.

The questions that occur to me offhand:
  1. What objects is this telescope capable of resolving well? Adequately?
  2. What are the "go to" objects for beginning skygazers that combine "simple to find" with "crowdpleasing"?
  3. What (preferably "simple", "free") reference materials should be taken along to help find objects? (Please assume no internet/electronic/satellite access.)
  4. New moon? Full moon? Does it make a difference? (Seems like the new moon would make looking at other things easier... but then again: if there was a full moon I could look at the moon -- which I bet I could find.)
  5. What am I not asking that I should?
Many thanks for your expertise and advice.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj to Science & Nature (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, and in case this is of any use, the following are the info/specs stamped on the scope itself:
Brand: Swift
Model: 60700
Diam: 60mm
Focal Length: 700mm
Coated Lens
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 8:19 AM on June 19, 2012

Most of the cheap telescopes are good for looking at the moon and the planets, which you don't really need dark skies to see. While it won't hurt to have the scope with you, it will probably mostly be a disappointment and a whole lot of frustration as you attempt to find things.

You would be much better off with a good pair of binoculars. Just pointing them at anything at all under a dark sky can be amazing. If the sky is dark enough you'll see a fuzzy/bright band overhead. That would be the Milky Way. It's very dense and full of neat things you can see with binoculars or even the naked eye.

If you have a smart phone or iPad you can find a number of cheap apps that will use the phone's GPS and motion sensors to (roughly) tell you whatever it is you're pointing the phone at.

If you don't have a phone a simple one-page sky chart for your time/place can be found on-line. Just google "what's in the night sky" or "star chart."

New moon is best for looking at dark skies. The full moon is a huge bright thing in the sky that will turn your dark sky into a not dark sky.
posted by bondcliff at 8:33 AM on June 19, 2012

If you do bring the telescope out, making sure that the viewfinder is lined up before you go out there is really important. You should do that during the day. Focus on something far off like a tower and adjust the finder until you have it zeroed in.

Without that viewfinder configured correctly, it will be tricky to track down anything, but yes having alternatives like binoculars will be helpful too.
posted by gregjunior at 8:36 AM on June 19, 2012

Seconding the point that dark skies are not a big benefit if your telescope has a small aperture (60mm, in your case). Saturn is awesome and easy to find, but it will be awesome and easy to find pretty much anywhere. The moon is really fun to look at (I think ~first quarter is best; you get some great shadows), but it would be the same anywhere.

The reason folks like dark skies is because it allows you to see the really faint stuff that you can't see in other places: galaxies, star clusters, nebulae, etc. However, with a 60mm aperture, you're not going to be able to see those things, anyway. And if you're not very experienced using a telescope, you'll probably find looking for them tremendously frustrating.

If you have the room for the telescope, I'd bring it along, but mostly because it's a fun thing to do while camping; not because camping is going to get you anything you couldn't do at home.

Some good things to look for:

The Moon
Mars (if it's up)
Alberio (a bluish-redish double star in the constellation of Cygnus)
Epsilon Lyrae (a double double star in the constellation of Lyra)

And if you're taking a laptop with you, go download Stellarium. If you want more low tech, get a Star Wheel/Planisphere.
posted by Betelgeuse at 8:40 AM on June 19, 2012

I don't know...as an amateur, I think consumer-grade telescopes are fun! If you have a car then take it so that you get PRACTICE using a telescope. If you have to carry it on your back, then don't take it, I say.
posted by skbw at 8:56 AM on June 19, 2012

Sometimes I find it harder to locate things in my scope than with the naked eye or with binoculars. It ends up being frustrating for me to keep looking around and around for something that I know should be right there, but I can't quite find it! grrrr. It probably has to do with how small my field of view is when I am expecting something a little bit wider.

But then when I pull out my binoculars it really makes things relaxing. I lay down on the ground or in a lawn chair. Using two eyes, the stars just seem to pop out as if they were 3D, I can follow the rivers of stars, find cool patterns, locate interesting objects, etc... and mounting binoculars to a camera tripod will allow for more steady viewing at a cost of not being as comfortable (the angles get goofy some times. I popped the cover off the mounting hole at the pivot point in the center of the binoculars, found a bolt that fit, and an L bracket at the local hardware store and I was in business for about 1$. (found the tripod getting tossed out by a neighbor). You can buy professional versions for 20-80$, but for what I was using it for... it worked great. Using a tripod also lets you share one set of binoculars to point out your finds.

I have also seen recommendations for using a monopod as a stabilizer (DIY instructable for converting a hiking pole into a monopod). You attach the binoculars to the monopod and hold the monopod between your knees while lying down/reclining.

Check out Binocular Astronomy Resource Page, and this page from Universe Today for a short primer on using binoculars to view astronomical objects.

I would also recommend taking along a small book of constellations, or just print off a star chart for the time you will be out there. Having a map to the stars will help you find your way.

Enjoy it. Dark skies are becoming rare.
posted by djpuddings at 9:07 AM on June 19, 2012

The full moon is not as interesting as the other phases, which have shadows on the craters and mountains that make them stand out. Use the eyepiece with the lowest magnification--the more powerful eyepieces make the image larger, but it is usually so blurred in these cheap scopes that you see less detail. You might be able to see that Saturn has a ring around it, that Venus has phases like the moon, and you'll see four of Jupiter's moons, unless one or more is in front of or behind the planet. As gregjunior says, make sure you adjust the cross-hairs in the little finder scope to line up with the image in the big scope. Everything will be upside down unless you have an inverting eyepiece with a prism, but that's no problem for looking at astronomical objects. The first thing you will notice is that things move out of the field of view quite quickly. That's the earth turning. That's one of the greatest insights for kids--a real paradigm shift. If you do have the eyepiece with a prism, you can use it for birdwatching. After you aim the scope, don't touch it--just let the tripod stabilize the image, otherwise the magnified vibrations will make viewing difficult.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:11 AM on June 19, 2012

rings of saturn/ titan
moons/stripes/red spot of jupiter
crescent venus and, if lucky/early, mercury
for the moon, look along the terminator (the line between day/night)...thats where the craters really pop
orion nebula (more of a winter sight, but it will prob be up closer to dawn now)
mars (curiosity rover landing early aug...woot!)

nthing a sky app to help find stuff...google sky map on android...starwalk on iphone (the filter slider (xray ultraviolet, etc on that one is badass)

nthing setting up viewfinder first...get a distant streetlight centered in the main scope and lock all the knobs down so it doesnt move. adjust the six screws on the viewfinder (3 in front, 3 in back) until the streetlight is centered there too.

some things to know:
-you need at least 15 minutes to adjust to the dark, and white light will ruin your dark adaptation INSTANTLY...requiring another 15 min wait...use a red filter on yr phone/flashlight/etc to read charts by.
-astronomy and sky and telescope magazines publish monthly star charts...pick up a copy
-there is a blind spot directly in the middle of your eye (where the optic nerve attaches to the retina...horrible product design) looking right next to an object (like jupiter) rather than directly at it can reveal more faint detail (like the stripes/red spot)
-this is a really great book
posted by sexyrobot at 9:12 AM on June 19, 2012

oh...the pleiades! any open or globular cluster will be nice too..
posted by sexyrobot at 9:14 AM on June 19, 2012

Here is a list of binocular suitable objects. Binocular Objects Compiled by Karen W. Pierce

Here is a printable planisphere from Toshimi Taki.

Toshimi Taki also has created a great star atlas that is available for download as a pdf.
posted by djpuddings at 9:23 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would take it, unless you're hiking in a long ways and don't want to carry a bulky item. If you have no expectations, you'll probably be surprised at what you can actually see. I was able to see the Galilean moons with an el cheap-o Wal-Mart telescope my mom had laying around.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:43 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

For this application, I would try some astronomical binoculars first. You'll want something like a tripod or monopod to take the weight of them, because they can get somewhat ridiculous in size and weight. Hardcore binocular users have developed a kind of stand that hangs the binocs above your head while you sit, reclined. The stand is above and behind your head, and counterweighted, and all that. Bit of a production for a camping trip, but it fits in your back gard.

If you do get a telescope, be sure to set it up and take it down in daylight a couple of times to get a feel for what's involved.

Get a filter for viewing the moon-- at ~-12. -13 magnitude, it's still too bright to look at through binocs or a telescope without filtration. You already know better than to point that at the sun, but even the moon's light is intense enough, when magnified by you, to damage your eye, and certainly to leave you night-blind for a considerable period of that night, since it's mostly white light. Also, the lunar terminator is cool, but so is the illuminated limb (horizon, or edge of the moon)-- you can also see mountains popping up, crater rims, etc.

Cook with a camp-stove, not an open fire, or light the fire after your observations; it'll throw your night vision outta whack, and complicate your viewing, potentially, with smoke, indirect light pollution, and whatnot.

Finally, take a look around your camp now and then, to rest your eyes and to hang on to some situational awareness.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:14 AM on June 19, 2012

Response by poster:
> For this application, I would try some astronomical binoculars first. You'll want something like a tripod or monopod to take the weight of them, because they can get somewhat ridiculous. Hardcore binocular users have developed a kind of stand that hangs the binocs above your head while you sit, reclined.
I don't have any of that shit, man. I was pretty clear about not having that shit. What can you do with what I have, and the question I asked?
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 10:16 PM on June 19, 2012

Are you going soon? I'm going to assume you're going soon.

If you go out tonight at dusk where the skies are not dark, and look to the south, there are about three bright objects that will catch your attention: Mars, off to your right, and Saturn, about the width of four fingers above the bright star Spica. You don't need an especially dark sky to see the rings of Saturn, so that's a great excuse to set the scope up on your sidewalk, learn how to align the viewfinder, and see whether you really want to take it camping or not.

Later in the evening you should be able to see the "summer triangle" rising in the east. The lower left star in the triangle is Deneb, the tail of Cygnus the Swan. Your star chart will help you find the swan's wings, neck, and head. The head, a dim star in the middle of the summer triangle, is called Albireo, and in your telescope will resolve to two stars which are different colors.

The moon's terminator is a lot of fun to look at. For looking at anything else in the sky, I'd schedule my trip for when the moon is between third quarter and first quarter --- that is, a crescent. If you want a challenge look up the time of a lunar X, which is visible for a couple of hours sometime before first quarter.

Venus and Jupiter are both early-morning objects right now. Venus should still be a thin crescent, rising shortly before dawn.

None of these are particularly dark-sky targets --- you could look at any of these things from your driveway while you're deciding whether you like the telescope enough to take it camping. What you'll get from a dark-sky site are better views of star clusters and nebulae through your telescope, and an amazing number of stars visible to the naked eye. There's a good list of objects to hunt for on these nice monthly skymaps. But really, part of what's going to surprise you about the dark sky is how full of stars it is.

I know you said you don't have binoculars, but I found a pair of binoculars at a hardware store for $12 and I was surprised at how much I liked them for stargazing.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 5:26 PM on June 21, 2012

« Older Laser Hair Removal Tipping Etiquette   |   Tips for running a successful and simple ebay... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.