Buying a telescope for my school
July 11, 2012 10:26 AM   Subscribe

I'm teaching a high school astronomy course in the fall. I have around two thousand dollars to get a telescope. This purchase is the kind of thing that just bluescreens by brain. Please guide me.

I get to buy a telescope for a fall astronomy class I'm teaching. Our school is in the suburbs and has decently clear/dark skies. Not rural, but not horribly urban. I have a large open field on campus a hundred yards from my house, all summer to practice.

Awesome things I'd like to be able to do:
-Rings of Saturn
-Storms on Jupiter
-Moons of Jupiter
-Details on the Moon
-Ice caps on Mars
-Uranus? Neptune?
-Nearby galaxies
-Resolving binary stars
-Sunspot/solar flare observations (we did this back in college with an h-alpha filter....still fuzzy on what that was all about, but it was phenomenal.)

My astronomy experience is a couple of years working the 21inch reflector at the University of Arizona, that thing had a dome, an archaic tracking computer...very different than this, which is part of why I find myself so flummoxed by my attempts to google up advice.

The more explicit the advice the better, links to what you would buy (scope, mount, software, eyepieces, filters...) would be awesome. Thank you for any advice you can offer!
posted by Shutter to Science & Nature (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You could do much worse than start by calling the extremely nice, knowledgeable, and helpful folks at Eagle Optics.
posted by rtha at 10:29 AM on July 11, 2012

Best answer: If you really want to see solar flares/prominances, your best lowish-cost solution is probably an independent telescope to do this. I quite like Coronado's PST. Most blocking filters you can get for (nighttime) telescopes will show you the sunspots well, but won't allow you to see prominances (for that, you'd need the blocking filter and an Halpha filter, which probably is more expensive than the PST).

After that, how much automation are you interested in? Dobsonians get you the most bang for your buck, but they don't even track the sky (much less have "GOTO" functionality that will automatically point a telescope for you). I quite like the Zhumell Dobsonians that I just got for our observatory here. However, I'm going to assume that you want a GOTO telescope, which will make astronomical objects easier to find.

Basically, it's hard to go wrong with any Celestron or Meade consumer telescope. In your price range, they are the big players (at 1/10 or 10x, other companies can be better). Make sure not to blow your entire budget on the telescope. Amateur astronomers often like to spend comparable amounts on eyepieces and telescopes. That's overkill for you, but do make sure that you spend some money on a nice variety of eyepieces.

If I had your budget and was looking for a GOTO telescope, I'd get something like:
  • For nighttime viewing, a Celestron Nexstar 6 inch or 8 inch (actually, the 6 inch or 8 inch bundles sound like a decent deals and you wouldn't have to get the eyepiece set I recommend at the bottom).
  • A Coronado PST (note that you'll need a tripod for this telescope; any cheap standard photo tripod will do). As far as "wow" factor, this telescope is a big winner. The prominances are amazing and it's really fun to look through.
  • An eyepiece and filter set like this or a nicer eyepiece set like this.
Depending on what options you choose, this might put you a bit over your budget, but it's a start. Respond or Memail if you have follow-up questions.

Just as a side note, it's going to be pretty hard to see any galaxies with your naked eye (M31 as a fuzzy blob, and others will be even more challenging), but everything else on your list should be pretty easy with a 6" or 8"+ telescope.
posted by Betelgeuse at 11:06 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

*"naked eye" = "naked eye through a telescope"
posted by Betelgeuse at 11:07 AM on July 11, 2012

Best answer: How many students do you have? Depending on the number, you may want to set aside 5-10% of your budget to buy a few Galileoscopes. They're inexpensive Galilean/Keplerian refractors that a HS student should be able to assemble, and they can be used (ideally with a tripod) to make the same kinds of observations that led Galileo to discover the lunar mountains, the Galilean satellites of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and the phases of Venus.

I've used them in an introductory history of science course (university-level), and I think if you had your students make some observations with a basic 25-30X refractor, they'd be much better prepared to appreciate what a modern, computer-controlled telescope can do than if you skipped the intermediate step. (Heck, just an equatorial mount and a clock drive is a big improvement over an altazimuth mount.)
posted by brianogilvie at 11:39 AM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oops, just thought of this, too: the act of assembling a telescope teaches something about its optics. I also had my students do some naked-eye observations at our Sunwheel before using the telescope.

And it's possible to take decent astrophotographs with a simple refractor and a handheld camera.
posted by brianogilvie at 11:43 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Orion makes a decent 10" GoTo Dobsonian, which leaves you quite a bit for eyepieces and such. Dobsonians aren't the most portable, but I think they give about the best bang for the buck performance-wise. Orion also makes "Push-To" scopes that are not motorized, but have sensors mounted so you key in the object you want to look at, and then manually move the scope by hand until it lets you know it's on target.

OTOH, you could pick up a few, even perhaps four or five Cassegrains, which are very portable, easy to use, and would let several students operate scopes simultaneously, but with your budget the trade-off would be smaller optics, but more of them.

I like the idea of having students assemble scopes from kits, but unless the kits are absolutely foolproof, getting the optics properly collimated can be very frustrating and leave the kids with a sub-par experience.

I gotta say, for a high school astronomy course, I'd suggest a GoTo scope of whatever style you prefer, if only for the (relatively) instant gratification. Astronomy is awesome, but a lot of people get frustrated because they have trouble finding interesting things to view. Get 'em hooked and wow 'em right off the start, and let the addiction grow from there. :)
posted by xedrik at 1:09 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I appreciate the input folks. I need to figure out how much I can spend, but this looks like a great start.
posted by Shutter at 9:16 AM on July 18, 2012

I'll just add that the Galileoscope is carefully designed, with precise tolerances, so that the optics are well collimated. I put one together in fewer than 10 minutes from opening the box to spying on my colleagues in the business school and reading the license plates on cars a quarter mile away (and observing celestial phenomena...). Give one a try. Galileo himself discovered a lot of stuff (see his Starry Messenger, 1610) with significantly worse telescopes.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:37 PM on July 25, 2012

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