Have you just bought or been given a new telescope? Then you’re sure to be keen to use it straight away to see what spectacles the night sky can offer, whether it be the Moon, planets, stars, gas clouds or galaxies. Here are ten useful tips on using a new telescope to help ensure that you are not disappointed.
1. Get to know how to use it in daylight! Whatever sort of controls your telescope has, it will be harder to master them in the dark, especially since astronomical telescopes usually show you objects upside down. So begin by making yourself familiar with the telescope during the day.
Aim at a distant object such as a pylon, a rooftop aerial or a faraway streetlamp. Use your controls, if you have them, to get it in the centre of your field of view and to sharpen the focus. This is a good way also to check that the telescope’s finderscope, if it has one, is properly in line with the main instrument and to adjust it if it isn’t. But DON’T aim your telescope anywhere near the Sun which is so bright it could easily blind you.
2. Don’t magnify too much! Your telescope probably came with more than one eyepiece – that’s the little lens you look into – to give you different powers of magnification. When you have a new telescope, it is tempting to pump up the magnification as much as you can to see how big things can look. But a high-power eyepiece will make objects harder to find and will magnify any little wobbles or vibrations in your mount as well as the view! It is best to start with a low-power eyepiece to help you find your target and to centre it in the field of view first. Then you can change the eyepiece to a higher-powered one if you need to.
3. Start simply! When you use your telescope on the night sky, begin by observing bright objects such as the Moon or main planets like Jupiter and Saturn. They will be much easier to find, especially the Moon, and will be interesting too. The Moon is a great target for a small telescope anyway because it is relatively close to us as our nearest neighbour in space and has a surface covered with eye-popping features. (We’ve got advice on observing the Moon here.)
4. Don’t get the shakes! Place your telescope on a stable surface. Some small telescopes come with a correspondingly tiny mounting and are designed to be used on a tabletop. Bigger telescopes may come with a tripod so that they stand on the ground. In either case, make sure they stand as solidly as they can to avoid too much vibration (see rule 2!). Make sure that the table is not too rickety or that the ground is nice and flat. A grassy lawn is a better place to stand a tripod than a concrete patio because it will be better at dampening those pesky vibrations.
5. Be patient! We live in an age when many people expect instant gratification. But stargazing is a hobby where you may need to bide your time before getting any results. Apart from having to wait until it gets dark, you are at the mercy of the weather. Too often, a new telescope purchase seems to attract a run of cloudy nights! Even when it is clear, seeing conditions might not be ideal and if there is a lot of atmospheric turbulence, then your planet or star will dance around madly through a powerful eyepiece. Even when conditions are ideal, patience will help you see more. Instead of grabbing a ten-second look, let the eye linger. The longer you look, the more detail you will begin to see.
6. Don’t expect to see the same as Hubble! Magazines and books are filled with spectacular images of the Universe, many taken with powerful telescopes at professional observatories or in space. But these only look bright and colourful because the telescopes are so big and are collecting the starlight over a period of many minutes. The human eye is a remarkable and sensitive thing but it will generally see night sky objects much more feebly, and you are unlikely to see any colour except in the brighter stars and planets.
7. Wrap up warm! It is hard to get enthusiastic about the Universe if you are shivering in the freezing cold. Even summer nights can seem pretty chilly unless you live somewhere tropical, so make sure you are dressed warmly. You could dig out your ski wear, otherwise wear a few layers to trap the body’s heat, topped with a fleece or woolly jumper and a wind-proof jacket. Thick-soled boots will stop your feet turning to ice and a hat, cap or balaclava will prevent too much body-heat escaping from your head!
8. Avoid bright lights! When you are trying to observe faint objects in the night sky, any bright lights are your enemy. Leave a few minutes after leaving a brightly-lit room to allow your eyes time to adjust and become able to see dim light. Try to observe away from any lights which can create glare that interferes with your viewing. And if you need to consult a star chart or book, or swap eyepieces, be sure to use a red-light torch because that will not spoil your eyes’ dark-adaption like white light would.
9. Get to know the sky! Many modern telescopes are so clever that you can, in theory, stand them up in any position and they will happily find objects for themselves. In practice it is rarely quite so straightforward. In any case, it helps to learn about the sky at your own particular location. Get familiar with the directions of north, south, east and west. Try to recognise the main constellations and the brightest stars and note how they appear to move across the sky as the Earth rotates beneath them.
10. If all else fails, read the instructions! You may be tearing your hair out trying to set up your new telescope but do make sure you are doing everything by the book. Follow the manual, if you have one. Otherwise, for more advice on getting started with your new telescope, see here.
Note: Robin Scagell, who wrote the “Getting started” article on Skymania mentioned above, has also provided more very helpful advice on the Society for Popular Astronomy‘s website. Read it here.
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