Stargazing is a fascinating way to explore the universe and it gives the kids an excuse to stay up late. But to see some of the distant wonders in the night sky you need a good telescope. Unfortunately, good telescopes for astronomy aren’t cheap. The inexpensive ones sold by department stores lack the light gathering power and stable tripods necessary to get a really good look at a really faint or distant object. A scope large enough and sturdy enough to expose the universe to your gaze can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars. But if you’re not yet ready to lay out that kind of money for a good scope, you do have some alternatives.
If you live in a large city or near a university or large college, check to see if there’s a local astronomy club. Do a Web search for the name of your city and "astronomy club," or check Sky & Telescope Magazine’s club search page. Many clubs hold "star parties," events at which club members set up telescopes to view popular heavenly objects and allow members of the curious public to view them as well. A star party is an excellent way to see if astronomy is for you. Club members have already invested in good equipment so you can try before you buy. You can get a taste of the kind of views you’ll see if you purchase similar equipment, so you won’t be surprised or disappointed the first time you use your own scope. Also, the club members are experienced; they can find and identify objects in the sky quickly and explain what you’re seeing, and also give you advice on how to get started in the hobby if you’ve been bitten by the astro-bug.
Another option for trying out a telescope before buying one is made possible by the Internet: the Bradford Robotic Telescope. The University of Bradford in England operates an automated telescope located at Teide Observatory in the Canary Islands. In between university research, other professional observing sessions, and cloudy weather, the Bradford Robotic Telescope will observe and make a digital photo of any location in the night sky at the request of a registered user. Registration is free; all you need is a Web browser and an email address to sign up.
Using the Bradford telescope isn’t like owning your own scope. Rather than just pointing the scope at a place in the sky and looking through the eyepiece, you must enter a job request at the Bradford Web site. In the job request you specify which telescope to use, what object or location in the sky to image, and how long an exposure to make. Your request will be placed in a list of pending requests and will ultimately be scheduled to be performed during a time when the telescope would otherwise be idle. You’ll receive an email from Bradford when your job is complete, and you can download the resulting image from their Web site. It may take weeks or months for your job to be completed, however, because paying customers of the telescope get priority scheduling and the scope requires occasional maintenance. Also, if you request an image of an object that won’t be visible at the telescope for another six months you’re in for a long wait.
The Bradford Robotic Telescope is actually three scopes on the same mount: a wide-angle camera for imaging whole constellations, a telephoto camera for photographing star clusters and other smaller groupings of objects, and a 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope for imaging distant galaxies and small objects like planets or individual stars. The Bradford Web site has a gallery of images made with the all three scopes so you can get an idea of what to expect from your own viewing requests.
Astronomy is a wonderful hobby that can be started with no money whatsoever – a star guide from the local library will get you going. But as your interest and desire to see fainter objects grows, the cost of your hobby will grow with it. Before you shell out the money for a good telescope, take someone else’s for a test drive. If you like it, you can make the investment in your own scope with a clear conscience. If you don’t, you’ve saved another scope from being hidden away unused in a closet.
With thanks to the Bradford Robotic Telescope and the University of Bradford School of Informatics for the image.