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Typically, discussions centered around introducing people to stargazing focus on children and adolescents, but I think that is too limiting. The reality is that there are as many and varied people who are interested in and excited about learning astronomy but are either confused about where to start or are unaware of the progress technology and manufacturing processes have made in recent years that make stargazing as simple as it is fascinating and rewarding. In this piece, we’ll take a look at certain age groups and people with specific interests, and share some advice on where to start their (or your) stargazing journey into the splendors of the solar system and beyond.
Before we dive into the main part of this article, I should touch on some points that will be relevant to the rest of this discussion. I don't want to go into too many details because I wrote a very thorough article on telescopes that you can find by clicking here. For now, here are some things to keep in mind.
So, here we are, asking and addressing the question of “who, exactly, are we introducing to stargazing?” This is a complicated question and it demands a somewhat nuanced answer. First we need to look at who is taking up stargazing and what they are expecting to experience and see.
Let’s start at the most basic level. I have a nephew, Cameron. He’s six. My wife and I took him to the American Museum of Natural History, in New York City, because he saw Jurassic World and he told everyone who would listen—and many who wouldn’t—that he wanted to be a dinosaur scientist (“paleontologist” made his tongue and brain hurt, so we just decided to leave it at dinosaur scientist). After the dinosaur wing, we needed to fill in time before our train home, so we took him to the planetarium for a thirty-minute show. He left there wanting to be an astronaut. Why mention this anecdote (besides the fact that it’s about an adorable 6-year-old)? It’s to illustrate the point that kids are fickle. Their wants and dreams and desires can change in a nanosecond. Who knows? Next week there could be a fire in the neighborhood and that dino-doctor-turned-astronaut could decide he wants to be a fireman. So his parents (and uncle) are left with a dilemma: Is this fascination with the stars real, or just a passing fancy? It’s a good question… and an important question. So, let’s take a look at how to introduce my 6-year-old nephew to astronomy.
"Is this fascination with the stars real, or just a passing fancy?"
A simple search of the B&H website shows a dizzying number of options. But what’s right for a child? To answer this, we need to look at what we (as humans) can and should expect to see through a telescope. First, the Moon is big, easy to find, and awesome. Second, everything else is significantly (in orders of magnitude) smaller, varying degrees of difficult to find, and equally as awesome. I know that Cam will be dumbstruck seeing the Moon through a telescope. And I also know that he won’t appreciate Saturn, Mars, Venus, or a binary star system—simply because the concepts that he would need to understand are just beyond him. Also, he lives in the middle of Long Island where it’s lousy with light pollution. It’s for this reason that I would recommend a basic 60-90mm refractor telescope package. You’re going to look for something with around a 700-900mm focal length with a steady tripod. The focal length (essentially the length of the telescope) will determine what the magnification is with the different eyepieces you use with it. You’ll also want a couple of eyepieces with a low and medium focal length for options, and probably a diagonal for using it at the beach or on vacation for terrestrial viewing, because you’re spending the money and should get as much usability out of it as possible. An essential piece of gear is going to be a moon filter and probably a light-pollution filter to help with all the street lights, houses, and malls. Very few manufacturers include filters, so make sure you read the “Included” listings, and if you don’t see any, make sure you order them when you check out so you can start observing as soon as those wonderful boxes from B&H show up on your doorstep.
Your ideal rig for a basic introduction to astronomy for a child up to around the ages of 10-12 would be a simple manual alt-azimuth mount with a sturdy tripod, and a 60-70mm refractor telescope. You need a moon filter, with optional accessories that include light pollution filter, Barlow lens, and a diagonal for terrestrial viewing.
Celestron’s Travel Scope is close to filling this bill 100%: it has a shorter 400mm focal length, but it comes with a 70mm objective, a manual mount with a single control handle for easier tracking, two eyepieces, an erect-image diagonal, and it all fits in an included backpack. A step up from that is the AstroMaster-70 or Special Edition COSMOS model (but you’ll need to buy a diagonal separately for the COSMOS), and none of these come with filters.
For those who want to make it much easier to view things, or think their child has more than a passing interest, you could get a motorized and computer-controlled model. This will add more cost to the system, but you'll be able to push the scope to its observational limits, allowing you to explore some planets and deep-sky objects if you're able to get away from light pollution. Again, choose your investment carefully. Don't expect a child to grasp concepts like galaxies and nebulae easily, or understand cosmic distances. I would only recommend a computer-controlled model if the parent using the scope with the child also has some kind of interest in astronomy, and would enjoy the expanded usability of this feature.
Now that we've covered the children, let's move into the adolescent range (14-17 years old). People in this age group will, by and large, have the capacity to grasp the higher concepts required to really appreciate the planets and deep sky objects, and the available options increase considerably.
Generally speaking, the chances of an adolescent being sure that he or she has a specific interest in planetary versus deep-sky viewing are pretty slim. It’s at this point that a little research on the Internet is in order. Look for astronomy clubs in your area—you’ll be surprised how many there are. Next, go to a meeting or a star party. If there’s one thing amateur astronomers love to do, it’s share their gear. If they know that someone is interested in their hobby, you’ll have the opportunity to not only try out different scopes, from refractors to reflectors to catadioptrics, and different mounts, but you’ll also meet people with different interests. There will be the guy who knows everything about the Moon, a woman who specializes in planets, or another person who is interested in deep-sky objects. In this way, your adolescent will be exposed to a wide diversity of people who have a lot of specific areas of expertise, which will help narrow his or her own area of interest.
"Utilizing mirrors instead of lenses gives you more aperture per dollar..."
However, depending on the outcome of your tour of the star party, your choices quickly narrow down to either a reflector or refractor. A refractor will give you excellent planetary observation, but with lenses being more expensive to produce than the reflector’s mirrors, you’ll get less aperture per dollar. In plain English, you’ll be sacrificing a larger objective for superior performance, which isn’t a bad thing. Spending more on a smaller objective will produce images with little to no distortion or aberrations, and true color transmission.
On the other side of the coin, if your adolescent is more inclined to observe outside of our solar system, then you’re going to want a larger aperture, for more light gathering ability, that you’ll get with a reflector. Utilizing mirrors instead of lenses gives you more aperture per dollar, allowing you to maximize light-gathering ability so you can see the dimmer deep-sky objects. The downside to reflectors is that they require you to be a bit more gentle when handling them, but as your teen has demonstrated a sustained interest, the chances are that they’ll be able to show it the respect it deserves.
No matter what type of scope you’re leaning toward, you’re going to want to look at models with motorized mounts, preferably with computer controllers. This takes a lot of the guesswork out of astronomy and lets you get observing faster and more easily by utilizing alignment assistance, multiple tracking rates for planetary or deep-sky viewing, plus a catalog of thousands of objects with the option of guided tours. Celestron has you covered with affordable options from all three kinds of telescope configurations.
For refractors, the 90mm Celestron 90LCM Computerized Telescope or 102mm Celestron NexStar 102 SLT 4"/102mm Refractor Telescope Kit provide solid options for primarily lunar and planetary viewing, or even this special edition 90mm COSMOS model with built in Wi-Fi that you connect directly to your smart phone or tablet running the Celestron app that will provide a unique, innovative, and immersive experience.
Moving into reflectors for both planetary and deep sky, you’ll do well with this 114mm Computerized Telescope 114LCM or the larger NexStar 130 SLT 5.1"/130mm Reflector Telescope. If you want to share with your youngster and want to be able to see a bit deeper into the Universe, you can go up to this 8" model, but beware: this one weighs just over 70 pounds, so you’re probably not hiking into the outback with it.
Striking a middle ground between aperture inch per dollar and portability are some catadioptric or compound models. As far as computerized options are concerned, this category offers the largest number of options. You can spend anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, and they’re offered in kits with accessories. As with any scope, the larger the aperture, the deeper into space you’ll be able to explore.
As mentioned before, pick up a moon filter and a light-pollution filter if you need it. You’ll also want a filter set. Filter sets come packaged for different purposes. You can get planetary or deep-space sets with filters specifically designed to accentuate different colors or wavelengths to enhance colors for an improved experience. This set of four filters is ideal for lunar and planetary viewing, while this one is more suited to deep space objects. They’re also sold separately, so when they start narrowing down their area of interest, they can build their own set specific to their needs.
When buying for an adult, whether for yourself, a partner, sibling, parent, or grandparent, the sky is the limit. This person will most likely have been harboring a desire to explore astronomy for years or decades, but for various reasons might have been too busy previously to indulge themselves. The best approach to take is to not surprise them. There are so many factors involved in this decision that it would be painfully easy to make a misstep and get the wrong rig.
If they (or you) have been thinking about taking the plunge for years, there’s a fairly good chance that you already know what you want. If astronomy is a new endeavor—perhaps even an off-shoot of introducing a son or daughter to astronomy—then I suggest a similar tactic as that of the adolescent. Join a local astronomical society and attend a few star parties. In this way, your adult will be able to narrow down their area of interests. If your budget is similar to that of the adolescent section above, the recommendations are the same. If you feel more comfortable giving your budget a bump up to the next level, you can go with the larger apertures that will raise the cost, but also the observational potential.
If you feel like reading more, there are a few subsets of adults who deserve some extra attention.
Yup. Nerds. I know... it's a fairly ambiguous term that covers a lot of different people. Take my brother and me: I'm a writer with a degree in History and English Literature, and he's an engineer who designs and programs machines that make and package pudding. My brother and I are nerds in the exact same way that evolutionists and creationists agree on the platypus. The point is that we're both nerds, but in completely different ways. But we do share a common denominator with all our nerd friends: we are obsessed with the way things work. So when I first got interested in astronomy, I was immediately drawn to an equatorial mount. And when I looped my brother into my budding obsession, he was hooked on it, too.
"...your nerd will be able to see the Moon and planets and still be able to branch out to deep-sky objects..."
The thing about a manual EQ mount is that there are a lot of moving parts and a steep learning curve to understand how not only to use it, but how to use it right. You need to understand how the Universe works, you need to learn celestial navigation, and you need to do a lot of research before you even set up your telescope the first time. I can only recommend this for the die-hard nerd who is obsessed with mechanical things and is willing to invest a lot of time and energy to simply find something to look at.
So, for the right person, a manual mount will provide endless hours of enjoyment. For a sort of hybrid experience, feel free to add Right Ascension and/or Declination motors for easier tracking and slewing. These are offered as add-ons for some, or come included with others. As far as the telescope itself, as I've mentioned before, the size and type will depend on what they're interested in looking at. From my experience, I find that the amateur who is interested in a manual EQ mount quickly gets bored with the Moon and planets and craves the power to explore deep-sky objects. Generally, after they’ve moved out of their amateur phase, they've narrowed down their focus and their first upgrade becomes their specialized scope. It's for this reason that I would invest in a Reflector—you can get more aperture for your buck, your nerd will be able to see the Moon and planets and still be able to branch out to deep-sky objects—or a move into the larger catadioptrics. With a reflector, you'll sacrifice some color and clarity, but the tradeoff in versatility is well worth it until they narrow their focus, and with a catadioptric you’ll gain the advantage of portability. Again, look at filter sets or filter wheels to enhance the experience, focusing on nebulae filters and a variety of wavelength filters for more observational options.
There is a major point to remember when using a scope for astrophotography: light pollution should not be a concern. As long as you point and track the correct object, you’ll get the same picture in Central Park as you would in central Wyoming. The problem of light pollution is how the human eye reacts to ambient light, so don’t waste time with light pollution filters and other accessories trying to block light. Colored or nebulae filters will be as useful as always, though.
Those with point-and-shoot cameras, selfie sticks, and disposable cameras wouldn’t fall into this category (although there are adapters for that). I’m talking about the person you see walking around the city with a DSLR slung over their shoulder taking shots of the sights. They have a working knowledge of what their cameras are capable of and don’t mind spending their money on gear.
Regardless of what their interest is, you’re going to want to stick with a refractor or catadioptric with a computer-controlled mount. This is going to be crucial for capturing long-exposure images. A refractor will have the requisite optical performance, while a catadioptric will give you more aperture per dollar without the aberrations of a reflector. But the scope and mount are only part of the astrophotography equation. You’re going to need a T-ring adapter, T-rings, and remote shutter releases for their specific camera.
The way this works is that, in place of an eyepiece, an adapter is inserted into the eyepiece holder. The end of the adapter will have threads to screw on a camera-specific T-ring. The T-ring is made for the specific bayonet mount of the DSLR camera that is going to be used. Finally, the remote release is a critical part because you’ll need to hold the shutter open and you want to limit the amount of contact you have with the rig, so as to minimize vibrations.
This person spends a lot on their gear and is looking for quality—not only in the rig but in the end product. For this reason, you’ll want to lean toward a dedicated astrograph optical tube assembly. Celestron offers its 11" astrograph three ways: OTA only (for those who already have a mount and tripod), or two grades of computerized mounts: the CGEM DX and CGE Pro.
An astrograph is specifically built with a fast focal ratio and a large primary mirror to draw in copious amounts of light, and requiring shorter exposure times, versus “slower” telescopes. Everything about the OTA is optimized for imaging performance, and is the ideal platform for astrophotography. Just like the amateur discussed above, you’ll need the adapters and rings to mount a DSLR.
One brief note on commercial DSLRs and astrophotography: any DSLR on the market will have a built-in IR filter in front of the imaging sensor. This is critical for conventional photography, but might interfere with astrophotography. There are companies that produce purpose-built DSLRs for astrophotography, so if you want the absolute best images, that would be an avenue to explore after they’ve reached their limits with their conventional camera.
Wait! Before you scroll down to the comments and start an etymological argument about geek versus nerd, hear me out. Just as "nerd" is an ambiguous term, so is "geek." In my world, nerds tend to be more into the hardware, where geeks are into software (metaphorically speaking). So where the nerd is fascinated on learning how to use a manual EQ mount to find something, the geek will find endless fascination in a slightly different way: creating the perfect image. Here's where we come into CCD imaging. If applying the same recommendations for The Photographer, but replace the photo gear with a CCD imager, you create an opportunity for someone who is interested in learning, experimenting, and applying a software suite to dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of images to manipulate, matte, filter, cut, crop, and stack them in virtually infinite ways to produce truly spectacular final images.
For imaging purposes, stick with a refractor or Cassegrain style. This will give you the aberration-free optics you'll require for sharp, detailed images. Celestron has a basic CCD imager—the NexImage—which is ideal for a beginner with just about any scope, all the way up to the NightScape, which offers amazing performance. Striking a comfortable middle ground is the company’s line of Skyris imagers, which come in both color and monochrome versions. The color ones will capture all the colors the telescope can grab, while the mono will enable you to use your own filters, so you can start tweaking the image at the point of capture, instead of applying digital filters in post production. A filter wheel is available that is specifically designed for the Skyris to enhance the performance while providing a quick and easy way to change filters between captures.
As you can see, introducing someone to astronomy takes a lot of thought and planning. Spending too little may stifle a genuine interest, but you run the risk of dropping hard-earned money on what might be a passing fancy. It’s best to have a legitimate conversation with the person about how interested they truly are. Research on the Internet, get a firm understanding of what they’re expecting to see and make sure it matches reality. And before you add anything to your shopping cart, join an astronomy club, go to a few star parties and talk to enthusiasts, and try out some of their gear; because the only real way to find out what interests them is for them to see for themselves.