While the rest of the country is obsessed with the H1N1 virus and cure, Yukon amateur astronomers seem to be looking for a cure of their own — a cure for bad weather. This time of year is renowned for volatile, unstable weather, making for cloudy nights mixed with snowstorms.
When cloudy nights persist, however, it presents an opportunity for preparing the next observing session.
There seems to be a surge of interest in am
From government employees and home schoolers, to equipment operators and business and retail people, everyone seems to want to see celestial treasures.
Much like myself, many of these people have come into possession of a telescope one way or another. Some have just opened up an astronomy magazine, saw a pretty picture of a beautiful telescope that had all kinds of fancy specifications and decided, This is the one for me.
Other people have decided to opt for the box-store special and buy a complete package for the low, low price of only $199.99. And this little telescope says right on the box that it has 575 power! That is much less expensive than what they sell those telescopes in the astronomy magazines for.
Is there something wrong here? Definitely. These telescopes offer very limited viewing and are very disappointing.
Most people end up in the same position I was in when I first got the astronomy bug and an old telescope was dropped at my doorstep. After you set it up, what next?
Astronomy is not as complicated or expensive as it seems, unless you want to make it that way. If your interest is planets and galaxies, star clusters, nebula and comets and you are on a tight budget, then consider the classic Dobsonian telescope.
This telescope is made from a heavy industrial cardboard tube that has a large mirror at the bottom of the tube, called a primary mirror; and a smaller mirror, called the secondary mirror, at the top end of the tube. Also found at the top end of the tube is a focuser and a finder.
This is about the most basic of telescopes and, surprisingly, offers the best bang for the buck. When you want to explore the night sky, there is one basic rule: bigger telescope mirrors give bigger views. Electronics and toys do not necessarily give you better views, only bigger or higher-quality mirrors or glass can do that for you.
When you buy a Dobsonian telescope, most of the telescope’s value is in those mirrors. For around $400 to $500, you can buy a secondhand eight-inch Dobsonian telescope, on the Canada-Wide Astronomy Buy & Sell website, www.astrobuysell.com, which will let you see an endless amount of deep-sky treasures. Setup and maintenance is minimal and you will only need a few accessories.
The first accessory is the finder. Simply put, if you cannot point your telescope in the right direction, the headaches begin and the aggravation level will increase, taking all the fun and charm out of astronomy. Most telescopes come equipped with cheap, hard-to-use finders that do not stay aligned and are far too small to see through properly.
For $80 to $100, you can purchase a red-dot finder or Telrad finder. As you look through these finders, you will see either a red dot or a targeting rectile (depending on which finder you choose) as in a rifle scope.
With a Telrad finder (my favourite), it takes two minutes to align, needs only occasional tweaking, once or twice a year, and runs on two AA batteries (which last me a year). Being that they are made of plastic, they are lightweight and can be wiped off with a cloth if they fog or ice up.
Next up are good eyepieces. Once again, if you are on a budget, go the Canada-Wide Astronomy Buy & Sell website. For $150 you can purchase a couple of good-quality eyepieces and a Barlow, secondhand. Eyepieces that usually come with most telescopes are pretty cheap and don’t offer much of a view.
I would recommend a 10-milimetre and a 25-milimetre eyepiece, with a Barlow. A Barlow slides into your focuser like an eyepiece, and then the eyepiece slides into the Barlow. So what does that do? By using a Barlow, you are doubling the power of the eyepiece. Now you have some flexibility when you are viewing, and you have essentially doubled your eyepiece collection.
With an eight-inch Dobsonian telescope and this combination of eyepieces and Barlow, you have 60, 120, 150 and 300 power. This is an excellent selection of magnification ranges for viewing all your favourite deep-sky treasures such as galaxies, nebulas, star clusters and planets.
Now that we have all our basic gear, what is the next step?
Set up with a Dobsonian telescope is super simple: put the base on the ground, place the tube in the base and let the telescope sit outside, an hour or so, to acclimatize to the outside temperature.
While your telescope is cooling down, you will have time to get the current issue of Sky Magazine, a thermos of coffee, a comfortable chair and a set of star charts. Set-up time takes only a few minutes, giving you time for your eyes to adjust to the dark night sky. Take a few moments to make sure your finder is aligned properly and to see what constellations are in the night sky. It doesn’t get any easier than this.
When your observing session is over, you cap the ends of your telescope, with a plastic bag and a bungee cord, and put the tube and base in your vehicle. Next, collect your eyepieces and charts. A total of five minutes, maximum, for breaking everything down, and then you are on the way home.
These telescopes are not pretty, but they always present amazing views. With no electronics to freeze up and no complicated set-up procedures, it gives the observer more time for observing and a lot less time messing around with complicated mounts and frozen electronics.
From this humble amateur astronomer’s point of view, the Dobsonian telescope is by far the best bang for the buck. I have had mine for 10 years and it never fails to present me with amazing views.
Take some time, dress warm, head outside and witness the great Northern spectacle known as the Yukon Night Skies.
Clear Skies, from James “Deep Sky” Cackette.
James “Deep Sky” Cackette can be reached at [email protected]. See his photo adventures on Facebook at Yukon Night Skies.