Sunday, January 17, 2010

Astronomy on a Budget

In this climate of economic chaos, budgets for astronomical gear have taken a hit. I get that I have 5 kids and if it came down to feeding the kids or getting one of those new Ethos eyepieces then I would have to choose... OK let's choose something else, like a new diagonal. I would have to choose feeding my kids in that case! So with that in mind, let's look at some options that have a future for expansion later when we have some extra cash laying around.

Telescopes and binoculars both serve the astronomical community well. I have friends that swear by binoculars. I have friends that swear by the telescope. For those of you who are budget minded and new to astronomy then choose a good set of binocs. One very good reason is if you find that astronomy just is not your bag (perish the thought) and you stop looking up at night then you still have a good set of binocs to take to the game or the lake or any where else you care to go. The same can not be said for a telescope. It will set in your study for awhile until the spouse gets tired of looking at it. The scope then will migrate to the garage or closet or even worse the basement never to see the light of day except when it is thrown out.

Binoculars can see a bunch of stuff. The Astronomical league has a Binocular Messier Award so obviously you can see some pretty good looking items out there. With binoculars in hand, will you be able to split Antares into a double star? Uh No... but you will get to see some clusters that clamor for a wide field of view to appreciate them. You can pick up a very serviceable pair of binoculars for 75 to 200 dollars. Something with say 8X50 or better 10X50 is all the better. 7X35 in my opinion will not deliver some of the eye candy you are wanting to look at. I have a pair of 7X35 that I just can't see the Galilean moons of Jupiter. On the other hand I have a pair of 10X50 binoculars that serve up those four moons with good detail. Do some research on them. Those 7X35 I have, never get outside unless I need extra pairs for folks to look through.

What if you are still underfunded and still have that champagne taste? A telescope is what you want and a pair of binocs will just not cut it no way no how. Then by all means let's look at a usable telescope for not a boat load of money. The first telescope that comes to mind is an Meade ETX90 goto scope. The optics on these scopes are fantastic considering the cost. The mechanics and electronics are a bit suspect. Remember you are going to have to live with some headaches considering the minuscule cash outlay. I chose the ETX for a good reason. when you get more toys later on like a 8" or bigger Schmidt Cassegrain telescope you can demount the ETX and use it for a guide scope or keep it intact and use it for a grab and go scope. You have a few options here and when we are talking frugality, options are good! For roughly the same price of an ETX 90 you can get a 6" Newtonian telescope on a Dobsonian mount. ^' dobs come in all kinds of flavors the Orion Starblast 6" is a tabletop size affair or a regular size newt can go about 4-5 feet long. The bigger the more problematic they are for travel but the trade off is they are more forgiving in mirror alignment (collimation) than a faster scope /shorter tube. You will have to learn the sky but that is not such a big deal and it is very rewarding as well. Dobs are not go to scopes at the entry level. As options go for me I get the starblast because it can act as a grab and go later on when you graduate to the 14" Celestron. Lugging that behemoth around will make you appreciate a grab and go scope for sure! The Celestron nexstar SLT family of scopes are amazing as well and they are not very problematic either. You can defork the scope for other duties and use the mount to carry a solar scope. Now that is some great options. I could go on with some cheap but good options like the Astro Tech AT66. This is a great little refactor that everyone should own.

Accessories are very addictive. You can spend over a grand and not get started so I am going to give you a few choices that are indispensable and cheap.

First and foremost get a map and atlas I am a huge fan of the Orion deep 600 map and as for books, you cannot go wrong with the Pocket Sky Atlas by Sky Publishing. these will always be used no matter what scope you drag out. They will be indispensable when it comes to a Dobsonian mounted scope. A goto needs to know what to go to! These will help and they will be the best money spent.

Next up is a decent eyepiece. Any scope you buy will come with an eyepiece. Some of those barely qualify as an eyepiece. This is where the money can be spent like a drunken sailor on shore leave. I am going to suggest a zoom eyepiece by Baader. Their 8-24 mm zoom will give you the most bang for the buck. Later you can get that Ethos but right now we are trying to save money but... have something adequate to look through at the same time. This is always a fine line to walk but with Baader you can almost never go can zoom in on planets or take in a galaxy all it takes is a couple of clicks and you are set.

The next item not everyone will agree with but for a fast setup with a Schmidt or any Goto really to star hopping with a Dob there is no better finder than a Telrad finder. It will be the best 40 dollars you will spend no matter what scope you are toting out there.There are even star charts out there with a Telrad target on the chart so you know what you are looking for as you hop across the sky with your Dob. I have one on my Schmidt-Cass and my set up for goto takes about 6 minutes. That is hard to beat!

The last item I think you need to have is an observers chair. You will see better with one. You will see more detail in your scope. They are adjustable they go about 100-160 dollars (US) or you can make your own even cheaper! It will take the back strain out of bending over trying to remain motionless while you sketch that 10th magnitude galaxy.

One last thing you will need is a dew shield if you choose a Schmidt- Cassegrain scope. A shield will allow one to stay out a bit longer keeping the dew at bay for awhile which is a good thing. You can make one of these also. Anytime you get stay out and look through your instrument a little longer is a very good thing indeed!

So there you have it You can have a very serviceable setup and not pay a king's ransom. Do some research and find what suits your needs. Only you know what you will tolerate until you can get the big toys in the shopping cart!
Until then...

Clear skies and great seeing too!


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