I’ve been moderately interested in astronomy for quite some time but never really ventured into it. I’ve always loved gadgets and like tinkering and playing around with stuff. I usually have a high appetite for new products, phones, cameras, sensors, anything smart, you name it. I have tons of these lying around at home, some dead, some useful, some in between. I’m also a huge space enthusiast. I follow every launch done by SpaceX and most of Nasa’s events.
Recently, my wife wanted to gift me a gadget for an occasion (Thanks, V 🙂) and out of the blue, I thought a telescope makes a lot of sense! At the time, I hadn’t given it much thought and I figured it would be cool to see the craters on the moon and perhaps get to see the rings of Saturn.
This led me on an endless youtube spiral and my, my, was it an epiphany! I discovered what I am truly passionate about. I have always had an inherent appreciation for space and almost at a philosophical level, it is a great reminder of how insignificant we all are and how transient our lives are. Our timeline is a mere speck in the vastness of the multiverse. Venturing into this hobby was a great way to explore the cosmos first hand and learn new things everyday. The learning curve seemed steep and that was the best part!
Researching telescopes was fun but also daunting. It’s like buying your first car. You will enjoy it no matter what, but you do want to make an informed decision.
As I started working through what factors to look for, I just arbitrarily started with a budget of $500. I agree that is a tad higher for a hobby you are about to set foot into, but I figured that if I had to pay $100 for my nephew’s kids telescope that showed decent results, $500 could fetch me some good gratification.
Budget aside, I then started looking at what people actually like about telescopes and the different options there are, which is where I truly discovered my real love, which is astrophotography! The pure combination of art and science put me at the absolute zero on the learning curve. I was never artistic and other then my biology sketches in school, I couldn’t draw to save my life. Combine that with my very very limited knowledge of astronomy presented me with a great opportunity to learn.
I ran into some really really accomplished astrophotographers like Trevor Jones from Astrobackyard.com, Dylan O’Donnell and even some ridiculously talented rising stars like Astrofalls. The depth of knowledge these people had was astounding and it gave me a good goal to chase.
So I set out to buy an astrophotography compatible telescope, easy right? not really.
Typically when we think of a telescope, we just think of a long tube that you look through. Those are refractors and the good ones are REALLY expensive! Other than refractors there are reflectors and catadioptric optical telescope assemblies (OTAs) as they are called.
Another important aspect is the base of your telescope. You wouldn’t expect to hold the OTA in your hand while you view things in the sky, so the mount is essential. There are several kinds of mounts – manual, computerized, equatorial, alt-az and so on.
I researched all of this for 2 weeks and by the end of it, just wanted to get started at some point. So I went ahead and bought the Orion Starblast II 4.5mm Newtonian reflector. This one came with a “manual” equatorial mount.
One ready challenge I faced with a manual mount was that I had to find the object myself. While finding the moon was simple enough, finding other objects were relatively challenging. I found the app Skyview to be particularly helpful where I could spatially orient my phone and the AR built into the app would not only help me figure out where an object was but would also tell me if an object was behind a tree or building or better yet, tell me where an object would be at what time of the day, with a clear trajectory, right through my phone. That said, I would choose to leave the “finding” to a computerized telescope mount and still use an app like Skyview to figure out whats a good time to view a given object
Staying at an object
Now finding an object was reasonable and it was quite rewarding to look at the moon and its craters with a 20mm lens and a Barlow lens, but one instant challenge I noticed was that the object flies out of your frame very very quickly!
Why? Due to the earth’s rotation. You are looking at a specific point in space, but the earth’s rotation moves that object out of your viewing area very quickly. To compensate for this, my telescope mount had manual levers which I could move slowly to turn against the rotation of the earth. This way, my object of interest would stay in the frame for a longer duration. While this was workable, it was incredibly frustrating to learn and understand.
This was a very quick ceiling I hit and it was very apparent that I surely need a tracking german equatorial mount. I didn’t want to throw money at the problem as I wanted to earn my upgrades so I ended up getting my current scope, the Nexstar 5SE which came with an Alt-Az mount.
If you want to know more about the type of mounts there are and the differences here is an amazing video by Forest Tanaka on it.
I got this on an Amazon warehouse deal for $450 which was quite a great deal considering a new one costs $699
To sum up what to look for, here are a few things to consider.
Cost – Of course, your starting point. The more you shell out, the more you can get but if you are an absolute beginner, I’d say a $500 budget gets you a good starting point. You can get lots of deals on sites like highpointscientific.com, cloudynights.com and so on.
Type of optical tube – This one is tricky and a lot of it has to do with personal preferences. Personally, Id love to get a triplet APO refractor, but it costs $$$ which is why I want to wait it out. My simple rule was to combine cost, portability, aperture and speed (focal length) and given all factors, I landed on the SCT since it was a good combination of portability, aperture, and the cost wasn’t bad.
- Focal Length and Focal Ratio – your focal length determines your field of view and how long you need for the light to reach your viewpoint. Having a smaller focal ratio means you can capture more detail in the same amount of time compared to a high focal length OTA. For starters, I would suggest doing something f/10 or less. Of course, the faster, the more expensive it gets.
- Aperture – The more light you let into your telescope, the more you get to see! A good sweet spot is about 100mm where it captures enough but doesn’t get too heavy or bulky. Again, 100mm refractor > 100mm SCT > 100mm reflector, cost wise.
- The Mount – This is probably the most critical aspect, where having a capable mount can make your experience really rewarding. I would highly recommend going for a computerized go-to mount. This takes all the guesswork and frustration out and it’s so much easier when you simply do an initial alignment and the telescope does the finding and tracking for you. It’s initially fun to search for a target and find them in the vastness of a clear sky but as you do more and more stargazing, you just want to remove this out of the equation and a tracking mount completely takes all of that load away so you can simply observe and shoot!
- Camera – I just used my Nikon D3200 DSLR which I had purchased many years ago and it served me just fine but then again, I pushed it to its limit pretty quickly and I realized that for planetary imaging, a CMOS camera was best, so I ended up getting a ZWO ASI 120MC-S which has served me well
Given all of this, my experience with the Nexstar 5SE has been quite rewarding and it’s great for planetary astrophotography. I did, however, learn that you exhaust your planetary views very quickly given the time of year, weather and several such factors and if you’re like me and more interested in deep sky objects, you do want to make further upgrades.
Here are some pictures I took with my current scope.
All said and done, I’ve realized this is a time consuming and expensive hobby but boy am I glad I chanced upon this. I’ve traded sleep and other social activities for this and every time the weather is clear, I’m sitting in my backyard marveling at what’s out there and constantly being reminded of how incredibly amazing the universe is. Too bad I didn’t start this much much earlier, but now there is no looking back. In fact, I’m always looking up.
Clear Skies 🙂