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Help Your Child with the Telescope


You can help your child get a good start with astronomy in several ways:

So, what's the point of all this effort? Well, besides the fact that a little up-front investment in time can actually save you time in the future, ask yourself if you've ever seen an astronomer gang banger.

Using the Telescope

A few quick tips for your child (and you):

Here's a few longer-winded tips:

Ignore Setting Circles

Many scopes have a type of tripod called an Equatorial mount (EQ). These can take a little extra getting used to, but once you get the hang of them they aren't significantly harder to use than ALT-AZ mounts (e.g. "Dob" mounts). The key is that you want to ignore the setting circles!

The theory is that you can find objects by their celestial coordinates (RA and DEC). Dial in the right numbers and your scope is pointing right at the object.

Nice in theory, bad in practice. First off, in order for the circles to be valid, you have to properly align and calibrate the scope. You must do this EVERY TIME YOU GO OUT! I find it easy to make mistakes when calibrating the RA circle. Finally, on an inexpensive scope, they may not be accurate enough to be usable anyway. And even when it's all done right, it's tedious, takes time away from actual viewing, and takes away half the fun of astronomy - the thrill of the hunt. Tracking down a faint object by star hopping can give a nice feeling of accomplishment and pride. Plus the sights on the way can be just as interesting as the final destination!

No matter what kind of mount you have, you will see the view slowly drift across the eyepiece (unless you have a motor). The advantage of an EQ mount is that you only have to adjust one knob to bring the object back to the center. Also, you can usually get a motor drive for the mount, which slowly moves the scope to keep the object centered. Very handy, especially if you like to sketch what you see.

You get these benefits even if you don't bother with the alignment and setting circles. Just point the "axis" roughly North and you're ready!

I've heard a lot of arguments in favor of"Dob" mounts, but I've never used one. I like my EQ mount, because of it's motor.

Finder Scope

Probably the hardest thing to get used to with your first telescope is finding the thing that you're trying to see. It's pretty easy with the moon, and only a little harder for the brightest planets, but it takes practice to be able to get a certain star in view (usually the first step in finding many interesting objects). Since all stars look the same, and you don't have the advantage of seeing a large area of the sky at the same time, how do you know that you've got the right star?

The finder scope makes the job a lot easier. It gives a wide-angle view which can help. But for a beginner, it can still be hard.

Many people (myself included) have the best luck with the "both eyes open" method. Look through the finder scope but keep the other eye open too. Find the star you're looking for with your "free" eye. Then move the telescope until the star is approximately in the middle of the circle of the finder scope. By then, it actually appear in the finder scope and you can fine tune it.

But there are two problems with this method. First, the finder scope magnifies the view, which makes it impossible for your eyes to really match up the view. Worse yet, the finder makes everything look upside-down and backwards! A beginner can have a lot of trouble "seeing" both the naked-eye view and the finderscope view at the same time and making sense out of it.

In spite of those difficulties, many people are able to practice the "both eyes open" technique and master it in a few nights. Others just can't get the hang of it. Those people should get a non-magnifying finder. I even have plans to make one using a paper towel tube and some glue. It looks cheap, but it works.

Many many people swear by a different kind of finder - a Telrad Reflex Sight ($50 US). Like my cardboard tube, it is a non-magnifying finder. Unlike my cardboard tube, it is a precision piece of equipment that will very accurately position your scope where you want it. It is available in almost any astronomy catalog, so shop around for the best price.

Learn the Sky

One goal for a beginner should be to learn the sky. This means being able to find the important constellations. My personal approach has been to concentrate on one or two constellations for an evening's observation. I use Ridpath's "Monthly Sky Guide" and choose any of the months close to the current one. For example, if it's January, I look at November, December, Jan, Feb, and Mar (the latter may require staying up a little later at night). Whichever month I choose, I check the constellations that it references and I learn them in the sky as my first task of the evening. (Most people seem to prefer "Turn Left at Orion".)

Orient yourself and the planisphere correctly and try to pick out the major stars of the constellation. Sometimes it's helpful to start from a constellation you already know and find "pointer stars". For example, look at your planisphere and follow the handle of the big dipper, away from the dipper's bowl. As you go off the end of the handle, continue along the same curve. You will find that this curved line will almost exactly meet the bottom bright star of Bootes. Judge the distance by estimating how many "handles worth" it is. Then look in the sky and trace the line.

Remember that the constellations will usually be larger than you expect. The first time I tried to find the square of Pegasus, it took me a long time until I realize that the square is HUGE. It takes up a large part of the sky. The star maps do a bad job of preparing you for the sizes of things.

Finally, one nice thing about Ridpath's "Monthly Sky Guide" is the little picture of a fist you'll see on most of the detail maps. This is intended to look the same as holding your fist straight out from your body. Use it to judge distances.

Finding Interesting Objects

Look up in the night sky and find a bright star. What does it look like? A white dot. Now point a $30,000 super-deluxe telescope at it and tell me what it looks like. A white dot.

Ho hum.

Contrary to what many might think, amateur astronomers almost never look at plain old stars through their telescopes. I'll give some information in this page, but I suggest Ridpath's "Monthly Sky Guide" for a month-by-month description of interesting objects to look at.

The things that amateur astronomers look at fall into two categories:

Solar System Objects

For a child just beginning with the telescope, by far the most fascinating thing for them to look at is the Moon. Fortunately, it's also the easiest thing to find. When the moon is full, the view is actually the least interesting. Far more interesting is when there's a partial moon. Look at the "terminator" (the border between the lighted and dark sides). You'll see craters, plains, ridges, mountains, and valleys. Look all the way up and down the terminator to see all that the moon has to offer. And look again tomorrow night - the terminator is always moving as the moon waxes and wanes. Every night gives you a different collection of surprises to examine.

After the moon, the planets are the most popular objects to view, especially Jupiter and Saturn (the two biggest planets). They're both pretty easy to find and get the scope pointed at, and they both present a certain amount of interesting detail. If you look carefully, you might be able to see cloud bands running across them. And, of course, there's Saturn's ring. That's always worth some oohs and aahs.

Besides Jupiter and Saturn, it is also possible to see Venus, Mars, and sometimes Mercury. However, they will show little or no detail. They will also appear pretty small; if you increase your power (magnification) to get a better look, the view will get fuzzier. These three planets are definitely worth a look - Venus changes phase just like the Moon, sometimes being almost full, other times being a thin crescent - but they won't get the same strong reaction as Jupiter and Saturn.

The distant planets, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, are probably beyond the reach of beginners. With inexpensive scopes, Uranus and Neptune will only look like dim stars, and Pluto is completely beyond their reach.

To actually find the planets, I have a short guide.

The other solar system objects, asteroids and the Sun, are difficult to view and are probably not good targets for a child. The Sun in particular requires special equipment to safely view. If you scope came with a small filter that screws to the back of an eyepiece, I would suggest not using it. If that filter gets even a tiny crack in it, you can go blind in a few seconds.

Deep Space Objects

I happen to be more interested in deep space objects than planets. For me, the much of the thrill is in the chase. Also, I find the science behind the deep space objects to be more interesting than planetary science. I mean, so what if there's a big storm on Jupiter. But an exploding star? That's cool.

Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, they are harder to find in a telescope. This is one area where the skill of observing needs to be developed over time. Usually you start at a nearby bright star, and then slowly step your way to the object in question, carefully tracking your progress against a star chart.

Sounds hard and tedious, right? It can be for a beginner. That's why I usually suggest starting with solar system objects. They're easier to find and give more "instant gratification". But most amateurs that stick with astronomy end up working on deep space objects too, developing their skill at finding harder and harder objects. It's like any skill-based hobby - the better at it you are, the more you enjoy it.

Probably the easiest and coolest deep-space object to find in the sky is the Orion nebula. (Orion is a winter/spring constellation.) You can see it with the naked eye as the middle star in Orion's sword. In the finder scope, you will see that it looks a bit fuzzy or smudged. In the main scope, you will see one of the most beautiful sights in the sky (especially if you are under dark skies, away from big cities). The Orion nebula is a violent and turbulent place where new stars are actually being born. There are four stars clustered very close together in the center (called the "Trapezium") - you may need to increase your power a bit to separate them. Those four stars are hugely massive and hot stars, far bigger and hotter than our Sun. They are giving off so much ionizing radiation that they are responsible for lighting up the entire nebula (don't worry, the radiation is not dangerous to look at).

After the Orion nebula, open star clusters are probably the easiest things to find. Many globular clusters are fairly easy to find. I happen to like star clusters a lot.

Nebulae (other than Orion's) are harder things to find. There are a few within the reach of an inexpensive telescope - use Ridpath's "Monthly Sky Guide" to find them - but they mostly require bigger scopes and dark skies (far from large cities).

Learning the Science

I don't necessarily mean that you should learn a lot of the science of astronomy. Rather, I think that your child should get started doing so. I don't say this just because I think everybody should be scientists. Rather, if astronomy is going to be a long-term hobby, some interest in the science behind it is going to be there.

I actually believe that knowledge of the universe increases your enjoyment of observing through the telescope. For example, if you look at the Orion nebula without knowing anything about it, you're likely to say, "How nice. A space cloud." But when you know what's going on in it, your imagination soars. "I'm seeing new stars and solar systems being formed before my very eyes!"

Another example - if you take a road trip to dark skies and look at the Crab Nebula, you might say, "gee, the photo I've seen shows cool colors and detail. This just looks like a dim smudge. I drove all that way for this?" But, when you learn that the Crab is the remains of a tremendous star explosion (supernova), and that these explosions are the only way known in the universe that most of the chemical elements are formed, and that much of the very atoms that you and I are made of come from the remains of past supernovae, and the star in the middle of the Crab (you can't see it with your telescope, but it's there) is a "neutron star pulsar" and is about as heavy as our own Sun but is only about as big around as a small town, and that it is spinning over 30 revolutions per second . . . suddenly you look at that dim smudge with new respect. (BTW, the Crab nebula is almost impossible to see from a suburban site. But it's pretty easy to find for an "experienced beginner" in a country setting with no bright lights nearby.)

One of the best places to learn it is on the Internet. One of the best places on the Internet is Astronomy Picture of the Day ("APOD"). It is so much more than just pretty pictures; APOD gives explanation with plenty of links for more in-depth info. It is the only web page that I really do check every day. For example, APOD gives good views of the Orion nebula and Crab nebula, complete with explanations of what they are.

I'm not trying to make you or your kid into a scientist (they don't make enough money). But a little understanding of the universe can help you enjoy astronomy more, and can even help you put your life's problems into some perspective. I find it somewhat comforting that all my boss' bluster is insignificant compared to the storms near the edge of a black hole.

Never being at a loss for words, I have more to say about astronomy and science.

Being Enthusiastic

When your child drags you out to look at a fuzzy patch of light, ask questions about it. What is it? How big is it in real life? How far away is it? What's it made out of? How does it interact with other nearby objects? What constellation is it in? How did you find it?

Well, don't go overboard - this is supposed to be fun, not a final exam. However, asking some questions does show an interest on your part, which validates the child's own interest. It also might trigger some investigation by the child. All of this can help your child get more deeply involved in astronomy.

Encourage your child to keep a log or journal of the observations. It can even be fun to try to draw what you see. Before the days of sensitive film, drawings are all that astronomers had to go by; you can follow in the steps of Messier and maybe even discover a comet! (OK, not very likely, but you never know...)

Remember, a little praise can go a loooooong way!

Finally, if there's an astronomy club in your area (ask a near-by school's science teacher), then you should get in contact with them. They hold "star parties" where you can see first-hand what astronomy is all about. These are "kid-friendly" events that let you see a variety of sights through a range of telescopes.

In Conclusion...

I know I've probably made all this sound like a lot of work. Don't worry, the idea is to help get your child started doing it, not for you to do all this learning and research. Once your child gets to see astronomy at it's best, the rest will depend on that child's personality and interests.

My biggest goal in writing this guide is so that a child might avoid repeating my first experience with astronomy. But even if your child's interest wanes and the telescope ends up in the basement, at least your child (and maybe even you) have learned something.

  • Go back to "Parent's Guide to Children's Telescopes".

    Sfordsez: if you haven't seen my standard disclaimer and copyright at http://www.geeky-boy.com/standard.html then check it out now.