Having spoken at least briefly to about 3,000 homeschool families who have a telescope or want a telescope, the big problem does not seem to be affording one but making it work right and finding the motivation to use it.
If you have a telescope and are not using it, put it fully ready to use in a convenient place like the porch. I am much more likely to move the scope out front for a quick look at something if it is right there and ready to go than I am if it’s in the basement or attic.
If you have a telescope and can’t get it to work right Google “Star Party” and your city name and take the scope to the gathering. You will be deluged with 100 geeks like me who can’t wait to fix the issue and be your hero.
Actually finding objects in the sky is another challenge. The easiest way is to download a program like Stellarium for your computer. It could not be easier to use and find what is available in the sky that night. Couple that with an App like Google Sky on your smartphone which will tell you what you are looking at in the sky when you hold your phone up to an object, and you can’t go wrong.
It is also a good idea to subscribe to a monthly e-newsletter that gives you a heads up on special events and what to look for in the sky that month. My company, Homeschool Astronomy has a free monthly newsletter, as does Classical Astronomy.
Which Telescope is Right for Your Family?
There are two basic kinds of telescopes: Refractors and Reflectors. The names simply refer to how the scope handles the light it receives from the object you are looking at.
Refractor telescopes use glass lenses to bend and gather light to focus on an image.
- Unlikely to need alignment or cleaning
- Provides a steady and crisp image
- Easy to use and maintain
- Provides a smaller viewing area than a reflector telescope (a bit harder to look through for younger children)
- Objects may appear slightly off-color
Reflector telescopes use mirrors to gather light to focus an image.
- Somewhat cheaper than refracting telescopes of the same size
- Larger viewing area (easier to look through for young children)
- No color aberrations
- Easy to knock the alignment off
- Need to clean the lens regularly
What you Need to Know BEFORE buying Telescopes or Binoculars
- Refractor telescopes are easier to use and maintain than reflector telescopes. However, reflector telescopes are easier to look through for younger children.
- Even low-end telescopes ($125-$350) will show phases of Venus, craters on the moon, four moons of Jupiter as well as the rings of Saturn.
- Don’t buy a telescope for less than $100. It’s probably more like a toy and will be disappointing to use.
- Don’t buy any extras for your telescope at first. It will come with everything you need to get started and you can build from there based on your interest.
- Without an erector lens, which comes with most telescopes, things you look at on the ground will appear upside down. This does not matter when viewing astronomical objects since there is no direction in space.
- Your telescope will come with several eyepiece lenses. An eyepiece lens has to be attached to the telescope in order to see through it. Start with the lenses with the higher “mm” on it. For example, use the 25 mm eyepiece before the 4 mm eyepiece.
- The magnification at which you see the object is a ratio of how long the telescope’s tube is (focal length) and the focal length of the eyepiece. As stated above, use the higher numbered eyepiece first as it is easier to see through, though less magnified than the lower numbered eyepiece.
- Many telescopes will come with colored filters which can be placed over your eyepiece. Certain object features can be seen more clearly if a color is filtered out. For example, a light-green filter will bring out the craters on the moon and a light-blue filter will bring out cloud details on Jupiter.
- Binoculars are good for looking at objects that span a larger part of the sky than a planet and don’t require the steadiness of a tripod stand.
- For example, binoculars are good for viewing the International Space Station as it moves across the sky and open star clusters like the Pleiades. Binoculars are not good for things that require a steady hand of more magnification like the moons of Jupiter or the rings of Saturn.
See you out there! Go to www.HomeSchoolAstronomy.com and sign up for a free astronomy monthly newsletter as well as a chance to win a telescope.
Tony Ceraso has a master’s degree in Education and teaches at the college level. He is an amateur astronomer and computer professional. He is also a contributing writer for Rosetta Stone’s e-newsletter for homeschoolers.