Saturday, December 14, 2019

In Support of the Entry-Level Telescope

Hobbies are expensive. So are children. Here in Austin, Texas, the median wage for an automotive mechanic is $40,635 per year (Glassdoor) up to $25.02 per hour (Indeed). A carpenter makes between $19.26 and $19.96 per hour (Indeed). The feeling among many practiced amateurs is that a $129 telescope is a “hobby killer.” I believe that any telescope is better than none. Some caveats apply.

As finely manufactured and affordably priced as optics can be, there is a lowest rung below which toys are not worth the money. (See the previous post.) If you can afford $39 for your child right now, then you can afford $129 one year from now. All of the major manufacturers offer instruments in that price range. 
Entry Level Telescopes from Orion
Like scouting and sports, astronomy has to involve the family. Adult supervision, coaching, and patience must support a lot of practice. We accept it as intuitively obvious that basketballs, footballs, and baseballs are thrown differently. Telescopes are less user friendly. Once it is set, you should not need to hold it. You do not press your eye into it. Like shooting hoops, it takes some practice. 

Entry Level Telescopes from Meade
(Note: Meade has filed for bankruptcy protection
after losing an anti-trust lawsuit from Orion.)
It is also true that the telescope is a complex instrument. It is (1) an optical instrument, (2) in a mount, (3) on a tripod. Inexpensive telescopes usually have plastic mounts and gears. The motion is not smooth. It takes some finesse developed over time with practice to site and fix your targets. A small telescope will be pushed by a strong breeze. Some people recommend hanging a gallon of water from the tripod to provide inertia, but that is eight pounds of acting weight on a lightweight frame. I do not suggest it. 
Entry Level Telescopes from Celestron
Long after he discovered Pluto in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh used his own telescope to watch the Moon for hours, witnessing rare events on the surface, such as out-gassings and meteor strikes. It remains true that a 70-year old will sit for many hours longer than a 7-year old. Even so, you see 60 times more in five minutes than you do in five seconds. So, someone else has to stand around for five minutes. Investing those minutes comparing the sky to the pictures will go a long way to bringing a return on the investment in what is essentially a household capital good. 
National Geographic brand entry level telescopes.
Note that National Geographic is not the manufacturer.
The relevant questions are not so much about the optics – though there is that – as about who will use it, why, and for how long. Parents have no guarantees that their children will excel at science, mathematics, sports, music, fine arts, languages, machinery, cooking, or any other human endeavor. It might be nice if parents had the same passion for astronomy that makes them ruin little league sports by arguing with the field judge and taking a swing at the coach. 

Two summers ago, I bought a 70 mm (2-3/4 inch) National Geographic refractor that some neighbor kids wrecked for lack of supervision. I bought fittings at Home Depot and cleaned up the gears with alcohol and baby oil. It took some getting used to. But on January 6, 2018, I got up at 4:30 AM to view the Jupiter Mars Conjunction with it. Last night, I finally found the Andromeda Galaxy. That was tough. Even though I live in the city, a mile from a major shopping center, I could spot the Andromeda Galaxy naked eye and with binoculars. I have seen it with my 5-inch reflector. Looking through the National G 70 mm was like looking through a soda straw. I trued up the finder scope a couple of times, finally homing in on Sirius. Then I could sight M 31, the Andromeda Galaxy. It took about an hour. 

Viewing the Orion Nebula was much easier. It is a big, easy target. I started with the low power, wide view 32 mm eyepiece. With a 13 mm ocular that gives 53.8x, I could home in on the Trapezium group within the nebula. 

I began the night by sighting on the Pleiades. It was easy. However, the small aperture of the 3-inch objective cannot show the entire group, even at 21.8x, the lowest power from the 32 mm eye piece. But they were all there, the seven naked-eye stars and the rich field revealed by even a small telescope. The night was getting damp, so I took a look at the Moon with the 20 mm (32.5 x) “correcting” lens, and then packed up and came in.


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