Got a Hack?


Got a Hack?

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    1. Getting Started

      Section 1.1.  Hacks 110

      Hack 1.  Don't Give Up

      Hack 2.  Join an Astronomy Club

      Hack 3.  Safety First

      Hack 4.  Stay Warm

      Hack 5.  Don't Violate Observing Site Etiquette

      Hack 6.  Be Prepared

      Hack 7.  Measure Your Entrance Pupil Size

      Hack 8.  Choose the Best Binocular

      Hack 9.  Choose the Best General-Purpose Telescope

      Hack 10.  Equip Yourself for Urban Observing


    1.1. Hacks 110

    Getting started in amateur astronomy seems simple enough. Buy a telescope, take it out at night, point it at the sky, and you're good to go. Or are you?

    Many thousands of people follow just this route every Christmas, and nearly all of them are disappointed. They overpay for an inferior scope at the mall or a big-box store. Once they get it assembled, they discover they can't figure out how to use it properly. They soon find that being outdoors with a telescope in wintertime gets cold fast, and decide they'd really rather watch television instead.

    Even those who persist lose interest quickly. After they look at the Moon a time or two, and maybe Jupiter and Saturn, they decide there's really not much else to see. Perhaps they've bought a computerized go-to scope that claims to find objects for them automatically. If that's true, why are the objects invisible, even though the computer swears they're in the eyepiece? Where are all those brightly colored objects pictured on the telescope box? The new scope ends up gathering dust in the closet or for sale on eBay. It can all be very discouraging.

    But it doesn't have to be that way. Astronomy can be a wonderful, life-long hobby, one that the entire family can enjoy together. Thousands of devoted amateur astronomers are outdoors on every clear night, observing the wonders of the night sky. You can join them, but you need to get started right. In this chapter, we'll tell you what you need to know to avoid the most common beginner mistakes.


      Hack 1. Don't Give Up

      It's harder than it looks, but doable.

      The night sky initially looks invitinga big, black picnic blanket spangled with shine. Stellar objects are brilliant, easy to see, and seem to organize themselves into recognizable patterns. Vast, yes, but easily interpretable, welcoming.

      Appreciating the beauty of a starry sky is easy. It's the next step that's hard. The night sky is the very worst kind of bullythe kind who punches you in the stomach, steals your lunch money, and then laughs at you when you cry.

      When you first start looking at the stars through a telescope, the blanket shrinks to a napkin. The obvious becomes elusive and the elusive becomes invisible. Of course, the finding of things is part of learning to observe, but that knowledge is small comfort when you are unable to find the Andromeda Galaxy night after night after night.

      What to say, really? Using a telescope can be frustrating. First, don't give up. Or rather, give up, but only for a while. Learning to squeeze an expanse of night sky into the eyepiece of a telescope and then to comb it degree by degree takes not only patience, but practice. Temporarily flinging up your hands and packing up the scope for the night is not only acceptable, it's necessary. When you're tired and angry, the fluid motion required to scan the sky become jerky and unpredictable; you're unlikely to find anything and you risk damaging your equipment.

      Don't let the bully keep stealing your lunch money, though. Get your confidence back. The best tactic is a battle plan. Select a piece of sky, pull out a simple star map, and find your way around. Stars in the sky will look different from stars on paper, but once you've identified a few landmarks, go back to the scope. Wend your way through the familiar, retracing your steps until each star is a recognizable signpost.

      The process is slowarduous, even. But, eventually, as the stars stop looking like little blobs of light and start looking like a set of directions, the size of the viewing field matters less and less.

      Now, go get that lunch money back.

      Dr. Mary C. Chervenak