Tumbleweed Observatory's

Astronomy Hints




Astronomy for the Beginner or User of Small Telescopes

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Do you feel that your telescope is just too small?

Here's a friendly place for you to hang out if you get the feeling that your small telescope just isn't big enough to be useful. Or you may feel that you can't afford a telescope big enough to really enjoy the hobby. If that's how you feel, enjoy this site for some practical information on the use of small telescopes. Also consider the very popular NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe as a way to gently but significantly punch up your astronomical knowledge.

As proof that small telescopes can provide wondrous entertainment, this site has pages of observations and photographs of the moon and planets taken through instruments as small as 2 inch (50mm) aperture, and no bigger than 6 inch (150mm). Take some time to view the picture pages, and see if these images through modest sized telescopes don't convince you.

Though I've been an amateur astronomer for some 45 years (and a professional astronomer for some of that time), I primarily use small and modest sized telescopes. I started with my copy of Norton's Star Atlas and Reference Handbook and a little 7x50 Moon Watch telescope. From there I moved up bit at a time. I've been through aperture fever, having owned up to a 10 inch behemoth Newtonian on an Equatorial mount, but currently my biggest telescopes are 6 inch Newtonians.

While my 6 inch Newtonians are my big guns, I often use a Meade ETX-90 because of its charm and convenience, and still own and use a small 2 inch Jaegers refractor and two classic 60mm Japanese make refractors for their crisp views, low maintenance, and quick cool down times.

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And yes, I even use binoculars for stargazing, comet viewing, and special celestial events. My favorite pair is my 15x70 Barska Binoculars which is mounted on a handy mirror mount. It may surprise you that many experienced amateur astronomers make considerable use of small telescopes, as small as the venerable 60mm refractor or binoculars. My Barska binoculars weren't that expensive for what they deliver, and I notice that the Celestron SkyMaster Giant 15x70 Binoculars with Tripod Adapter are very much like my Barska binoculars, and also at a very affordable price.

Above you see results of the Amateur Astronomer Survey which shows that fully half of the astronomers who took the survey not only use binoculars in their hobby, but often use binoculars. Consider clicking on the survey link and adding your input to the database.

Linux Survey

Still haven't purchased that first telescope?

In case you're considering a telescope purchase, I've created tutorials that layout the basic characteristics of four major types of telescopes used by amateur astronomers, as well as some information on binoculars. There are certainly more telescope types out there, but the ones I give details about are by far the most common. The telescope types discussed in the tutorials are the refractor, the Newtonian equatorial, the Dobsonian, and the Cassegrain (2 types). If you want more detailed information about the astronomy hobby, check out The Backyard Astronomer's Guide. It will give more detailed guidelines about what telescope may be right for you.

If you haven't purchased a telescope yet, check out the following tutorials before you shop: Telescope Overview, or the specific tutorials on Refractors, Newtonians, Dobsonians, Cassegrains, and Telescope Mounts .

Hopefully, these telescope tutorials will help you get a feel for what type of instrument you need for what you enjoy viewing, and reveal approximately what it might cost to satisfy your interests. Most of the information presented is obtained from my personal experience. Once you select a telescope, or even if you already have one, consider getting a good book on how and what to observe, like the very popular Turn Left at Orion. A source like that will really help get you off on the right foot.

If you have logged a bit of time as an amateur astronomer, I invite you to take the Amateur Astronomer Survey, and see what most amateur astronomers are up to.

Some Telescope Shopping Suggestions

I suggest you begin modestly, as the Stargazing 101 t-shirt design suggest. Wait until dark, then look up. For starters (and for optics you'll use for years) consider a quality pair of binoculars. I often use a pair of 15x70 binoculars, and can see most Messier objects with them, though you may want to start with a 7x50 pair. Binoculars that magnify over 10 times cannot really be hand held, and must be on some kind of stable mount.

With binoculars I can see all the Messier open clusters, several nebula, and a number of galaxies. In addition, my best comet views have been obtained with binoculars, and I've had very enjoyable views of special celestial events, such as the crescent moon passing near the Pleiades, or lunar eclipses.

Only the planetary nebula and small globular clusters are poor targets for my binoculars. The objects are not too dim, just too small to be distinguished from stars.

If you want to check prices and what's available, use this customized search engine:

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If you're a do-it-yourself type of person, you may want to consider making your own telescope. This can be a total project where you even grind your own mirror, or a less strenuous project where you purchase the optics already made. If you want to build your own telescope, check out the Dobsonian plans at Dobsonian Plans.

I often use even a small, 50mm telescope refractor. At f/15, my 50mm Jaegers provides surprisingly good images of the moon, planets, and countless star objects. Its main limitation is its limited ability to resolve the dimmer galaxies, though some practiced observers can even detect many of those with a small instrument. So don't feel that you must buy the biggest telescope in the store. You can have years of entertainment with much smaller and less expensive equipment.

Where can you get more information?

There are many places to get more information on the subject of telescopes and observing. Web searches, for one. It won't be easy, in that on the web you'll see many different opinions. Each of us inevitably cloud our advice with our own preferences. The fact that the advice offered by different writers varies doesn't make any of them wrong, it's just that each person has different hobby needs that he or she wishes to fulfill.

A good site for the beginner astronomer is Beginner's Guide To Astronomy. There you'll find information tidbits on telescopes, observing, and available observing targets for different times of the year.

Over the years I've accumulated a nice collection of astronomy and telescope books in search of information, and I really enjoy reading them. I'll be surprised if you don't eventually accumulate your own collection. You might begin your search at ABEbooks. Their site connects you to hundreds of new and used bookstores, and I'm sure you can find some bargains there.

Speaking of books, some freely available public domain books are available for instant download at the Gutenberg Astronomy Shelf. While some of this information is dated, the ones on astronomy history are still a good read, as well as are the observing guides.

If you want to know what's happening in the astronomy world, a web source of up to date astronomical news that will keep you up to date can be found at:

Universe Today - Space news from around the Internet, updated every weekday.

What's It All About?

What many people like about astronomy as a hobby is that each night can be an adventure. There's always the old friends up there, constellations and stars that return each season. But there's always change as well. The planets get closer, then further away. Jupiter has its moons move across its surface for entertaining (and scientifically valuable) displays, not to mention storms so vast that even amateur sized telescopes can see them.

Saturn flaunts its rings in varying configurations over the years, and each Mars opposition has surprises. You'll definitely regret missing an encounter with a comet, since many will never return within your lifetime. I invite you to periodically check out my Tonight's Sky page to see what's upcoming each evening.