At the end of this column, I’m offering a cool, brand-new equatorial reflector telescope – for free. It’s a donation by Ed and A. J. of Shady, who’d like some worthy person to get it. Hang on and I’ll tell you know how.
First, you must know that virtually everyone who buys a telescope uses it once or twice and then never again. That’s because folks imagine that you can point it almost anywhere in the sky and see something amazing. Here’s the sobering reality: Fewer than a dozen objects look dramatic through a modest backyard telescope. All the rest are gray smudges or mere points of light. Telescopically, you’ll almost exclusively see shades of gray. And nothing except the Moon resembles the detailed photos found in astronomy magazines.
Objects drift out of the field of view in a mere minute or two, thanks to Earth’s rotation. Then you must reacquire them. If (a big if) you’ve set up the tripod correctly, this type of telescope allows the image to be reacquired by turning a single knob.
Finding stuff requires that your guide scope be accurately adjusted to match the view in the larger scope. You’ll also have to collimate the optics periodically: once a year or so. Even then, you’ve somehow got to be able to find Saturn from among the countless lookalike “stars” in the heavens. Can you do this? Will you take the time to learn?
Telescopes cannot be pointed through windows, open or closed. They cannot be set up on a deck, since the wood will vibrate. They must be hauled out and then set up on a lawn or driveway. If it’s a heavy, ungainly instrument – as all the good ones are – then you may have to assemble and disassemble a couple of sections each time you use it, or else struggle with a 40-pound weight, being careful not to knock it against walls and doors on your way out and in.
If it has been a wet summer, then space will not seem silent. The Ring Nebula’s soundtrack will be the drone of mosquitoes. For winter’s Orion Nebula, expect a different tactile accoutrement: icy Arctic winds.
Your typical purchaser doesn’t know these things. They see “go-to” come-on ads that suggest ease of use, and they spring for hundreds if not a few thousand bucks, try it out, get very frustrated, and that’s the end of that. I’ve seen this over and over.
So why get a telescope? Only one reason: If someone is developing a serious and continuing interest in the heavens, then all this fuss is worth it. Then alone, a smudge is a fascinating experience because you know that the gray blur is a galaxy of billions of distant suns. A serious backyard astronomer will spend hours staring at a single object like Saturn’s rings in minus-ten-degree weather. That was me at age 15, and even 30 and 40.
And there’s another reason, too: There’s a “feeling” or “vibe” to things. A videotaped birth is a disquieting mess that resembles Aliens. Yet when I attended the birth of my daughter, it was sheer magic. You could almost feel angels in the room. So, “You hadda be there” has validity. The real Grand Canyon and total solar eclipses bear little resemblance to the photos.
Same with Saturn. As an observatory director for decades, I’ve watched thousands of people gaze at the ringed world. Most exclaim one of two things: “It’s not real!” or “Oh my God!” They are not reacting to the image alone. Indeed, if you show them a far-better Cassini spacecraft photo of the ringed world, you’ll never get that kind of visceral response. Somehow, the visually inferior eyepiece view produces the superior experience. There’s something about Saturn’s essence. It knocks you backward in person, but it’s absent in photos.
Same with the Moon. Those craters and mountains are just too much, especially with a good wide-field eyepiece. Moreover, the direct view can visibly change. It’s alive. Shadows creep along crater floors at ten miles per hour. Jupiter’s moon Io visibly shifts position in just 15 minutes.
If you know such a truly serious adult, or a student of the fifth grade or beyond who deserves a good telescope, let them read this page. I’d prefer to be a socialist and not offer this to a truly wealthy family who could easily buy one, but I don’t know how to screen in that manner, so instead it’s open to all.
This is a new $250 equatorial telescope in its unopened original box, complete with aluminum tripod and one-and-a-quarter-inch eyepieces (the best kind). I was very happy using this same telescope in my 20s. Simply write and show that you fully understand the “negatives” of telescope use that I’ve outlined above, and then explain why you want a telescope anyway. Why do you want to stare into the universe?
Send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org along with your home phone number. All acceptable entries will go into a lottery and one will be chosen randomly, witnessed by two schoolteachers. The winner will be announced here on November 3.
Editor’s note: The brand-new equatorial telescope was won by James Mongan of Woodstock. Congratulations! Thanks for all your entries.