University Lowbrow Astronomers


by Doug Scobel
Printed in Reflections:  June, 1995.

With all the talk these days about how expensive it is to pursue amateur astronomy, it’s hard to imagine how anyone can afford it.  Especially when you’re faced with a dazzling array of huge apertures, CCD cameras, PEC drive controls, computer guided automatic object location, and ultra-super wide angle coma correcting eyepieces. Given all of these options, it would be easy to come to that conclusion.  But is it really that expensive?  I would argue (and will here) that it has never been cheaper!

Start Out Modestly

Do you really need to start out with a 20 inch light bucket on a Poncet mount with 80 plus degree apparent field eyepieces, or an 11 inch, CCD equipped, Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope that can find one of a million objects at the push of a button?  If you’ve got the money to do it, then by all means go for it. But what if you’re starting out on a limited budget?

How about starting with something smaller, on a simple Dobsonian or equatorial mount?  The old “standard” six inch f/8 reflector (I’m showing my age here) will show you stars down to about 13th magnitude, good views of all the Messier objects, scores more NGC objects, all the planets (except maybe Pluto), the Moon, the Sun (with protection, of course), and double stars down to under an arc second.  What more could you ask for?  It will literally take you years to see all there is to see with a scope this size.  I enjoyed mine for fifteen years (many of which being spent observing through the murky, light polluted skies of Detroit) before I built my thirteen inch.  In fact, I still use it when I want to look at the Moon or planets, or if I’m not feeling energetic enough to drag out the big one.

There are inexpensive small Dobs in six and eight inch sizes by a few manufacturers now, and some equatorially mounted ones as well.  If you’re so inclined, you can save even more by building your own.  Simply buy or make the components and assemble them yourself.  And, if you have the time and patience, you can even make your own optics.  Back in the “old” days, when I was just getting started, almost everyone made their own telescopes and mirrors because the commercially available ones were relatively expensive, and there wasn’t much of a variety from which to choose.

I would *NOT* recommend the small refractors you see in department stores. There are better quality small refractors you can buy, but even those may soon have you looking for more aperture. For the same price you can have a reflector with more light gathering power, which is most important if your interested in doing any deep sky observing.  However, if all you want to observe is the Moon, planets, and/or double and variable stars, then a small, good quality refractor might indeed fit the bill.

Don’t rule out binoculars.  If you already own a pair then they’ll cost you nothing!  They can be excellent for helping you learn your way around the sky.  A few open clusters actually look better in binoculars than they do in most telescopes, because the binocular’s wide field of view lets you see the whole thing at once. 

The idea here is to start out modestly.  Remember that a smaller telescope that you use often will show you much, much more than something larger that sits inside all the time because it it too big and cumbersome to set up.


Next to the telescope, the most important item for observing is a good set of eyepieces.  But don’t go out and spend two or three hundred dollars (apiece!) on the latest eight element ultra-wide angle designs.  Besides their high price (even used), they won’t work with some telescopes, because they usually require a large, two inch focuser or a lot of “in” travel to bring them to a focus.  Coupled with the right telescope they work exceptionally.  However, less complex designs work quite well for a fraction of the cost.  Plossl, Orthoscopic, or even simpler designs (e.g., Edmund RKEs, which are modified Kellners) are your best choices, especially if your scope is around f/6 or slower.  Every month The Starry Messenger (see below) has LOTS of used eyepieces for sale.

Another way to save money is to be selective about the focal lengths you buy. You don’t need a collection of six or seven eyepieces, each separated by five millimeters in focal length.  All you really need is three, one each for low, medium, and high power.  Select focal lengths so that the medium power eyepiece provides about double the magnification of the lowest power one, and the highest power eyepiece doubles the magnification again.  For example, if you have a scope with a focal ratio somewhere around f/6 to f/10, then focal lengths of around 32-40, 16-20, and 8-10 millimeters would be ideal.  For scopes around f/4 or f/5, then focal lengths around 24-32, 12-16, and 6-8 would be good.  Regardless of the scope you have, it doesn’t make sense to have, for example, a 17mm and a 20mm, as the difference in magnification is too small - you won’t see much of a difference between the two in the telescope.  By keeping the focal lengths spread out, you won’t be wasting money on eyepieces that give you nearly identical views.

Consider Buying Used Equipment

Nothing says that you need to buy everything new.  Anyone that stays in the hobby for a while will inevitably upgrade to new (usually more expensive) equipment.  And naturally, they’ll sell their existing stuff to help fund the new.  So where do you find all these used goodies?  For about twenty dollars a year you can subscribe to The Starry Messenger, a monthly classified shopper full of ads for used astronomy related items.  Kind of like a “Tradin’ Times” for astronomy nuts.  Every issue contains more than twenty pages, packed with ads for used telescopes, optics, eyepieces, filters, mounts, cameras, books, atlases, etc. You can get some great bargains through it.  I know, because I have both bought and sold items through it, and the people I’ve dealt with have proven to be honest and trustworthy.

You can also find bargains at swap meets.  Every year at Astrofest, there’s a flea market where people bring their unwanted items for sale or trade.  Numerous vendors with new equipment are also there selling items at a discount.  If there’s some item in particular you are looking for, then chances are good that you’ll find it.  You may even be lucky enough to win one of the excellent door prizes they hand out there!  There are other swap meets locally, such as EMU’s annual Freeze-Out, as well as at other clubs such as the Capital Area Astronomy Club in Lansing.

Not So Expensive After All

So is it really that expensive to get into amateur astronomy?  I think not.  In fact, you have more options now than you ever had.  While the state of the art has been steadily advancing, along with the price tag, you can still obtain excellent equipment at a moderate cost.  Besides, once you’re hooked, you’ll have plenty of time to save up for that 20 inch Dob or eight inch refractor.  And in the meantime, you’ll be seeing much more than you ever imagined you could!


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