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It’s an exciting day when you get your first telescope. No doubt you’re excited to go out and use it, and perhaps you already tried but had a disappointing experience.
That’s because while it’s a joy to be able to explore the cosmos with your own equipment, it’s a bit more complicated than just pointing your telescope and hoping for the best.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know and have you navigating the stars like a pro in no time!
Before you head out to see everything that your telescope has to offer, it can pay big dividends to a little prep work. Check out the following tips before you head out to get the best experience possible.
When you get your telescope, it can be tempting to head out as soon as possible just to see what you can see. While this is fun for a bit, part of the challenge that astronomers love is finding specific targets with your telescope.
You can narrow down a few targets with the naked eye – like the moon and some planets – but it won’t be long until you’re trying to find dimmer objects. That’s where a star guide comes in.
Not only can it help you find objects that you can’t see with the naked eye, but you can with your telescope – but it will also help you track down different things to look at that might get a little more interesting with a better view.
Finally, a star guide can tell you precisely what you’re looking at when you see it. You narrowed in on a galaxy or a nebula, but what exactly are you looking at? A star guide can tell you everything you need to know.
While you can certainly purchase an old-school physical star guide like a magazine or book – most astronomers today utilize apps on their smartphones instead.
Not only do these apps have all the same useful information, but they can hone in on your location to give you results tailored to your exact location. This takes a lot of the guesswork out and allows you to focus on finding the objects instead of wondering what’s out there.
Once you’ve got your telescope and your star guide, you need to track down a place to observe. The most significant thing you can look for when looking for the best location is minimal light pollution and unimpeded access to the sky.
That means you might need to travel a little further than your backyard if you live in a city or a neighborhood with streetlights on every corner. While you can go stargazing in these locations, you’re just going to struggle to find a lot of the dimmer objects out there.
Even more important than finding an area with low levels of light pollution is to find a site where you have unimpeded access to the sky. The middle of a field or a park is ideal – as even trees can become an obstacle.
Once you have your telescope, your star guide, and the perfect place to observe, there are a few accessories that you should consider before you head out. While none of these accessories are required, they can make your outing a bit easier and more enjoyable.
When you’re setting up your telescope, you need to be able to see – but white lights cause your eyes to adjust and limit how much you can see when you look up at the sky. Red lights don’t have the same effect.
They allow you to see without adjusting your eyes to the brighter conditions, giving you the best of both worlds. A red flashlight is cheap, and it’s well worth the investment to make your trip a bit more enjoyable.
Moisture can ruin your outing if condensation starts to form on your lenses or mirrors. One of the easiest ways to prevent this problem from cropping up is with a dew shield. It might seem a little cumbersome to hookup, but it’s well worth the few extra minutes to avoid having to call it quits before you’re ready.
Each eyepiece excels at its own magnifications. So, if you want to look at the moon, you’re going to want a different eyepiece than when you’re hunting nebulas. Having a few different eyepieces to choose from lets you mix up your experience and view more objects.
However, extra eyepieces are an expensive accessory, and they’re not needed. If you have the extra money, it’s worth it. If not, you’ll be just fine.
Once you’ve got all your gear and are ready to head out for the night, these are the steps you’ll need to follow to find the objects you’re looking for in the sky.
If you’ve never set up your telescope before, we recommend putting it together inside your house first. Even if you have to take it back apart later, putting it together once you’ve already seen where everything is and where it goes will make it easier once you’re outside in the dark.
Before you start narrowing down any objects, make sure your tripod is level. Whether or not you’ll need a level surface to do this depends on your tripod, but starting with a level surface will make everything a million times easier once you start trying to find objects and go to make adjustments to your telescope.
While motorized telescopes can find objects for you and make the entire observing experience a bit easier, if you don’t properly align it, you won’t have a clue where it’s at and how to find different objects in the sky.
You’ll start by finding polar north and pointing your telescope in that direction. Once you’ve done that, you’ll need to follow the specific directions for your telescope. Each model does it slightly differently, so it’s crucial that you read the instructions in your telescopes owner’s manual and follow them.
If your finder is adjusted correctly, you’ll only have to make small adjustments once you’ve narrowed in on your object. But before you can use your finder, you need to orient it with your telescope. This might sound a little daunting, but it’s actually pretty simple.
Start by pointing it at the brightest object in the night sky – usually the moon. From there, look through your telescope and center the object you’re targeting. Once the object is at the center of both your finder and your telescope, you’re good to start your observing session.
While you should only need to adjust your finder once, if you accidentally bump it or move it while you’re out, it’s not a big deal, just realign your finder before starting to look for the next object.
This is one of the most important steps to use your telescope. Your telescope comes with one of two finder types – a red dot finder or an optical finder. Red dot finders don’t provide any magnification, and you simply look through them and align the red dot with the area you’re trying to observe.
Optical finders are smaller telescopes that mount to the top of the main telescope. They provide a lower magnification that gives you a wider field of view that lets you narrow down your target before using the main scope.
At any point, you can upgrade your finder if you find that yours isn’t suiting your needs or working as well as it should.
Even after you’ve narrowed in on your object with the finder, you should start with the lowest magnification. This does two things – first, it lets you make small adjustments while you can still see the object.
Even if you’re a little bit off, when you go from 1x or even 3x magnification to 300x magnification, even being a little bit off means missing the object completely. However, if you work your way up to 300x magnification, you can keep everything centered the entire time, making small tweaks as needed to keep it there.
As you increase your magnification, you need to keep adjusting your focus to clearly see what you’re looking at. It might seem obvious, but you need to refocus your telescope every time you increase your magnification.
Don’t settle for “good enough,” and remember – that everyone’s eyes are slightly different. So, even if the last person using it had the telescope perfectly focused, you might need to make slight adjustments to get a better image.
Once you’ve centered your target with a lower magnification and looked at it with crystal clear focus, go ahead and increase the magnification. Center the image again, refocus, and keep at it until you’re at the desired magnification.
While it can seem a little daunting at first, once you break everything down step-by-step, you find that it’s easy enough. But as soon as you try to skip steps, you’ll find yourself at a loss once again.
While this guide is perfect for most astronomers, there are two separate accessories that you should consider when looking at either the moon or the sun. We’ll break them down below.
The moon is bright compared to everything else in the sky. In fact, it’s so bright that many astronomers find it blinding to look at without a special filter.
By using a telescope, you’re magnifying the amount of light in a specific area, which is how you can see dimmer objects. But when you’re looking at the moon, it can all be a bit too much.
Unlike optional moon filters, if you plan on pointing your telescope at the sun, you need a solar filter. All it takes is a few seconds to have permanent damage to your vision by looking through a telescope at the sun.
Looking directly at the sun is dangerous enough, but a telescope magnifies the amount of light coming through. If you’re still not convinced, check out this video by Mark Thompson that shows you exactly what can happen if you look directly at the sun through a telescope. If you’re squeamish, we recommend that you just take us at our word and don’t watch.
But with a proper solar filter, you can observe the sun for as long as you’d like without having to worry about damaging your eyes. Just make sure that you skip the finder scope or purchase a separate solar filter for that too!
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There are few things more exciting than viewing the world through your telescope for the first time. But that excitement can quickly turn to frustration if you don’t know what you’re doing. The good news is that with just a little preparation and homework, it’s not that hard to figure out how to use a telescope.
While we focused on astronomers here, it’s the same principles to adjust and focus your telescope even if you’re looking at earth-bound objects.
We hope that this guide turns your next observation session into precisely what you were hoping for when you purchased your telescope, to begin with!
You might also be interested in: How to Collimate Your Telescope: 7 Easy Steps
Featured image credit: sweetlouise, Pixabay
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Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.
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