Saturday, November 10, 2018

Amateur Astronomy: Back To Basics

I've come to a decision, one I would like to share with you.  For a long time I've labored to learn a set of star-gazing skills and techniques strange to me in hopes that their mastery would improve my ability to successfully utilize a sub-set of my telescope collection and thus enhance my enjoyment of the night skies.  Over nearly two decades I've spent a considerable sum of money and many, many hours of precious observing time struggling with recalcitrant equipment and the arcane technological spells that promise to make astronomy easier but seem instead to simply complicate and render my observing opportunities both tedious and frustrating.


So now I've come to the end.  I give up. Perhaps it's a simple case of prolonged operator error, or even a subconscious desire to rebel against a trend in amateur astronomy with which I've never been entirely comfortable, but as of today I'm calling a halt.  No more. No. More.

GO-TO, you are now dead to me.  Begone!


For those of you unfamiliar with the term, Go-To technology appeared on the amateur front over twenty years ago; it consists of telescope mountings and in some cases entire telescopes that incorporate sophisticated computers and software that actually control the instument.  It's impressive stuff, really, requiring only a few simple inputs from the observer to allow the mount to orient ("align") itself to the sky; after this point the astronomer need only press the appropriate buttons to begin an automatic tour of the heavens (in some cases, complete with "narration"!).

In principle, I have long had reservations on the subject of these systems.


Firstly, any telescope you buy with a computer system incorporates naturally the price of the go-to into the cost of the scope--and this means that less of its expense is for quality optics. With big scopes this is less of a problem; the computer represents a small fraction of the $$ paid for the telescope. Less pricey go-to scopes seem to be more about the technology and less about the optics--to the point that you are probably paying less than half of the sticker price for the actual telescope.


My first reservation is just that--a matter of economics and getting the most optical “bang” for your buck—but my second is purely subjective. In my metaphorical heart-of-hearts I believe that exploring the night sky is a learning experience; that an amateur astronomer misses out on part of the grand adventure of stargazing if he doesn't take the time to learn his way around the neighborhood and get to know the neighborhood and neighbors therein. Go-to telescopes skip several steps; a beginning amateur doesn't NEED to learn the constellations, or how the ecliptic serves as the highway for Sun, planets and Moon, or even how to find the Northern Star, in order to observe galaxies and quasars. Those "baby steps" just aren't required in this newly computerized hobby.


In my experience this is a real problem in amateur astronomy these days; I can recall a gentleman coming to one of my group's Star Parties, setting-up an impressive PAIR of 11-inch reflectors linked to a state-of-the-art control and a powerful imaging system (all of which probably cost him more than my car when new), and commencing to take digital photos of a galaxy in Canes Venatici. I was quite impressed--at least until he turned to me and asked which star was Vega. At that point I was just embarrassed for him. He had an observing setup which any professional observatory of forty years ago would have been proud, but had never troubled himself to invest any time in actually LOOKING at the starry sky or learning its fascinating "geography". Think for a moment...imagine all the wonders he'd missed out on!


I’ve long believed that these telescopes are having a deleterious effect on the avocation of amateur astronomy as a whole, and on the introduction of new observers to the fold in particular. For the past twenty years, newcomers to the hobby have been bombarded with GOTO telescopes from most of the major producers and importers, promised extraordinary telescopic views and rousing observing experiences without the apparent down-side of actually having to LEARN anything about the sky, such as how to locate stars, constellations, planets, and deep-sky objects.


Over the years I’ve watched as new astronomers have purchased these telescope packages, used them a few times, and then put them up for sale. I’ve not only seen but actually experienced myself the anguish of having a recalcitrant computer refuse to operate as advertised, which leads sometimes to entire wasted observing sessions while I argue with a machine.


And that is the straw that has broken this particular camel’s back; I simply don’t get enough opportunities to get out, under the heavens. My work and travel keep me away from the eyepiece for much of the year, and I simply refuse to allow balky electronics to limit further my “quality” observing time. This ends now. I plan to spend the rest of my observing life using basic telescopes with a minimum of gadgetry and cabling. Call me old-fashioned, call me over-the-hill, but when you see me at the next star party I’ll be the guy with the plain, simple observing rig—and  I’ll spend a LOT more time at the eyepiece,  which is after all the point of the exercise!


Anyone want to buy a very slightly-used GO-TO scope?

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