A telescope is for life - not just for Christmas...
Stuart Atkinson, our founder member and now EAS Secretary provides some guidance for those thinking of taking the plunge and buying a first telescope . . .
Every year members of astronomical societies approach Christmas with a sense of dread. Not because we hate mince pies, or visits by carol singers, but because we know we're going to get phone calls from people asking The Question...
"My son/daughter is into space and I want to buy him/her a telescope for Christmas... which one should I buy?"
Cue deep, weary sigh...
Why? Because the answer we have is usually not the answer they want to hear, and that answer is: DON'T GET ONE!
Or rather, don't get one unless you're absolutely sure your son/daughter is ready for one and will use it for more than just one night.
The problem is, that people naturally think "telescope" when they think of a present for their space-mad kid. The boy or girl enjoys looking at space books, watches science-fiction shows on TV, has a few space toys, and the parent thinks "I know, I'll get them a telescope so they can see the real thing!". Unfortunately, this can be a 100% guaranteed way to destroy a child's interest in space, because - despite the way they're packaged - telescopes aren't toys, and they can be more frustrating than fun.
So, here's some advice for anyone wanting to put a telescope under their little boy or girl's Christmas tree, beginning with some little-known (and unpopular!) facts about telescopes:
Telescopes - at least, good ones - are expensive. Certain high street stores (mentioning no names, but they have catalogues that weigh more than a phone directory) sell telescopes for under £30, but these are next to useless. They have poor quality lenses, wobbly tripods, and are hard to aim. Basically, they're less useful than a pair of binoculars bought for a fiver at a car boot sale.
Telescopes are complicated to set-up. Even the simplest beginner's telescope looks like a bizarre creation when it's in the box - there are tripod legs, tubes, eyepieces, all sorts of bits and pieces. These have to be assembled into a working, scientific instrument... and then that instrument has to be set-up to work properly... (Are you going to help with this, or leave it to your son/daughter to do on their own? You need to think about that.)
Telescopes are hard to use. Once a telescope's assembled, you can't - again, despite what the packaging says - just point it at the sky and see something amazing. They're like sniper rifles - you have to line them up very, very carefully with their target. This isn't too difficult if you want to look at the Moon - it's hard to miss! - but finding planets, and faint objects like star clusters, is much, much harder.
Telescopes aren't going to show you everything you want to see. Telescopes come in boxes plastered with amazing images of planets, stars and galaxies which give the impression that the telescope in the box will give you the same views. This is always rubbish. Pictures on boxes are usually from NASA, and have been taken by spaceprobes, the Hubble Space Telescope and other multi million dollar instruments. Come on, think about it - if the telescope in the box costs £30, do you really think you're going to get the same view as the Hubble?
Telescopes are a pain to use. Using a telescope isn't glamourous or easy. If you're going to keep it in the box when it's not in use, then you're going to have to assemble it every time you want to use it. If you're going to leave it assembled, ready to grab and take out into the garden when the sky's clear, then you're going to have to find a corner to put it in when it's not in use - and boy, will it get in the way! Then, when you get it outside, you'll have to set it up, secure the legs, find your target...
See? Not exactly as glamourous as people think, is it?
So, if you've read that and still think a telescope would be an ideal present for your space-mad kid, what should you do next? Well, if you can answer all these questions with a YES, then you're ready to buy a telescope...
Has your son/daughter spent time looking seriously at the night sky with just their naked eyes before? (If they haven't, there's ABSOLUTELY no point getting them a telescope, they won't be able to find their way around the night sky, and won't know what they're looking at.)
Do they know the names and positions of the brightest stars? (If they don't, they won't be able to use the star charts and maps they'll need to use a telescope properly)
Do they know how to find a few constellations, such as The Plough and Orion? (If they don't, then they'll be totally lost when trying to find their way around "up there". There are 88 different constellations in the night sky - around half of which can be seen from the UK - and most are much smaller and fainter than the Plough or Orion. Telescopes are designed to show their users faint, fuzzy objects like galaxies, star clusters and nebulae, and these can only be found by knowing which part of the sky they're in.)
Is your son/daughter happy spending time on their own? (Amateur astronomy is a rather solitary hobby, at least at first, involving long hours spent looking into a telescope eyepiece - or up at the sky - without company, often just waiting for something to happen. It's not a hobby for kids who like crowds!)
Some more reasons why telescopes can be a Bad Buy for kids...
There's no point ANYONE, of ANY age, having a telescope unless and until they know how the night sky "works". What many people don't realise is that the sky changes - from hour to hour, night to night and season to season. This means that objects of interest - planets, galaxies, even stars themselves - aren't always on view. So, if a kid is given a telescope for Christmas because they're mad about Saturn or Mars, they might rush outside with it on Christmas night only to find that Saturn or Mars isn't actually on view in the sky - and won't be for another 3 months! Imagine how disappointing that would be...
Once you've looked at the Moon and a couple of planets, things get tough. Because most other objects of interest in the night sky are very faint and fuzzy, little more than greyish blurs, which look nothing like the stunning pictures on the box or in magazines, the night sky can be disappointing for people who aren't prepared. You will NOT see beautiful-coloured clouds of swirling gas through your backyard telescope, nor will you see lots of features on Mars, Jupiter or Saturn. Mars will only ever look like a small, orange, blurred ball, and Saturn's rings will only ever be tiny. Sorry.
A telescope isn't enough. For anyone, of any age, to get the most from a new telescope they will need a book of sky charts and star maps, showing them where the "Interesting stuff" can be found. Then there are monthly magazines to buy, and - once the bug bites - computer programs, too. Naked eye astronomy is very, very inexpensive - you just need a chart and your eyes - but once you buy a telescope the costs can mount.
...put off yet? That might be a good thing, honestly, because we'd hate you to spend all that money - and you're looking at no less than £70 really - on something that your son or daughter isn't ready for, and might stop using after the first night.
What should you do then?
Well, there's a superb alternative - get them a pair of binoculars! And here's why:
Binoculars are cheaper than telescopes: you can pick-up a good pair of 10x50 binoculars for under £50.
Binoculars are a lot easier to use than telescopes: they're lighter and magnify less - which is actually a good thing, because it means the image is less blurry.
Binoculars will show lots of things almost right away. A simple pair of 10x50 binoculars will show you - the phases, craters and seas of the Moon, Venus as a crescent, moons around Jupiter, plus hundreds of star cluisters, nebulae and galaxies - as long as you have a star chart book to show you where to find them, and are familiar with the basic lay-out of the night sky.
Binoculars can be used for other things too: a pair of binoculars can be used for daytime activities too - watching sport, airplane spotting, etc.
Hopefully that information has been useful, and either made you think again or has confirmed your decision. If you have any more questions, just get in touch and we'll try our best to help.
Amateur astronomy is a great hobby for a child, it will open their eyes to the wonders of the universe and show them some truly amazing things, but it can be a very frustrating hobby too, because of the complexities of the equipment and the poor weather here in the UK. So, seriously, don't buy that telescope unless you're sure your son or daughter will be able to use it, and will use it often. After all, it's a lot of money for something that will stay hidden under the bed after Boxing Day...
You can read Stuartís guide to what going on in the night sky in the bi-monthly Cumbria Life magazine. Stuart provides more regular updates on his Cumbrian Sky bog. (http://journals.aol.com/stuartatk/Cumbrian-Sky/)