10 Common Telescope Myths
I remember how in my youth I was mesmerized by the night sky, and how that turned into an obsession the first time I saw Saturn with my own eyes. I was awestruck by the sight, and immediately began the quest for my first telescope! Even though that initial journey was a while ago, I see newcomers to astronomy today still struggling with a lot of the same misconceptions I struggled with, too. Here are 10 common astronomy myths in popular culture and some clear, easy-to-understand explanations about them.
Astronomy Myth #1: Telescopes Are Complicated and Difficult to Use
Today, more than ever before, telescopes are available that truly anyone can use. They come in many different styles, from the very basic to the professional level telescope. The most basic designs are truly “point and shoot”. To use these simple telescopes, you manually move them up/down, right/left to look at objects in the sky. To make finding objects easy, almost every telescope will include some type of finderscope. This will help you line up your telescope with the object you want to look at it and makes it much easier to center the object in the eyepiece. These designs are very popular with those who are very budget-minded or who are looking to have most of the purchase price go into the optics of the telescope by keeping the mount very simple.
Another popular type of telescope these days is called the GoTo telescope. This design features an onboard computer that is able to locate tens of thousands of objects in the sky and then automatically move the telescope to that object. There is a bit of a learning curve with these types of telescopes, but almost anyone can learn to use them if they are patient and follow the instructions, just like you did with your first smartphone, tablet or computer.
Astronomy Myth #2: Telescopes Are Expensive
This used to be true. Not so very long ago, telescopes were something only “serious” amateur astronomers owned, and they cost a lot of money. Today the opposite is true. Telescopes exist for almost any budget and any level of interest. You can purchase entry-level telescopes that will show you the moon and more, that are of good optical quality, and cost less than a weekend trip to an amusement park! And if you find your interest in astronomy continues to grow, there are telescopes available now that can offer you a level of quality and performance that rivals what the professional astronomers had in previous years, and at a fraction of the cost. It is truly a great time to be an amateur astronomer!
Astronomy Myth #3: Dark Skies Are Required to See Anything
Light pollution is getting worse, and it does affect what we can see with our backyard telescopes. However, there are many people using their telescopes in the suburbs of cities, and even from within the cities themselves. The key is to learn what objects are good choices based upon where you will be observing and what telescope you will be using. There are also filters available that can help block out light pollution and even some that will accentuate the light coming from objects outside of our solar system. Now of course, the darker the skies, the better the viewing will be, so if you can get out and away from light-polluted skies, it will be worth it. However, if you live in the suburbs or the city, take heart…all hope is not lost!
Astronomy Myth #4: Magnifying Power is the Most Important Consideration When Choosing a Telescope
In all honesty, magnifying power is the least important factor to consider when buying a telescope. Some manufacturers will say crazy things like “up to 900x magnification” and they will cover the box with huge color pictures of all kinds of galaxies and planets… “and you can get all this for just 79.95!” The truth is that the optical quality of the lens or mirror, the stability of the mount, and the type and quality of the eyepieces are far more important. Think of it this way, if the initial image formed by the telescope’s lens or mirror is of poor quality, and you magnify it 500 times, do you know what you’ll get? The same very poor-quality image, just 500 times larger! Now, the manufacturer of a good quality telescope may mention magnification, but it will not be the main point and they will list a much more realistic number. Instead, a good telescope manufacturer will go into more detail about the quality of its lenses or mirrors, discuss the aspects and features of its mount, and mention things like image quality and contrast. Look for a manufacturer whose product description focuses on those things as opposed to wild claims about magnification, and you will be much better off.
Astronomy Myth #5: There is No Safe Way to View the Sun
Let me start out by saying that viewing the sun is extremely dangerous if not done properly, but it is possible and can be thoroughly enjoyed with the proper equipment and precautions. Today there are solar filters for almost every type of telescope, and even dedicated “solar” telescopes that can show you detail on the sun that was completely out of the reach of the average person not so long ago. The main things to watch out for when viewing the are:
- Never point an unfiltered/unprotected telescope at the sun, even for a moment. Also, make sure you do not accidentally catch any sunlight that is being reflected, such as the light off a body of water or the reflection off a shiny car bumper. These can be just as dangerous as looking at the sun itself.
- Never use an eyepiece filter as your main solar filter. Any good, effective and safe filter must fit over the front of your telescope and filter the incoming sunlight before ANY of it reaches the eyepiece.
- Be sure you purchase only good quality filters from reputable manufacturers and dealers. Poor quality filters could do far worse than just deliver a poor-quality image. They can cause serious damage to both your telescope and your eyes.
Astronomy Myth #6: There is One Best Telescope Type
People tend to be passionate about things that have given them exceptional experiences, and that is usually a good thing. Sometimes though, it results in people thinking that their experience was the pinnacle of all and that everyone else’s experience will be the same as theirs. This can result in comments like “Refractors are the only telescope you should consider,” or “Reflectors have the greatest light gathering ability and therefore are the best”. The truth is that each telescope design has its own set of strengths, and there is no one “best” type of telescope. There are many factors to consider when purchasing a telescope, so don’t be in a hurry. A local astronomy club would be a great place to try out different types of telescopes to see which one would be the best fit for you. If there isn’t a club local to you, then a reputable telescope dealer, such as High Point Scientific, would be another good source of information and assistance. Remember, a good telescope dealer will take the time to get to know you. They will ask you about your desires and previous experiences, where you will be using the telescope, and answer your questions. They won’t be in a hurry to “sell” you a telescope.
Astronomy Myth #7: Telescope Eyepieces Are Not as Important as the Telescope Itself
Telescope eyepieces are where the final image is formed, and that’s the image that your eye will see. Therefore, it follows that their quality can either work for or work against, the optics of the telescope. That being said, I would still agree that more should be initially invested in the quality of the telescope optics as opposed to the eyepieces. I say this not because the eyepieces are not as important, but because the eyepieces can be upgraded gradually and usually less expensive than upgrading the telescope. For example, If the telescope optical system is of good quality, then a basic, well-corrected eyepiece design like a Plössl will allow you to see good quality images of what you are looking at. Then If you choose to do so, you can try different eyepiece designs later on that have wider fields of view or that bring out the absolute best that your telescope can deliver, showing you increased contrast and helping to resolve finer details.
Astronomy Myth #8: Bigger is Always Better
Well, maybe. There is a saying that all things being equal, more aperture (that just means a bigger telescope mirror or lens) is always better. The problem is that all things are rarely, if ever, equal. There are several factors that will determine what you can see with any given telescope. Some factors are due to the actual design of the telescope and some are due to the condition of the skies where you are using the telescope. Also, bigger telescopes are not as portable as smaller telescopes. It doesn’t do you any good to have a galaxy-killer of a telescope if it’s so big that you never take it out! Generally speaking, if you want to see very dim objects like galaxies, a larger reflector (like a Dobsonian) will fare better than a smaller refractor. However, the contrast and detail seen in a refractor is almost always better than that seen in a reflector. There are also hybrid telescopes that are a combination of reflectors and refractors (called SCTs) that are also very popular because they combine larger sizes with greater portability.
Astronomy Myth #9: As Long as You Have a Good Telescope, You Will be Able to See Anything You Want
This is perhaps the most damaging misconception of all. How many times have you looked at a telescope in a department store and been awed by all the beautiful pictures on the box? Well, many people have purchased those telescopes only to find that they could not see any of the items pictured on the box, or if they did, it didn’t look anything like what they saw on the box. I think it’s very important that we set some realistic expectations as to what you can expect to see. First of all, the full-color pictures of galaxies and other deep sky objects are just that, pictures. That kind of color and detail is not visible to the human eye. It only shows up in photographs taken through a telescope. Well, then, what can you see? Plenty! The night sky is filled with wondrous beauty that you can behold with your very own eyes. Even the smallest telescopes will show you great detail on the moon. Depending on which telescope you have and the conditions of the sky, you can see the larger moons of Jupiter and even some of the colored stripes on the planet’s disc. You will be able to see the rings of Saturn and ice caps on Mars. Countless beautiful star clusters and glowing clouds of interstellar gas called nebulae and so much more. Just remember that for the most part, you will only see colors when looking at certain stars or the planets.
And now a word about how the condition of the sky affects what you see. When you are looking at an object in the sky, you are also looking through all the air between you and that object. That air is called the atmosphere, and it can be stable or unstable. I won’t go into all the details, but just let me say that when it is unstable, it can greatly affect the image quality of what you are looking at. That is because when you try to increase the magnification on the object you are looking at, you will also be increasing the magnification of all the unstable atmosphere between you and the object you are viewing. That atmospheric disturbance will cause the image you are looking at to be blurry and not very pleasing. When that happens, just reduce the magnification until the object looks as sharp as possible.
Astronomy Myth #10: It Doesn’t Matter Where You Purchase Your Telescope
There are many places to buy telescopes. Some are price-based only stores whose main goal is to sell as much as possible as fast as they can. Typically, they offer no tech support at all, or if they do it is not very helpful. I don’t recommend them unless you already have a source of support and help and know exactly what you want. I think your best option is to find a reputable telescope dealer like High Point Scientific. A good dealer will take the time to get to know you and what you are after. Then they will give you some choices and help YOU decide on which telescope is the best fit for you. Be wary of dealers who try to “sell” you a telescope before they even know anything about you or try to pressure you to buy a telescope the first time you call them. Those types of dealers are driven by sales, not by support, and chances are they will not be there for you when you need them.
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