Topic PolyWogg Guide to Astronomy # Web version Downloadable version
How to learn about astronomy      
Observing options      
Buying a telescope      
Telescope accessories      
Practical Astronomy      
Aligning your finder tool to the telescope PWG-A0008 [su_button url=”” style=”glass” size=”7″]Web[/su_button] Download
Aligning your telescope to the sky PWG-A0009 [su_button url=”” style=”glass” size=”7″]Web[/su_button] Download
Special: Aligning the Celestron NexStar 8SE PWG-A0011 01 01
Navigating the sky PWG-A0010 [su_button url=”” style=”glass” size=”7″]Web[/su_button]01 Download
Special: The 150 brightest stars PWG-A0002 01 01
Special: Western constellations PWG-A0004 01 01
Basic Astrophotography      
Introduction to capture and processsing      
Smartphone Astrophotography      
Smartphone AP (iOS) – Milky Way      
Smartphone AP (iOS) – Constellations      
Telescope + Smartphone AP (iOS)      
Stars, double stars and small groups of stars      
Globular clusters and open clusters      
Special: Asteroids and comets      
Astronomy Targets and Progress   (My progress) (Lists)
Asterisms PWG-A0006 01 01
Lunar features PWG-A0007 01 01
Messier objects PWG-A0005 01 01
RASC astroimaging targets PWG-A0001 01 01
RASC explore the universe targets PWG-A0003 [su_button url=”” style=”glass” size=”7″]Web[/su_button] Download


A PolyWogg Guide to Astronomy — 5 Comments

  1. Hi there!

    I came across your site while searching for guidelines for informal, right-fit interviews when you pick candidates out of a pool. I read your post on “Understanding the HR process” and I blown away- thank you so much for taking the time to provide such clear, detailed information.

    Coincidentally, my 8 year old has told us she would like to learn about astronomy and get a telescope for Christmas. I am at loss for where to begin, largely because I am not sure about what is truly age-appropriate so we are hesitant to invest money in equipment and resources. Do you have any suggestions given your experience in the field?

    Thank you!

    • Hi Teresa,

      Glad you found the HR materials useful. Ironic, but it is the success of explaining HR that has prompted me to try to do the same with Astronomy topics. I haven’t got that far yet, unfortunately. I took a quick peek at your link above, and it suggests that you’re in the NCR area, as am I, so that may help you quite a bit. If not, let me know, and I can tweak my advice.

      My best advice for NCR is to go to the Focus Scientific store on Carling Avenue (near Dow’s Lake). It is the only telescope store in Ottawa, and in short, they don’t sell crap. One of the biggest risks with first purchases, which many of us learned the hard ways as kids, is that lots of “department store scopes” are very unstable, hard to find anything, poor optics when you do, and generally kills a kid’s interest more than nurtures it. Sears, Cdn Tire, the Bay, Kmart, Towers, Zellers, Walmart all have sold them over the years…and then just to confuse things, sometimes in the middle of crap, they’ll have one that is decent. Even some brand names are no guarantee of success…there’s a few with Celestron’s name on it that are less than positive experiences, yet my scope (highest end of beginner) is a Celestron. But if you go to a real telescope store, you can avoid that problem easily. If you are in other cities, let me know, and I’ll suggest a store hopefully close by.

      I’ll give you a 10-minute crash course in options. Generally, think of binoculars and telescopes as light buckets — the bigger the diameter and the better the glass in them, the better and more you can see.

      a. Naked eye viewing — Depends on how dark your skies are. Unless you’re right downtown in the Market, you’ll be able to see most of the bright stars of constellations. The tools you need are StarFinders (you can even print one, or there are RASC ones (Royal Astronomical Society of Canada – Ottawa Centre) that are free. I have about 30 here if you want one, just paper but allows you to figure out where in the sky everything is. Good for spotting stars and understanding how the sky is organized. There are also apps on phones to help you navigate the sky.

      b. Binoculars — There is a very popular sub-culture within the Astro community that suggests starting with specific types of binoculars (not my area, unfortunately), and a quick search online for “good binos for astronomy” will give you a couple of good sites. Sky and Telescope has a guide, a few others. Some VERY experienced and well-known astronomers think this is the best first purchase, particularly for kids, as it is low cost to get into the hobby. Personally? I think they’re all idiots! 🙂 Not really, but here’s my counter-point. If you look through binoculars as a kid, frequently you will have MAJOR trouble holding them steady. Which makes it REALLY hard to see anything well enough to get it into focus and REALLY see it. It’s the same problem as the crappy cheap telescopes. Too much vibration, etc. And kids, in particular, are challenged to hold it steady long enough to figure out what they’re seeing. My son is 10yo, and while he has additional mobility challenges, he cannot use binos on their own. I’m 50, and I can’t really do it well either. I’ve tried, and have NEVER seen anything steady enough to consider it a basis for my long-term enjoyment. Now, there are ways to correct that…add a tripod, for example. But once you do that, scanning the sky with the ease of your arms isn’t as simple. Or sit in a chair leaning back, like a camp chair, pull your knees up, rest your arms and the binos on your knees, and turn your body into a tripod. The cost of a pair of basic binos is up to $200, but ask any of the experts, and they’ll quickly steer you towards $500, $1000, $3000 ones. All good binos, but for that price, I’d personally rather have a telescope.

      c. Scopes. You have five basic setups that I’ll talk about, but it is “how you use them” that in my view determines which is the best one for you, and most books/sites don’t talk about that (I’ll do so after the description).

      First, there are what I call tabletop scopes. They run about $60-$100. They’re surprisingly good viewing, all manual of course, and you basically set them on a table to use them. It’s the same basic design as a larger model I’ll talk about (SCT) but there’s no tripod to hold it, raise it up, you just set it on the table. Really easy to set up, decent views, BUT (and there’s always a catch) it’s a bit challenging to get going with it early on. It is called a Newtonian design, and that means the light comes in the front (as it does for all scopes), goes to the back, bounces back to the front, and out the side to your eyepiece. You attach a little finder tool on the top and look along it to find the area, and then through the eyepiece to see what it is looking at. Of course, if you don’t know what to look for (i.e. you don’t have one of those Star Finders), it’ll be hard to figure out what to look for. Plus, sitting on a picnic table (which most ads suggest), isn’t very comfortable to be contorting your older body to see through the eyepiece (EP). Good value for money, but she would need some help to get going. I’ll come back to this at the bottom though.

      Second, there are basic refractors/reflectors on tripods. You’ve seen these before as they are what everyone thinks of as a telescope design. Long tube, on a tripod. Two things affect what you see — first, the quality of the optics — more money, better optics. Second, the stability of the tripod — more money, more stability. This is where most dept store scopes crap out — they keep the cost down by giving you a really cheap tripod (plastic) and optics (sometimes plastic). These are the easiest scopes to find and buy, but the hardest to ensure you’re getting a quality product. There are some out there with great names on them, and astronomers say stay away from them at all costs (they’re called Bird-Jones designs if you happen to find one and google it). To use it, you set it up, you have a little finder tool on top, look through it down the length of your tube to point it in the direction of where you want to go, and the light comes in the front and out the back to your eyepiece. It is the simplest design, most intuitive design, and again, entirely manual. Tons of people start with this design. I also feel that lots of people go this way, get bored, and get out of the hobby. It’s often just a bit too basic, with little room to grow.

      Third, there are more sophisticated tubes just like the refractors and reflectors, just bigger and more stability, often with or without counterweights. Sometimes they come with what is called an Equatorial mount (pretty complicated for an 8yo). Generally, you have to do balancing to get it initially set up each time, point it north, and then you’re good to go. Very popular for people who want to get into AstroPhotography. In my opinion, over the level of complexity that you’ll want ** unless ** you’re thinking this will be a joint parental and kid hobby. I wouldn’t buy one for my son if it was just him; if it is him and I, sure. Even to be honest just to have a second pair of hands for setup. I’ll come back to this at the end too. Dun dun dun…building the suspense, I hope! FYI, the light for these works the same way as the last one — in through the front, out through the back. Very intuitive design. Bit bulky.

      Fourth, one of the best value items is something called a Dobsonian. Like the tabletop ones, it uses the Newtonian design — light comes in the front, goes to the back, bounces to the front and out the side to an EP. A little finder tool along the top points you to what you’re looking at, and then you look through the EP to fine-tune your aim and focus. These things look like military cannons a bit. It is a long wide tube, often 6″ or 8″ in diameter sitting in a small wooden base. It is the EASIEST setup of all the types. You carefully place the base of the tube in a small rocking slot, tighten two knobs on each side, and lower the tube to where you want it to point. Fantastic seeing, ridiculously stable. One of the most popular designs on the planet. And, totally scalable design. They sell 6″ and 8″ for beginners, but lots of people buy 12″, 25″ 36″ designs for more and more and more money. But ALL of your money is going into the optics — the frame is dirt cheap. So, among astronomers, your best value is this type because you’re not wasting money on a tripod but still getting a really stable item. You can even add a computer to it at some point. The downside is that these start around the $400 mark I think, and $500-$600 would get you a scope that would last her into adulthood. Some astronomers NEVER sell their dobs. I don’t have one, but I tried ALL the types previously, and this was my second best design. One downside is they are LONG, so harder to transport, but not very heavy, so an 8yo could easily handle a 6″.

      Fifth, the last one I’ll talk about is called Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope (SCT), but as they are almost all computerized, they are also called GO TO scopes. The most popular series is the Celestron ones, with 4″, 5″, 6″ and 8″ models (NexStar 4SE, 5SE, etc). They are like the Newtonians in that they are “short” (tabletops) — the light comes in the front, goes to the back, bounces to the front, and bounces BACK to the back again and into an EP. The design shortens the tube length considerably which makes it more portable. It is like the Dobsonian (also a Newtonian design) but 1/3 the length. Unfortunately, to bounce twice in the tube reduces the quality of the light and adds weight — so heavier and a little bit less quality than an equivalent Dob. However, the scopes make up for those slight reductions by adding a computer to the mix and a “higher” tripod than the tabletops. I like to think of the 8″ Dobsonian as costing about $600 for the tube and the same for the 8″ SCT (8SE). But they add $50 for a base on the Dob and they’re done — the SCT needs a tripod ($100-$150) and then a computer mount ($450-500) so the price comes out almost double in the 8″ to get an SCT. But once you set up, you can find ANYTHING in the sky, as the computer finds it for you. You still have to know some of what you’re looking for, or at, but there is a Sky Tour option that will show you the top 110 objects of the night (not all will be amazing if you’re in the city).

      I know this is WAY longer than you expected for a response, but let me tell you why I went with the SCT. I hate setup and I want easy. The tabletop is good but requires me to contort my body around the table to see through it, plus manual learning to find things in the sky. Refractors and reflectors — tripods I tried were a bit unstable, decent, but manual, not too long to set up, little tweak-y. The equatorial ones were WAY too complicated for me when I was starting, and way too finicky. My friend had one, and one night we went out — 45 minutes of tweaking and trying to get it to work, and it STILL wasn’t set up. I was bored after 10 minutes. And I was 40yo at the time! Dobsonians are super powerful, really great, just manual. The SCT takes 10 minutes to physically setup, max, and once you do it a few times, you can get it down to 5 minutes. There is what many consider a finicky bit to get it to learn where you are in the world and thus where you are in relation to the sky, but the steps are linear and easy to replicate.

      My son has the 4SE now, and it cost about $650 in June when Celestron frequently has a sale, and it is ideal for him. He set it up the first time with me telling him the steps. The second time, I filled in steps when he forgot, but he did all the setup. And the third time? I turned around and he was all set up before I had finished unloading my gear for my 8SE. But that cost is higher than you likely wanted to go for a hobby she may not stay with. It’s a risk.

      What should you do?

      One of the biggest risks is that she’ll try it, get frustrated and give up. Any of the scopes would then be a bad “fit”. The first four are what I consider more “physical” given that they are all manually controlled. Someone who is a bit handy or shows signs of hands-on dexterity often loves it. Me? I’m a geek. The computer options for the SCT held my interest.

      So how do you avoid giving up? In my opinion, it is a combination of four things.

      The first thing everyone in the field says is “find a buddy”. That can be a parent who will help lead them through it, particularly for an 8yo. Or an older sibling. Others go the “club” route. There are 29 astronomy chapters in Canada of RASC, and while most of them are retired people who can afford to stay up late doing astronomy and then sleep in the next day (I’m still working, so I tend to be a weekend astronomer), there is still a good minority of non-retired people. We have star parties once a month between May and October, and that is another risk for you for Xmas. She’ll want to rush outside and use it. In -40 weather, that is not the most fun to do, particularly as you try to adjust knobs with either bare hands or thick mitts. I am a very CLEAR warm weather astronomer. If you joined RASC Ottawa, we do have scopes people can rent from us for $10 a month. I actually bought my scope first, and then borrowed all the scopes to try them, before realizing that I definitely bought the right one for me. However, the point is that astronomy CAN be a lonely hobby at times — often out in the dark by yourself. It is WAY more enjoyable if you have someone to share it with on a regular basis, even if not every night.

      The second thing everyone says is the hardest for you to do before Xmas, but often tied to joining a club. If you were looking to do something next summer, maybe even in June, you could come out to a Star Party in May or so, and see all the different scopes on display. Then she could SEE them in action, and decide which design she likes the best. We don’t usually have tabletops, but we have everything else. While the scope store is helpful, it isn’t the same as looking through each one and saying “THAT one” is the one she likes best. We often have 15-30 scopes set up and it’s all free to look through. The only downside is we are often in Carp for the party (Diefenbunker) and at the Aviation Museum in May and October, so it depends on where you are in NCR. If you’re in other cities, they have star parties too. RASC *may* offer a course/workshop in “how to choose/buy a scope”. We’re also hoping to have an event at Alta Vista Public School in the Spring sometime. I mention all this as I am the official “Star Party Coordinator” for Ottawa, and part of my duties include outreach. The guide I’m working on is just me, not RASC, but helping others is part of being in astronomy.

      The last thing is actually in two parts and part of what I was mentioning above — the suspense~ — which is what is called “first light”. Often you’ll see reviews online for astronomy equipment that say “first light” and it means the first time they try to use it to see (i.e. the first time it captures light). The biggest determination of success, in my view, is how the first night goes. You can have the best scope available, and if it doesn’t go well, you’re done. If you do it in winter, and it sucks, she’ll lose interest. If she can’t find anything, it sucks. If she is frustrated setting it up, it sucks. Soooo, most people suggest doing your first light in two ways. Primarily, set up in the house the first time in lots of light. Figure out how EVERYTHING goes together. And if there is a bright but not full moon and it is too cold out, you can find a room that looks towards the moon, shut off all the lights, and look through the window. Not perfect, sure, but something to see outside. Then if you are going outside, set up again in the daytime before it is anywhere near dark so you can see what you’re doing and you’re not feeling rushed to finish before twilight.

      It is also hugely beneficial if you can do your first light with someone else who knows what they’re doing. In that regard, you’re in luck. Part of our outreach is helping people set up for the first time, even if they’re not a member. That can be done 1:1 if the person wants, or even at a star party. I can do tabletops, Dobs, and SCTs easily; I’m okay with basic scopes. Equatorial is at my limit, but I have a buddy who can help with that. There are LOTS of people in the club who are willing to do a viewing some night and help you get set up the first time and showing you how to navigate the sky, how to “star hop” to find an object, how to focus, etc. And we often have extra EPs to try before you buy too. The hobby is a black hole of accessories. 🙂

      Soooo, if you’re going to buy now, go to a scope store. If you can wait until the late Spring, early summer, you could give her a gift certificate (real or handmade) for the scope store, then you could come out and see if it interests her enough to keep going. Or you could get guidance on a set of binos to start. My list of five options above is in order of quality and appropriateness for an 8yo — starts off easy and cheap, ends with quality.

      FYI, as an aside, one question that everyone asks and I didn’t is if you are interested in astrophotography too. If so, the best option is the equatorial one, always. But almost any of them will allow you to do some basic stuff with a cellphone. I am far from an expert, but if you click on LINKS on my menu, go to the photo gallery, and click on astronomy, you’ll see a bunch of photos with my scope and an iPhone. Looks fantastic for the moon, still learning on the rest.

      Okay, I’m tapped out. Eventually, I’ll turn this into a guide, but for now, that’s what I have! 🙂 Happy to chat on the phone if you want help drilling down further…like I said, it’s part of our outreach!

      Clear skies,


  2. Paul! I am sort of lost for words (trust me- that is a feat for me. Thank you so much for your elucidating response!! I am overwhelmed by the time and effort you took to do this. Trepidation has now been replaced by excitement and I am very much looking forward to starting this adventure into astronomy! And it would be wonderful to see this material used as a guide for folks in the same boat as me– your perspective and approach to my questions were so helpful and it is exactly what I am have been looking for (I had been looking for a while). I will definitely be in touch and keep you posted on our progress!

    All the best and season’s greetings!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

fourteen + 4 =

HTML tags allowed in your comment: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>